Billiken Teacher Corps mobilizes SLU mission

The College of Education and Public Service has created the Billiken Teacher Corps, a program allowing graduate students to earn a master’s degree while serving as teachers in Metro area Catholic schools. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, SLU’s Center for Service and Community Engagement, and the SLU Jesuit community have partnered in the creation of the Corps, alongside affiliated area schools and their surrounding communities.

The idea came from SLU education professor and director of SLU’s Institute for Catholic Education, John T. James, Ed. D. “It’s something we’ve wanted to get started for some time, and it finally all came together this year due in large part to the collaboration and hard work of the many partners in the program,” James said in a Newslink announcement released Monday, March 16. “Everything fell into place this year.”

Students in the program will teach full-time while earning both a master’s degree and Missouri teaching certification over a two-year period. A majority of the required 37 credit hours of coursework would be completed the summer before beginning teaching duties in the fall. The program offers full tuition remission, in addition to a monthly stipend. Corps members will live in community at St. John the Baptist Parish, five miles south of SLU’s campus.  Like service organizations as Teach for America and the Peace Corps, the Billiken Teacher Corps gives its students the opportunity of a federal loan deferment.

The Corps has three “pillars”: service leadership, education, and personal and spiritual formation. The first comprises students’ teaching experience within their assigned school; the second involves students’ coursework through SLU; and the third refers to the Ignatian spirituality the program hopes to foster in its ranks. Indeed, the Corps advertises itself as “a unique opportunity for faith-driven college graduates to have a transformative impact on Catholic schools in the St. Louis metro area and live the Jesuit mission of being men and women for other.”

“For well over a century, Catholic education has been one of the most powerful vehicles in America for lifting people out of poverty and promoting the full flourishing of our citizenry,” said Christopher Collins, S.J., director of SLU’s Catholic Studies Program. “Both the material and spiritual needs of the marginalized are addressed uniquely in the course of Catholic education and we are confident the Billiken Teacher Corps can address those needs at this challenging point in St. Louis history.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis includes 121 elementary schools serving around 35,000 students, and 27 high schools serving around 14,000, according to the Archdiocese’s official website, which also states that St. Louis has the eighth largest Catholic school system in the United States.

Associate Superintendent for Elementary School Administration Alan Winkelmann said that he saw the Corps as a chance to make individual teachers available to schools, and thereby allowing those schools to use their resources for student benefit. Through the program, inner-city Catholic schools would have “access to students who are qualified, dedicated and faith-filled.”

“The Catholic Education Center is very excited about the partnership,” said Winkelmann. “[The Corps students] can certainly benefit our schools.”

Establishing the Billiken Teacher Corps comes in the wake of some negative trends in Catholic school enrollment. The National Catholic Education Association reported that between the 2004 and 2014 academic years, 1,856 schools closed or consolidated (23.2% of the current total). During that same period, Catholic schools altogether lost over half a million students, a decrease of 22.7%. As of the previous academic year, Catholic school enrollment nationwide stood at nearly 2 million among over 6,000 schools.

Winkelmann said, “The Archbishop is very concerned about growing the schools…We’ve seen a decline over the last few years, but there’s a real commitment.”