PROVIDENCE — “Catholic schools – the value is indisputable, and yet there are … staffing challenges that affect teaching nationwide, but certainly affect Catholic schools as well,” said Chris Keavy, a 20-year Catholic school president and principal, now head of the PACT program at Providence College. Catholic schools, he continued, have the added responsibility to ensure that their teachers are versed in the Faith, so as to pass it on to their young charges.
“You can’t give what you don’t have, and so we take our responsibilities very seriously to help educators cultivate their own formation, their own faith life, so that when they’re standing in front of young people, they have something to give.”
The PACT program aims to fill this need. Now in its 22nd year, having been established at Providence College in 2001, PACT (Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers) boasts 24 students enrolled in a 2-year pathway toward teaching in local Catholic schools. It is part of a larger consortium known as UCCE (University Consortium for Catholic Education), which includes such schools as Boston College and other major Catholic universities across the country whose mission is to form faithful Catholic educators.
Teachers earn a master’s degree at no cost to themselves, while gaining valuable teaching experience at the same time. For two years, these students balance a full load of classes at Providence College while teaching full-time at a Catholic school in Rhode Island or central or southeastern Massachusetts. Additionally, PACT teachers live together in small Christian communities, in homes maintained by the dioceses in which they serve. This allows them to develop their faith life and garner support from their peers in the field. Because of the communal living, married people are not allowed into the PACT program.
The program hopes to see those teachers remain in the Catholic school system after their two years.
“They realize not only the professional teaching formation, the spiritual formation, that they have received, but they see how well it fits into the Catholic schools that they have served, and they see the richness that Catholic schools aspire to and accomplish, that richness does not have a peer … and as they grow in the profession, they see it more and more,” Keavy said.
Sister Matthew Marie Cummings, O.P., has been an educator for 25 years, teaching many other Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. She came on board the faculty at Providence College this year, serving as clinical professor of education for PACT.
“This is a very special program because we can focus on the formation of the teacher,” she commented. “Not just the professional formation, but it’s that spiritual formation as well. And that’s the whole person.”
Her job now includes observing PACT teachers in the classroom, “so I get to bring that religious presence into schools that don’t have sisters. It’s really fun to see the kids get excited about seeing a real sister.”
Though methods of teaching have changed over her many years in the classroom, Sister Matthew Marie stated that teaching comes down to “recognizing the dignity of each child that’s before you, and that’s timeless. That’s really the message that we try to get through to the PACT teachers.”
Keavy and his team at Providence College actively recruit graduating teachers to fill the PACT cohorts, most of whom come from the New England area, but for him, recruitment simply means “building relationships with people who are attracted to the truth, beauty and goodness of teaching.”
He believes students are drawn to the program because of the support it offers new teachers.
“For us, the model of recruiting is not giving people a new idea, but rather building upon that attractiveness that teaching has by letting them know we will support you, we will train you, we will help you, we will cover you, we will get you through it.”
Sister Matthew Marie took a more practical take on why young people become interested in the PACT program.
“Getting a college education is expensive. And Providence College, in being committed to this program, is really committed to Catholic education because they’re helping Catholic school teachers to get a degree at no expense to themselves. You look at the value — Catholic education is priceless, but as a teacher, how do you pay that back, especially a Catholic School teacher?” she said.
In his previous experience as a Catholic school principal, Keavy witnessed the difference the program made on the teachers coming into his school. Now on the other side of the PACT program, he stated how often he receives requests for PACT teachers in the local Catholic schools.
“[Principals] desire PACT teachers strongly because what they bring to their students and their families is just an energy and a faithfulness that is really hard to find and really valued,” he said.
St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket has benefitted from the program over the years, with some PACT teachers remaining at the school after graduation. Principal Daniel Richard spoke of the impact that has had on his school community.
“The PACT program, and more importantly the teachers, have been a wonderful blessing for St. Raphael Academy. The PACT teachers bring a wealth of talents and abilities with them to our Academy, and they freely share them with our students. In the upcoming years, I look forward to welcoming additional PACT teachers to our Academy,” Richard said.
One of these current teachers at St. Raphael Academy is Viola Lohsen. Originally from Washington, D.C., Lohsen came to Rhode Island for the sole purpose of joining PACT. After graduating from the Catholic University of America, she planned to do one of three things: spend a year in service, go straight into teaching or get her master’s degree in education. Providence College gave her the opportunity to do all three at once.
“It’s a good way to get into teaching, especially right after college,” she said.
In her opinion, one of the program’s strengths is communal living.
“It’s been great living in community with others going through the same things … having that aspect of community and companionship, knowing that you’re going through the same challenges, the same joys.” She compared this to the life of the Church.
Lohsen teaches mostly freshmen at the Lasallian school, where she has taught introductory theology classes for the past two years. Her students come into the school with varying degrees of knowledge about the Church and Jesus himself. She shares a common experience with several of the teachers at St. Raphael, as other PACT teachers in her cohort have been assigned there and others from previous cohorts remained after graduation.
“I love teaching, especially at St. Ray’s,” she remarked.
At the end of (both) school years, Lohsen plans to return to the Washington, D.C., area and continue teaching in another Lasallian Catholic school.
“I would definitely suggest [PACT] for others coming out of Catholic schools in teaching,” she added.
The future of Catholic education, no longer in the hands of the religious sisters, brothers and priests who once led schools across the nation, depends on programs like PACT.
“For our Catholic schools to survive and thrive, we need teachers, we need quality teachers, that’s the single most important relationship that exists, that student/teacher relationship by far,” Keavy said.