John Delaney ’10 (B.A.), ’12 (M.S.) stepped back to admire the bulletin board he had just hung. It was swathed in a colorful Pennsylvania map, with a paper Liberty Bell cutout affixed near Philadelphia and a Hershey’s Kiss near Hershey, Pa., to help his fourth-grade class remember the state geography they would learn later that year. He looked around to see that the reading corner, stocked with an assortment of books, was in order. Eight perfectly aligned rows of empty desks stood waiting. He was ready.

The only thing Delaney wasn’t prepared for on his first day of teaching at Visitation B.V.M. in North Philadelphia’s Kensington section was the expression on his students’ faces when they arrived in his carefully organized classroom.

“The students had that deer-in-headlights look of, ‘Who is this new guy? And what should I expect from him?’” Delaney says, looking back. While he quickly gained his confidence, he remembers that first day: “I’m pretty sure I returned that look back to them.”

It was more than just a teacher’s first day in the classroom. Delaney was one of 14 college graduates who, only three months prior, in the summer of 2010, had become the inaugural cohort of students in the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University, or ACESJU.

The program gives college graduates the opportunity to earn, at no cost, a Saint Joseph’s master’s degree in education and a leadership certificate from the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania while serving as full-time teachers in under-resourced Philadelphia Catholic elementary schools.

A two-year program, ACESJU has played a major role in bolstering urban Catholic education in Philadelphia, according to program director Dan Joyce, S.J. ’88 (B.A.), assistant to the vice president for mission and identity at SJU. “We, as a Catholic university, get to use the rich expertise of our education departments to serve the regional church,” he says.

The nation’s difficult economic conditions in recent years have heightened the competition for Catholic schools, particularly in struggling urban areas, to recruit and retain capable, gifted and dedicated teachers.

“We have a situation in which education in this metropolitan area is in a crisis,” says Fr. Joyce, who is also a senior resident fellow with the University of Pennsylvania Program for Research on Religion and Urban Society. “Arguably the most important ingredient in sustaining quality education in Philadelphia is recruiting good teachers.”

That, along with school closures, financial challenges and teacher-retention issues at area Catholic schools, made Fr. Joyce and Jeanne Brady, Ph.D., associate dean and professor of education, start thinking in 2009 about how the University could take a more active role in local Catholic education.

“Among the key ingredients that have made Catholic schools so successful are the talent and commitment of young teachers,” says Fr. Joyce. “In the old days, that young talent came from priests, nuns and brothers. Now, it’s different.”

Ultimately, Brady says, “Our aspiration is to prepare the next generation of teachers and leaders who will become advocates for Catholic education across the nation.”

Inspired by a program founded in 1993 at the University of Notre Dame, Brady and Fr. Joyce focused on developing a local initiative with the same core principles of teaching, spirituality and community. They started ACESJU — a program to place young teachers in struggling Catholic schools in Philadelphia — with the approval of Notre Dame and in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, a founding partner. They worked with John DiIulio, Ph.D., Fox Leadership Program faculty director, and SJU alumni Joseph Tierney ’83 (B.S.), executive director, and Joshua Power ’05 (B.S.), then associate director at Fox and now associate director of programs for ACESJU.

The idea struck a chord with members of the University community and beyond. Led by President and CEO Josephine Mandeville, The Connelly Foundation, a well-known advocate of Catholic education in Philadelphia, signed on to support ACESJU.

“Research shows that a great teacher has an outstanding impact on students’ ability to learn,” says Mandeville. “Young, dedicated, well-educated college graduates would provide students with a quality education and also serve as important role models for children.”

The Center for Catholic and Urban Education (CCUE), of which ACESJU is a part, is a branch of the Saint Joseph’s Educational Leadership Institute, dedicated to the sustainability of Catholic schools in urban areas. With support from the Business Leadership for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), The Connelly Foundation and The Maguire Foundation, the CCUE is co-hosting ongoing roundtable discussions on the preservation of high-quality Catholic education with leadership from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Camden, several Catholic colleges and universities, the University of Pennsylvania’s Fox Leadership Program, regional foundations, and the key scholarship funds that support children in Catholic schools.

