Mission Core: Catholic School Partnerships


In communities throughout Chicago, DePaul students are engaged in service-learning and paid community service in more than a dozen Catholic schools. Through a range of courses and programs, students have an opportunity to learn, develop skills and support the university’s Vincentian mission – as well as the mission of Catholic schools that serve city neighborhoods.


John Zeigler, who heads the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships (UECP) at the Steans Center, notes, “Like public schools, Catholic schools are being challenged. But these schools have many assets – and students can embrace them from an asset-based approach.” These assets, Zeigler and others suggest, include tight-knit school communities that emphasize strong character and a commitment to learning. These schools also strive to overcome a pronounced lack of resources. One way they do that is by welcoming DePaul students into their schools to tutor, help address technology issues and contribute their skills in other ways.


The connection between the university and Catholic schools is also about partnering with schools in a broader way. “We want to know what’s going on in communities,” says Lourdes Sullivan, Coordinator of Catholic Schools Partnerships at UECP. “If there are issues and needs the community can’t address, maybe we can help connect people to other resources.”


Through the Steans Center many DePaul students work with elementary school students as tutors/mentors, a program partially funded by the Big Shoulders Fund.  Other students participate as Catholic schools interns , a mission-related service employment program that allows students to work in selected K-12 urban Catholic schools to provide tutoring, mentoring and supplemental enrichment activities. Students involved in these schools participate in training on best practices and tutoring strategies.


For Violeta Cerna-Prado, there is something very familiar about St. Pius V School in Chicago’s Pilsen community, the preK-8 school where she works with young students through the Catholic Schools Internship program. Cerna-Prado, a junior majoring in psychology (and minoring in community service studies) attended the school while growing up. “I was in 8th grade when I saw that DePaul was involved at the school,” she says. “I was aware of how the DePaul program reached out to students.”  In high school at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, Cerna-Prado says she realized more about what resources were available – and not available – to people in her community. “Then, when I got to DePaul, I realized I could be a voice – someone who is in college and can take on a mentorship role with younger students.”


Before working at St. Pius, Cerna-Prado worked at BWM School in Humboldt Park through the CSI program.  “What I learned from working with adults there was the idea of a school being a community in itself,” she says.  At St. Pius, she tutored third and sixth graders, and also taught Mexican folkloric dance. This year, she tutors fourth graders as well as one fifth grade student. Meanwhile, mentoring students can be a key part of her experience.  “I will tutor for half an hour, then kids want to tell me about their lives,” she says. “You realize you are a tutor and a mentor – not just giving advice, but sitting there and listening.” Cerna-Prado says she wants to work with high school students as a counselor, with an emphasis on working with minority students. 


As she reflects on her experience at St. Pius, Cerna-Prado thinks back on her own days at the school. “I think it would have helped me if someone had been there – if I had had someone to talk to that was older than me. Now, I’m a mentor and my peers are mentors, and the kids look up to us.”


DePaul senior Jennifer Moran worked as a tutor/mentor for three years and subsequently interned at a Catholic school. She was a substitute teacher at Visitation Catholic School on the city’s south side and later worked with third graders at the school collaborating with teachers who identified which students needed more help.  “One thing I learned is that students at the school are capable of doing what any other students can do,” says Moran, who majored in Communication and Media Studies, with a minor in Women and Gender Studies.


Moran relates the story of one student who, like many, did not come from a stable home. “I started working with her and realized she was way below reading level for a third grader. Building that relationship made a difference – and I could see that she was trying harder,”  says Moran, who often worked for 45 min utes at a time with students, two days a week. “Eventually, she was able to start communicating more with other students and she’d go up to the teacher to talk more often. She was a lot more confident. It was very gratifying.” Moran says she has been contemplating pursuing a master’s in policy in education. “You see the struggles that teachers go through, and it makes you want to do something.”


Community Partner


Visitation School, a school partner on Chicago’s near southwest side, was founded in 1891 and originally served a largely Irish population. Visitation grew to become one of the largest parishes and schools in the city in the early 1900s.  Today, students at the school typically come from economically struggling families. “We say to students, ‘You are exposed to hard things, but the keys to improving your life are God and education,’” says Sister Jean, principal at Visitation.


Sister Jean is impressed by the impact DePaul students are having on the school’s students, whether they are assisting teachers, tutoring or helping in another way. “We want our kids to go to college,” she says. “Working with students who are in college gives them inspiration. The value is in the one-on-one relationships – our kids can’t wait for the DePaul students to come to our school.” As for DePaul students who come to the school, Sister Jean says “I see them growing, and some of them probably never had the experience of being with different cultures. It exposes them to the real world.”


