Students from Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring sing during a March 2 rally for Non-public Schools Advocacy Day on Lawyers Mall in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis.(CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)
Students from Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring sing during a March 2 rally for Non-public Schools Advocacy Day on Lawyers Mall in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis.(CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)

The halls of the Maryland House Office Building were filled with song on March 2, as students from St. Francis International School in Silver Spring sang the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.” The students were in Annapolis as a part of the Non-public Schools Advocacy Day, which drew together 1,400 students attending non-public schools across the state of Maryland.

The students advocated for continued funding to the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) scholarship program. BOOST was first introduced and approved by the Maryland legislature last year, when $5 million in the state budget was allocated to fund the scholarship program, making it possible for students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch to receive a scholarship to go to a non-public school of their choice.

In December, Gov. Larry Hogan introduced the budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which includes an additional $2 million for the program. He plans to double the current funding to $10 million over the next three years, but needs the budget to pass in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate in order to do so.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. visited students gathered in the Miller Senate Office Building in the morning, and told them how important parochial education had been to his family.

“I know the sacrifices your parents are making to make your education possible,” he told them.

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, the president of Maryland Council for Private American Education (CAPE), told the students it is a thrilling experience for him every year when he sees people come together “from different parts of the state, different backgrounds, and different faiths” as one group to advocate for what is best for students and families.

After learning about the Maryland legislative process, students moved to Lawyers Mall, where Sadwin led them in chanting, “BOOST our education!”

Gov. Hogan attended the rally, and after taking a group photo with students in front of the Maryland State House, he greeted children individually, as some took selfies along the way.

Hogan pointed out the State House has been around since 1772, and is the nation’s longest continually running state house. In 1783, it is where George Washington went to resign as president.

“Now all of you are part of history, right here,” Hogan told the students.

Maryland’s governor said the BOOST program drew bipartisan support last year, and he is hoping legislators will commit to do the same this year, since the program “has helped so many kids who may not have had the opportunity” for a such a great education otherwise. He encouraged the students to become lobbyists and tell their legislators how important the scholarship is to them.

“Every child in this state deserves a great education,” said Del. Samuel Rosenberg, a Democrat representing District 41 in Baltimore City, as he spoke to the crowd.

Delegate Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat representing District 11 in Baltimore County, told the students how important it is for her and her colleagues to see their faces and hear how important BOOST is to them.

Bill Ryan, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, also spoke at the rally, noting the impressive crowd and saying how important it is “that we continue to make a statement” about the importance of non-public schools in Maryland.

“Every student needs a good education,” said Nathaniel Barish, a seventh grader at St. Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville, who joined his classmates at the rally. “Without a good education you can’t get a job…and that will affect the rest of your life.”

Alongside the students, there were several parents from St. Francis International School advocating for their right to choose what they think is best for their children’s education.

“It really should not be a struggle for parents to send kids to the school of their choice,” said Evelyn Lowey-Ayala, who has a son attending St. Francis International School. That morning, her son had told her that he thought it was important for “kids to support kids” during the advocacy day.

“We want to choose for our children to have a good moral education that they can build their life on,” said Bruk Getachew, the father of three students at St. Francis.

St. Francis International School families come from 52 different countries, and 78 percent of the school’s students have at least one parent who immigrated to the United States.

“A lot of us are from families of immigrants,” said Brianna Ortega, a sixth grader at St. Francis. Minutes earlier, she had visited Senator William Smith, a Democrat who serves District 20 in Montgomery County, who told her and her group that he had a better idea of who they are as students because of their visit.

The group of roughly 120 students from St. Francis visited their delegates along with a group of students from Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, which has a corporate work-study program to allow students to gain experience in the workplace while earning part of their tuition. The students visited Del. Sheila Hixson and Del. David Moon, who are both Democrats representing District 20 in Montgomery County, and they told the legislators why the BOOST scholarship program is important to them.

“I am here to advocate for the people who come after me,” Guadalupe Castillo, a senior at Cristo Rey, told Hixson.

Hixson, one of her staff members, and the students had a conversation about why some people oppose the program, and students weighed in as to why they think it should continue to be funded.

Junie Mertus, a freshman at  Cristo Rey whose parents immigrated from Haiti, said that while some people oppose the bill because non-public schools do not accept everyone, her school follows the example of their patron saint, who took in every student to teach them.

“My Don Bosco education means a lot to me,” Domotá Byrd, a junior at the school, told the Catholic Standard. “It is what makes me ‘me’. Without it I’d be lost…but with the education I’ve received, I can go far in life.”

Byrd is a BOOST scholarship recipient, and felt it was important for him to be there advocating so he could “let them be aware of the lives this scholarship is changing.” For some people, he said, “it is all that they have.”

Garrett O’Day, the associate director for education, children and families for the Maryland Catholic Conference, noted that this year’s advocacy day drew record crowds, especially from Archdiocese of Washington schools. 

“Students and parents are increasingly aware of the importance of having their voice heard in support of their education,” he said. “It also helps to have the support of a dedicated Catholic Schools Office at the archdiocese and enthusiastic principals at the helm."

O’Day also noted that the crowd “displayed the great diversity within our nonpublic school community.”

“Students of all faiths, demographics and backgrounds came together for a common cause – the education best suited for their needs,” he said. “I was proud of our nonpublic school community today."

Those who wish to receive updates on BOOST can sign up for the Maryland Catholic Conference’s advocacy network at www.mdcatholic.org/JoinCAN or Maryland CAPE’s advocacy network at www.educationmaryland.org/join.