A teacher’s first days and weeks in the classroom can be challenging, as the 14 ACESJU fellows, who sculpted and refined their lesson plans in preparation for their first time in front of their students, can attest. The challenges multiply for teachers serving in needy communities.

“My mind was constantly going — it never had a chance to stop,” says Delaney of meeting his class. “It took the first week to understand how I needed to progress through the day so that I wasn’t going to be falling down dead when I got home.”

ACESJU fellow Leya Egea-Hinton ’10 (B.S.), ’12 (M.S.) returned to her alma mater, the Gesu School in North Philadelphia, to teach. “I let my kids know on the first day that I came from Gesu, and everybody pushed me to do well,” she says. “I’m going do the same as your teacher, and I’m here for you.”

For the three months prior, the fellows endured six weeks of preparation through 12-hour days — 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — covering everything from classroom management to American education and more. The lessons, though intense, were invaluable to them — few of whom had any prior teaching experience.

Spirituality also plays an important role in ACESJU. During their time together, the fellows went on four retreats and enjoyed spiritual nights in their communal living space. The ACESJU program calls for its fellows to live together — not an easy assignment for 14 people, most of whom didn’t know each other to start. The living arrangements, in an old convent near Main Street in Manayunk, were occasionally frustrating. “You have 14 people trying to share two refrigerators and four bathrooms,” says Delaney, “but you learn to adjust and live together.”

The elements of community and simple living, however, eventually became a blessing.

“You’re all experiencing this at the same time for the first time, so we’d give each other advice and lesson ideas,” says ACESJU fellow Rebeca Martinez, who earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and taught at Visitation B.V.M. alongside Delaney. “There were a lot of conversations like, ‘Do you have any good ideas for what I can do to teach fractions?’”

The experience of ACESJU’s first cohort culminated in a June 15 graduation ceremony at SJU’s Robert M. Gillin Jr. Boathouse just off Kelly Drive in Philadelphia.

With an SJU master’s degree in education, a leadership certificate from the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and two years of teaching experience, each fellow was ready to move forward. So what’s next for them?

Several are staying on at the schools where they taught, having been hired there as permanent teachers, while others plan to teach in schools closer to home. One is entering graduate school; another is looking to begin an administrative post in education. No matter where they end up, Fr. Joyce says that the fellows’ tenure at participating schools has gone a long way in helping urban Catholic education.

“Those children they’ve educated are the future,” he says, “and it’s been a chance for the fellows to make a huge contribution to the city.”

Leadership at the schools partnering with ACESJU agree. “Undoubtedly ACESJU gets talented, bright young people interested in Catholic education,” says Ellen Convey, I.H.M., principal of the Gesu School, where Egea-Hinton was a teacher. “To get these young people to make a commitment to Catholic education — that’s key.”

The second cohort of ACESJU teachers, which began this summer, will expand to comprise both secondary education institutions and schools in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., including a school in Gloucester, N.J. The program was also accepted into the University Consortium for Catholic Education (UCCE), a nationwide initiative to place teachers in Catholic schools. Saint Joseph’s became one of only 15 schools — the only one in Pennsylvania — in the UCCE.

With the first cohort’s graduation, the staff has had a chance to reflect on the program’s first two years.

“The goal for ACESJU is to infuse in the Catholic schools opportunities for growth and quality with teachers — that’s what I think we’ve been successful in doing,” says Brady. “I think our fellows have learned what it means to be a great teacher and what it means to serve urban youth.”

As for the first fellows, they see their time in ACESJU as something beyond bettering themselves and aiding the Catholic school system.

“These two years have made me realize that it’s the little things that are important,” says Egea-Hinton, who will return to The Gesu this fall to teach fourth grade. “I see my kids with issues a child shouldn’t have to worry about. It makes you realize that you have to enjoy the moment and take everything as a lesson.”

“Philadelphia is one of the birthplaces of Catholic education, so it’s important to keep that legacy going,” says Valerie Luckey ’10 (B.B.A.), ’12 (M.S.), who taught at DePaul Catholic in Germantown. “The real values of Catholicism are social justice and dignity for every human. To educate is one of the best ways to live that out.”