Beyond the impact of the program, Sister Jean suggests that the Steans Center lays the groundwork for the partnership between the university and the school, largely by respecting what the school needs and understanding how it works. She adds that the program is organized and developed in a way that makes it easier for the school. “The program feels like it’s centered on us,” she says. “The Steans Center comes in and asks ‘What do you need?’”


For many DePaul students, the experience of working in a Catholic school is complemented by Catholic Social Teaching Reflection course. Students interning are required to take the course, which is taught by Karl Nass, a Minister in DePaul’s University Ministry. “Students are exposed to terms and concepts that help them analyze structural injustices,” says Nass. “Issues we look at have included access to education, food nutrition and sustainability in the environment.”  “I think what often strikes students is the sense of community and family they find in schools,” he says. While DePaul serves communities, the class also gives students an opportunity to see how communities are serving their own people. “There is a longstanding mission about the quality of access to education for young people and others who have been marginalized,” says Nass.


Alaina Reese, a junior majoring in international studies, tutored at St. Agatha School on the city’s south side when she was a freshman and sophomore. She says that Nass’s course led her to reflect on how she learns, how others learn and “provided a way for me to reflect. What I took out of the program really helped me look within myself.”


Technology and Catholic Schools


Meanwhile, in Fr. Paul Sisul’s “Technology and Urban Schools” course (in the College of Computing and Digital Media), students engage in service learning activities at six different Catholic schools around the city. The course reflects a challenge that has long impacted schools that serve low-income students (as well as their communities).  That challenge is known as the “Digital Divide,” which more specifically refers to the lack of equality between groups in terms of access, use or knowledge of information technology. “In a lot of ways, the Digital Divide gap has improved, but there is still a gap,” says Fr. Sisul, who has taught this course (and variations of it) for many years. “There’s a gap in technology, and making sure teachers have some knowledge of what to do with technology.”


Students in his class suggest programs or applications the school should use and also do troubleshooting with hardware. At the end of the quarter, students will also submit final reports. For Kyle Reynolds, a senior and biology major with a premed concentration, this was the first service learning class he has taken at DePaul.  For two or three days a week, Reynolds worked at St. Dorothy School on the city’s south side. “The school had these old iMacs, but you couldn’t really do anything with them. I have been in talks with Apple Computers to see if we could give these to the company in exchange for an Apple gift card. Other than that, I have updated networks at this school.” The school, he says, has “computers that are like what I had as a freshman in high school. “


Reynolds says that “doing service learning is definitely humbling – I see how lucky I actually had it while growing up compared to what these kids have now.  I know they could get a much better education if they had different technology.” The experience, he says, has made him realize firsthand the impact that up-to-date resources can have on a school. He adds that he values this experience. “You can never go wrong with on-the-job training,” he says. “You don’t learn how to handle situations until you are right in the middle of them.”


At St. Sylvester Catholic School in Chicago’s Logan Square community, Principal Daniel Bennett says the school can’t afford to staff its technology lab or offer enough computer support in classrooms. Where students in Fr. Sisul’s class have helped is through working with state-of-the art technology (including iPads) to make sure they have the same applications and proper software.  “That is where help from DePaul students comes into play,” he says. “They can save us time and resources. Being up to date in this area would fall on a technology instructor or classroom teacher, but - like many Catholic schools – we are stretched thin.” Meanwhile, Janie Flores, principal at St. Gall Catholic School – a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school on the city’s south side - describes the community her school serves as “full of hardworking families who are dedicated to a Catholic education. They try hard to make sure kids can go to our school.” About 96 percent of the school’s students received “free and reduced lunch,” which they qualify for through federal poverty guidelines. Like many Catholic schools, St. Gall struggles to maintain an up-to-date computer lab and resources. Students in Fr. Sisul’s class who came to the school were expected to be comfortable in Windows and setting up wired and wireless networks. The school’s goals also include developing manuals and video tutorials for computer maintenance. “Technology has been key to making sure our students are prepared, and DePaul students are making a difference in this area,” says Flores. “Catholic schools should be open to the opportunity of working with DePaul students.”


Dead Man Walking


This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dead Man Walking, a book by Sister Helen Prejean, a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. In 1995, the book became an acclaimed film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon and directed by Tim Robbins.  The UECP's Catholic School Partnerships partnered with DePaul’s Office of Mission and Values in a project with Ministry Against the Death Penalty, an organization that originated through the work of Prejean.


