Home Diocesan News Christ the Servant Teaching Corps enables Walsh education students to learn from elementary students
Christ the Servant Teaching Corps enables Walsh education students to learn from elementary students Print E-mail
Written by Debora Shaulis Flora, Special to the Exponent   
Friday, 25 August 2017 13:30

CANTON – Msgr. Lewis F. Gaetano once visited an impoverished village in El Salvador that had no sewers but a great deal of drug activity. It was surrounded by barbed wire – an act by outside forces to immobilize villagers, he was told. 

His visit to the Catholic school there was even more surprising. It was “absolutely beautiful,” he recalled. How was it possible for this to exist in such a poor community, he asked his hosts. Because the poorest of the poor should have the best of the Church, they replied.

The experience “opened up a whole new vision,” said Msgr. Gaetano, pastor of Christ the Servant Parish here. With financial and technical support, he is bringing the best of the Church to students at the parish’s Our Lady of Peace School (Holy Cross Academy), while engaging teachers and parishioners in the New Evangelization and Catholic social teaching principles.

“If we don’t dream about what we can be, we are never going to get there,” he said.

The Christ the Servant Teaching Corps pilot program debuted in August 2016 as a partnership of Our Lady of Peace School and Walsh University’s Division of Education. The mission is to meet the educational, spiritual and human needs of economically disadvantaged and at-risk children, while preparing Walsh undergraduate and graduate students in education to be attentive, faith-filled leaders in diverse classroom settings.

The school’s approach to education had to change, because the demographics of the city and parish are changing, Msgr. Gaetano said. “The natural ability of our children is there. Being able to tap that and motivate and bring out productivity – that is the challenge,” he said.

The parish population consists of low- and middle-class households, mostly Caucasian, he noted. More diversity exists within the school, where he said about 46 percent of students are African-American, 16 percent are Hispanic and the rest are Caucasian or biracial. The school “represents the diversity of the contemporary city,” he added.

Ninety-two percent of Our Lady of Peace students are eligible for free and reduced school lunches, Msgr. Gaetano said. Fifty-seven percent of students live in single-parent households, with most being working mothers, he added.

Dr. Jeannie Defazio, chair of Walsh’s Division of Education and a Christ the Servant parishioner, said that, in word and action, a teacher, pastor or adult mentor “speaks a message to the whole child.”

“We need a message that motivates and brings hope to kids,” she continued, because “the trauma of poverty is so real in their lives.”

Participants in the teaching corps gain real-life experience by becoming co-teachers in classrooms for one school year. Their focus is on kindergarten readiness and preschool through fifth-grade learning, with an emphasis on literacy.

A reading expert from Ashland University acts as an advisor, and students’ reading proficiency is assessed five times each school year.

“We have the data before us. We know where we need to differentiate,” Msgr. Gaetano said.

Members of the teaching cohort pledge that after the program, they will continue to work at an underserved school, primarily Catholic, in Canton, Stark County, or within the Diocese of Youngstown, Msgr. Gaetano said. Participants pay reduced tuition rates at Walsh University while they pursue their degrees or licenses to teach, and they receive educational and spiritual support from Walsh educators and Msgr. Gaetano.

Tuition assistance for Walsh and Our Lady of Peace students is provided by the Paul and Carol David Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation that supports educational, community and health initiatives for underprivileged or disadvantaged children in Stark County. Paul David was the founder of Camelot Music, which was the third-largest music retailer in the United States when he sold the company in 1993. Our Lady of Peace School also provides small stipends to teaching cohort members.

Matt Bentley, a fourth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Peace, was one of four Walsh students to participate in the first teaching corps during the 2016-2017 school year.

He earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and history and is completing his certification to teach language arts in grades 4-9.

“Just building a stronger me has helped in the classroom,” Bentley said. Relating what Msgr. Gaetano tells the Walsh students, they are “building our own faith to make the community stronger.”

Referring to the school’s demographics, Bentley said he is not the product of a wealthy family, either. “It’s the relationship with the students” that matters – “being able to look at each child, where they come from, not taking everything a 10-year-old does personally, seeing things from the kids’ perspective,” he said.

When teaching a diverse group of children, the need to address social issues can be challenging. “Kids disagree,” Bentley said. “They protect themselves and figure out the rest later. That part of the formation program is huge – that there is a peaceful way to resolve conflicts.”

The school’s emphasis on literacy matters because “reading is everything,” Bentley said. “We have great math students, but put something into words and they struggle with pulling out what they need.”

In its second year, participation in the teaching corps has increased from four to 14 Walsh students, Msgr. Gaetano said. But that’s not the program’s only sign of success.

Our Lady of Peace School was a K-8 school until three years ago, when sixth through eight graders were sent to St. Thomas Aquinas High School and Middle School. Our Lady of Peace enrollment was just 53 students at the start of the following school year, Msgr. Gaetano said. Enrollment has increased every year since, with 222 students enrolled for the new school year.

Members of Christ the Servant Parish are accepting their role in promoting quality Catholic education. Parishioners raised $7,200 last year to purchase school uniforms for children in need. More recently, a mother who relocated to Canton from Michigan enrolled four children at Our Lady of Peace. As awareness grew of the family’s dire situation, parishioners became involved in helping to clean their rental house, acquire furniture, food and clothing for the family, and assist the mother in finding more stable employment, Msgr. Gaetano said.

“Not only are we enrolling a child, we are really enrolling the whole family,” he added.

“We want future teachers to see this. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation,” Dr. Defazio said of teaching in Catholic schools.


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