July 30, 2020 - When prospective members of this year’s Alum Service Corps applied for the program last fall, they could not have predicted they would be starting the school year amid a deadly pandemic.
Yet, that is the situation they find themselves in. The six participating province schools that receive ASC volunteer teachers — Arrupe Jesuit High School and Regis Jesuit High School in Denver; Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo.; and De Smet Jesuit High School, Loyola Academy of St. Louis and St. Louis University High School (SLUH) in St. Louis — are all scheduled to tentatively resume in-person classes in August, although social-distancing precautions will be in place to promote safety.
This year’s 17-member ASC cohort is the 30th in the program’s history and is composed of 15 men and two women. The volunteers hail from all over the country and most of them graduated from college this past May. All volunteers attended either a Jesuit secondary school or a Jesuit institution of higher education; some attended both. They will all volunteer this upcoming academic year at one of six participating schools in gratitude for their own Jesuit education. Most will teach and help with extracurricular activities, while a few will fill other roles on staff.
Most years, a new ASC cohort would begin their year with a two-week long orientation together. However due to the pandemic, it was determined that gathering all volunteers in-person would be unsafe. Instead, they participated in the orientation virtually from their respective school communities.
The move to virtual orientation created some challenges, according to ASC Director Ken Luecke. “In previous years, volunteers have all been together the entire two weeks of orientation. They would cook meals together, pray together and be in all these situations that lend themselves to building community,” he said. “That’s not the case this year, so we had to get a little more creative in terms of ways to build community.”
Fortunately, Luecke is assisted by a three-man formation team composed of Jesuits Louie Hotop, Michael Mohr and Matthew Stewart. They brought a high level of creativity and ingenuity to the table when it came to planning a virtual orientation.
The orientation is going on now and will run through July 31. According to Stewart, formation coordinator for ASC, the orientation had three dimensions: spiritual, communal, and professional.
For the spiritual component, the group received training on Ignatian Spirituality, learned about different forms of prayer and shared their personal faith with the group.
To build a sense of community, volunteers introduced themselves to the group, shared their life story and held community nights to get to know each other better.
Professionally speaking, since most of the ASCs did not study education, the goal was to expose them to as many teaching skills as possible. They attended virtual workshops on a wide assortment of topics ranging from classroom management to lesson planning to diversity and inclusion.
Overall, Stewart believes that the virtual orientation presented significant challenges. “It was definitely a challenge to move some of ourprevious activities online, but maybe the biggest challenge was ASCs not getting to know each other on as much of a personal level,” he said. “It’s just difficult to make that personal connection over a screen.”
Still, he believes the need to restructure the orientation led to a strong program overall. For starters, the orientation was able to bring in speakers from all over the province Another added benefit is that the four individual communities — two in Denver and one each in Kansas City and St. Louis — moved in together two weeks earlier than they did in the past and formed close relationships sooner as a result.
Exactly what the school year will look like is still in flux at this point and is different for each school. All schools plan to begin the school year with in-person instruction but have made some accommodations due to the pandemic.
All five high schools that participate in the province-sponsored ASC program have moved to a block schedule to cut down on time in the hallways and allow for greater flexibility in scheduling. Some schools have reduced capacity, with only a portion of the student body in the building on a given day, while the remainder of students learn virtually. Despite the uncertainty and the fact that things could change quickly, Stewart remains optimistic about this group of volunteers.
“This group is an extraordinarily talented and generous bunch,” he said. “They are big believers in the mission of Jesuit education, and I know they’ll serve us well, whatever this school year ends up looking like.”