The project helps raise awareness about capital punishment through a play and various programs around the book’s 20th anniversary as well as a monthly e-newsletter and engagement with Prejean’s archives, which are housed at DePaul.


“The goals of this project include reaching out to libraries, communities and schools on this issue,” says Rachael Hudak, Project Manager for Sr. Helen Prejean and the Ministry Against the Death Penalty as well as National Coordinator of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. “Focusing on this issue can lead to discourse about it at DePaul. The university is a great place to delve deeply into Sister Helen’s work – we have a wealth of information and resources here.”


Through Catholic Schools Partnerships, DePaul senior Melissa Casanova worked as a special projects intern in the Office of Mission and Values in collaboration with the Ministry Against the Death Penalty and Sister Helen Prejean. Casanova supported the project through social media and by engaging low-income communities and schools. “Sister Helen came to my high school when I was a sophomore, and that got me interested in this project,” says Casanova. “While at DePaul I saw an opportunity to get involved in this position. It seemed like a perfect fit. What I have learned is that educating people about these issues is the first step to social change.”


Music Links DePaul, Local School and Church


When Heidi Blanc-Blum started the school year, she didn’t yet know that she would be helping to bring something new to Maternity BVM School in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community – and Maternity BVM Catholic Church as well. Blanc-Blum, a who pursued a bachelor's degree in music and minor in community service, led an effort to bring a school choir to Maternity BVM Church. The project was a good fit for Blanc-Blum who had long been passionate about music and whose mother is a music teacher in a Catholic school.


Blanc-Blum was an intern at Maternity BVM School in 2013. She served as a teacher’s assistant for pre-K through 6th grades. “There’s a lot of love at BVM and a strong community,” says Blanc-Blum, who is also part of a liturgical choir at DePaul. “There’s a sense of family there. But there’s also a lack of resources.”


In November 2013, Blanc-Blum became curious about starting a choir at the school. Ultimately she proposed the idea to the school and received support from Father Kevin Birmingham, pastor at BVM. “I’m glad that Heidi came forward with the energy – and expertise,” he says. “It would not have come to completion if she wasn’t there from beginning to end. This choir can better integrate the school with the parish – and the parish with the school. In addition, we have found that when you bring children into the church for a program, sometimes the parents follow.” Father Kevin says DePaul students are benefiting the school. “Their presence is greater than they can imagine. For students to know that there are people who come to the school and volunteer, that has a lasting impact on the psyche of students in a positive way.”


Blanc-Blum’s experience also shows that DePaul Catholic school interns can flourish in a number of ways. “I think that there are a lot of different opportunities for community service at these schools,” says Yesenia Villalobos, an intern at Providence Family Services, where she tutors Maternity BVM students. “It’s a great way to build skills and relationships – and work in a school.”  For the students from Maternity BVM, the experience of getting to know a college student can also inform them about a world they might not otherwise know. “I heard a 5th grader say, ‘Oh, I want to go to DePaul,” says 5th grade teacher and supervisor Lyndsay Ames. “I don’t know if this student, or other students, would have known about DePaul if it hadn’t been for these interns. I appreciate that students instantly recognize DePaul interns,” adds Claire Suriano, who teaches music and computers at Maternity BVM. “Our CSI students have become part of the school. In some ways, I think the school becomes kind of like a second home for our students – and DePaul interns.”


Meanwhile, students in Blanc-Blum's choir practiced one afternoon a week, starting in mid-February. “I had no clue about how well students would be able to catch on or read music,” Blanc-Blum says. “I was pleasantly surprised.” On Palm Sunday Mass this year, the school’s choir – composed of 15 students between the second and fifth grades - performed “The King of Glory” at the Church.  She marvels at what has happened with students who have performed in the choir. “These kids have great voices, and they’re doing a great job,” she says. “I would like to help expand on that. Music and art can truly help keep a kid get involved in a positive way. It’s amazing how musical they are – one can even tell that from how they sing and drum on their legs in recess.”


On Palm Sunday, she says, parents smiled and waved at the choir. “As soon as we started singing,” Blanc-Blum says, “we were sharing something – we were just being human together.” At the end, students asked Blanc-Blum if they would be rehearsing again the following Tuesday. “More kids are joining,” she says. “I would love to see this choir continue – and maybe at some point start one at another school.”


For more information on Catholic School Partnerships, please contact Lourdes Sullivan (