A Class Act

The Rev. James Keiter speaks during Thursday’s press conference announcing the new Seton Scholars program for Mount Marty University students committed to teaching in Catholic schools.

HARTINGTON, Neb. — The Rev. James Keiter thought he had found the right teacher for his Catholic elementary school, only to see the applicant reject his job offer.

“One of the realities is that I interviewed teacher candidates and offered one of them a position,” the priest said. “That person literally said, ‘I would love to teach here, but because of my student loans, I can’t afford to teach in a Catholic school, especially a rural Catholic school.’”

Keiter, who serves as president of Holy Trinity School in Hartington, Nebraska, and East-West Catholic School in Bow Valley, Nebraska, knows he isn’t alone in his hiring situation.

“I know a school that had a position open last fall, advertised it and (the position) still wasn’t filled this school year,” he said. “They have really struggled getting teacher candidates to apply for openings.”

Now, Mount Marty University in Yankton has launched an initiative with area Catholic schools that aims to change that situation.

In a press conference Thursday in Hartington, MMU President Marc Long announced the formation of the Seton Education Scholars program at the Catholic university. The $10,000 scholarships are renewable for a total of four years.

Those who complete the program and achieve a degree in elementary or secondary education from Mount Marty must commit to three years of teaching in a Catholic school within the Diocese of Sioux Falls or rural schools within the Archdiocese of Omaha.

The lead $250,000 gift for the new Seton Education Scholars program was made by Marlene Ricketts of Omaha for future educators who will serve in a school in the Omaha archdiocese, which includes northeast Nebraska.

Ricketts, a strong supporter of Catholic education, is the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The family owns the Chicago Cubs, and Joe and Marlene’s son, Pete Ricketts, currently serves as Nebraska governor.

The scholarships become available next fall, with five students chosen from the first round of applicants. The scholarships are named for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the patron saint of Catholic schools.

Students who are eligible for this scholarship must be practicing Catholics. While enrolled at Mount Marty University, the Seton Scholars will receive monthly Catholic classes and training along with serving part-time at Catholic schools or parishes.

The training and hands-on experiences will be provided by MMU campus ministry, area priests, and Catholic teachers and administrators.

The Seton Scholars can focus on their studies without worrying about excessive debt, Keiter said. The program also prepares them well for their roles in Catholic teaching and service, he added.

“A quality Catholic education requires people to live their faith through their profession,” Keiter said. “The Seton Education Scholars program will work to remove barriers for students to earn a degree from Mount Marty in order to excel as an educator at a Catholic school in rural Nebraska.”

The timing of the scholarship was perfect, Keiter said, as he planned to make the announcement at Thursday night’s Archbishop’s Dinner for 1,000 people at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.

LOOKING FOR ASSISTANCE

Besides his role with the schools, Keiter serves as pastor of All Saints Parish, Holy Family Parish and Saint Rose of Lima Parish. Those churches, located in Knox and Cedar counties, are part of the Omaha Archdiocese.

Keiter also serves on the MMU Board of Trustees, and he and Long meet monthly for coffee. During a gathering this summer, Keiter spoke of the difficulty in hiring Catholic school teachers.

Long took the priest’s concerns back to MMU, seeking ideas on reducing the student debt holding back new teachers. The idea arose for the scholarship program focused on attracting education students who would commit to teaching in Catholic schools.

With the idea in mind, Keiter’s thoughts turned to Marlene Ricketts, who he has known for years. He formerly served with the inner city donor program for the Omaha Archdiocese from 2004-11. Keiter has stayed in touch with Ricketts, a product of Catholic schools herself and a strong supporter of Catholic education.

Long and Keiter traveled to Omaha and visited with Ricketts, who immediately embraced the idea.

“Marlene realized the difficulty of recruiting teachers in our rural Catholic schools versus the urban areas that are sometimes more attractive for various reasons,” Keiter said. “She saw that need. It took her 30 seconds to make the decision to fund these scholarships.”

Keiter knows attracting teachers at rural Catholic schools always remains a challenge. “I had to hire three teachers during one year, and it was really difficult,” he said.

Talks are already underway with other potential Seton Scholars donors, both from the Omaha Archdiocese and the Sioux Falls Diocese covering eastern South Dakota, Long said.

“We want to benefit students and schools on both sides of the (Missouri) river,” he said.

To focus the Seton Scholars’ effort on rural schools, its graduates cannot locate for their three-year commitment in Douglas and Sarpy counties (the Omaha metro area) or Fremont, which are considered urban.

LOOKING AHEAD

Chris Uttecht already sees the benefits of the Seton Scholars program as principal of Cedar Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Hartington.

“What’s really exciting about this program is that it not only gives students the opportunity and the incentive to pursue a degree in education, but it also expands our pool of candidates to teach in our Catholic schools,” he said.

“I attended a public school, so I never spent a day in a Catholic school until my first day as a principal here. It’s hard to describe the difference at a Catholic school, but it’s faith based and makes for a high quality education for the whole student. This (scholarship) is going to maintain a strong commitment to our Catholic schools in rural Nebraska.”

Uttecht pointed to the example of four generations of teachers at Cedar Catholic. The math teacher, now at the school for 52 years, taught a fifth grade teacher who taught a music teacher who taught a social studies teacher.

His wife, Stacy Uttecht, serves as the Holy Trinity School principal and agrees on the importance of the Seton Scholars.

“I think it just brings a bigger pool of qualified candidates into our school,” she said. “I’m looking forward to its start next year.”

Vickie Kauffold, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Omaha Archdiocese, attended Thursday’s press conferernce. She sees the Seton Scholars program as a tremendous benefit for the 33 rural elementary schools and nine rural high schools in the archdiocese.

She particularly sees Catholic students returning to their home areas as teachers. “Research indicates teachers are more likely to come back to their hometown or where they went to college. It’s a ‘grow your own’ mentality,” she said.

Kauffold noted the importance of the mentorship aspect of the scholarship program, which helps better prepare teachers and keep them in the profession.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Thursday’s audience included Sister Candy Chrystal, chair of the MMU Teacher Education Department, and Professor Jennifer Weber.

“This will benefit not only our Catholic schools but also our Catholic churches and communities as these students graduate from Mount Marty and become ready to serve,” Sister Candy said.

The MMU teacher preparation programs normally enroll 18 to 22 students per class, but the number has settled at a dozen students during the pandemic, Weber said. The MMU program has room for the additional Seton Scholars.

The program will attract a special student, Weber predicted. “We work to promote a servant’s heart in our students,” she said.

Sister Candy agreed that future Catholic teachers will do more than pass along information.

“We don’t teach subjects; we teach people,” she said. “I had a principal tell me that he knew which teachers came from Mount Marty because they were very student focused. We promote that holistic kind of thing. We teach about relationships.”

Sister Candy looks forward to working with even more education students through the Seton Scholars program.

“What I love about Mount Marty, I get to see these (students) come through as freshmen and then as sophmores, juniors and seniors,” she said. “I see their legs move from the student side of the desk to the teacher side. It’s not a job but a ministry.”

Chris Uttecht pointed to the formation of Holy Trinity School in 1901 followed by the opening of Cedar Catholic nearly 60 years later. Now, the new scholarships will launch Catholic schools into a new era, he said.

“Here we are, almost 60 years later, with yet another innovation (the Seton Scholars) that will help support and maintain Catholic education in rural areas for years to come,” he said.

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Students interested in pursuing this scholarship are encouraged to contact the Mount Marty University Office of Admissions.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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