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S.T.A.R.S. Shine at Notre Dame College
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S.T.A.R.S. Shine at Notre Dame College

When Sr. Maria Aloysia, co-foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame, arrived in the United States in 1874, she brought with her a passion for the vocation of teaching and a desire to work with students who by today’s standards would be considered “at risk.”

More than 130 years later, the College bearing the name of Sr. Aloysia’s religious order is still reaching out to students, especially those who do not consider higher education a birthright. Notre Dame College’s affiliation with the Cleveland Municipal School District’s S.T.A.R.S. program is a prime example of this commitment.

S.T.A.R.S. (Student Teachers Achieving Real Success) is an innovative summer program that reaches out to select high school students from the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD). The program is primarily funded through a grant made possible by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act received through the federal government. The application process is handled by the CMSD.

To be eligible for S.T.A.R.S., students must be enrolled in the Teachers Profession Academy (TPA), a preprofessional program available in eight Cleveland high schools. The students in TPA are a diverse group of freshmen through seniors, all of whom desire to learn about the teaching profession. TPA students must go through an application process in order to be admitted to S.T.A.R.S.

According to Bonnie James, the CMSD liaison and coordinator of S.T.A.R.S., the idea for the program came as a result of a speech made by Dr. Bruce Jones, Notre Dame College’s director of graduate and undergraduate education. “Dr. Jones was speaking at the state meeting of teaching professions teachers here in Cleveland about a similar program at the University of Dayton. After he finished, we all thought ‘Why not us? Why not here?’”

A relationship was formed and Notre Dame College was selected by the S.T.A.R.S. committee as the host institution for the first program, held in 2003. In each of its first three years, between 75 and 90 TPA students participated in the week-long summer program.
 
According to Dr. Bob Archer, assistant professor of education, S.T.A.R.S. allows the students to “test drive” the college experience. “They get to live in the residence halls, eat in the cafeteria and sit in on classes during the day, some of which were taught by Notre Dame professors.”

The students in the program have made quite an impression on everyone involved in running S.T.A.R.S. Ken Palko, an assistant professor of philosophy at Notre Dame taught a philosophy course during the summer program. “I was just amazed at the level of engagement by the students,” said Palko. “These students had a real sense of purpose. Right from the first day, they were engaged. In a college class, it can take me a week or two to get the students to open up. The S.T.A.R.S. students did it on their very first day.”

Ron Wiafe, an admissions counselor at the College, served as a coordinator for the program in 2006. One of his favorite memories was how flexible and well-behaved the students were during a field trip that did not go as planned. “We were supposed to go downtown and take a ride on a cruise ship on Lake Erie. The kids were all very excited, but the engine on the boat broke down and the cruise was cancelled. The students were all disappointed, but even as they went from one extreme to the other, they handled it very well. We ended up going to a theater to watch a movie instead, but the kids still remained very positive.”
 
There are many reasons which make the week of the S.T.A.R.S. program special for the students. Erin Bayer ‘04, a middle school teacher and counselor for the program for three years, has found that for several participants each year, S.T.A.R.S. offers a haven where they can just be a student. “It can be heartbreaking,” she said. “While they are here, they have fun and don’t have to worry about anything. At home, some of these kids have to literally care for younger family members or work to help support their family. When the week ends, there are always students who are in tears because they don’t want to go home and go back to their regular life. They want to stay here with us.”

The counselors often keep in contact with the students after the program has ended, and according to Bayer, some go on to have successful post-high school experiences. “One of the most rewarding parts of being a part of S.T.A.R.S. is hearing the success stories of the students one or two years after they graduate from high school. A few that I have kept in contact with have gone on to college and another one is now in the Air Force.”

Not surprisingly, many of the S.T.A.R.S. students have a positive impression of Notre Dame and want to attend the College when they graduate from high School. The College, in turn, is taking steps to be accessible to these students. According to Dr. Archer, “For each year the student attends, they receive one quarter credit if they attend Notre Dame College. So if they begin S.T.A.R.S. in their freshman year, by their senior year they will have received one credit hour before they take their first official class at Notre Dame.”

In addition, the Office of Admissions works diligently to get qualified students from the program into the College. According to Wiafe, “It’s a big deal for me to get the kids from S.T.A.R.S. to attend Notre Dame. Fortunately, the head of the S.T.A.R.S. committee, Bonnie James, is willing to step in and help us keep the students on track when it comes to the application process. If a student needs a transcript or some other paper work, she sees to it that these details are taken care of.”

Helping to provide the S.T.A.R.S. program to the CMSD students strengthens the Greater Cleveland community and in turn makes the College itself stronger, vibrant and more diverse. In the end it is a fitting tribute to Sr. Aloysia’s life’s work.

Steve Ruic is the writer and editor at Notre Dame College.