By Mark Zimmermann
A small army of lobbyists descended on the Maryland General Assembly on March 2, but instead of wearing suits and dresses, they wore polo shirts and khaki pants, a variety of plaid skirts, brightly colored sweaters, and sweat jackets with their schools’ names and logos.
With crowd sizes limited due to construction around the State House, about 300 students and 50 principals, teachers and parents from 27 Catholic, other Christian and Jewish schools across Maryland assembled in Annapolis for the 2023 Nonpublic School Advocacy Day.
A key purpose of the day was for the students and school representatives to advocate for the BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) Scholarship Program. New Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s budget proposed cutting BOOST funding from $10 million to $8 million and included language that would phase out the program in a few years.
As the school groups gathered early that morning at the Atreeum Knights of Columbus Hall in Annapolis before traveling to the State House, Garrett O’Day – the deputy director of the Maryland Catholic Conference – said in an interview that “the stories of students and of their parents are the most powerful tool we have to convince legislators” to support the BOOST program and other programs that aid nonpublic schools, which educate one out of every eight students in Maryland.
By coming to Annapolis, those students and families can tell legislators about the difference that BOOST makes in their lives, he said.
Moments later as he addressed the school groups in the hall, O’Day said, “Today’s your day.” He said the meetings they would have with legislators would be vital in supporting the BOOST program, and he encouraged them to ask legislators to restore funding for the scholarships and keep them for future generations of students.
Over the past seven years, nearly 20,000 BOOST Scholarships have been awarded to low-income students, allowing parents to choose the nonpublic school that best fits their children’s needs. In the 2022-23 school year, 3,248 students are receiving BOOST Scholarships in 21 of Maryland’s 24 counties and the city of Baltimore. All of them are from low-income households, with the average annual household income of all recipients around $36,000. Minority families received 57 percent of the scholarships. Of the BOOST scholarship recipients, 32 percent are Black students and 15 percent are Latino students.
In addition to supporting the BOOST Scholarship Program, the school groups also advocated for nonpublic school safety, textbook and aging schools programs, and for funding for school bus transportation for nonpublic school students.
At the hall gathering, Erin Meunier, the principal of St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Md., noted that 26 students from her school came to advocate for those programs.
She said about 25 students at her school receive BOOST Scholarships. “It allows them to have a Catholic education… (and it’s) giving parents a choice of where they want to send their children to school,” she said.
Meunier said the day also provided an important civics lesson for her students. “They get to learn about the influence their voice has on initiatives in the state, that their voice matters, and it’s important to advocate for what they believe in.”
St. Joseph’s eighth grader Milana Jones, who was making her first trip to the State House that day, noted, “I’m a BOOST student … BOOST has helped my family give me the best education.”
Her classmate Kennedy Franklin, the school’s student council president, said that while she is not a BOOST recipient herself, “It’s important every kid, no matter where they come from, gets a chance at a great education.”
Anika Logan, the principal of Cardinal Shehan School in Baltimore, was attending the advocacy day with 10 students and one parent. She said nearly 100 students from her school, which serves children in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, receive BOOST Scholarships.
“I’m a product of Catholic education. I believe in the value of service to the community. I believe in the formation of the whole child,” she said. “The more children we can serve, the more families we can serve in our community, we are able to impact and form more wholesome individuals that will make a positive contribution to our society.”
Reflecting on what it meant for students to speak with the legislators, Logan said, “The takeaway here is they have a voice, and that as citizens of Maryland, their voices can be heard.”
Camille Carmichael, a seventh grader at Cardinal Shehan School who is a BOOST Scholarship recipient there, said that program is important because it helps students have an “opportunity to get a better education.”
Carmichael said she appreciates how her school has smaller class sizes, and how students pray together every day and how teachers and students there care for each other. “It’s like a family school,” she said, adding, “I feel Cardinal Shehan has put me on the right path.”
Before the school groups set out for the State House from the Knights of Columbus hall, Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, the president of CAPE (the Council for American Private Education) in Maryland, greeted them, noting that the 2020 advocacy day just before the COVID-19 shutdown was the last time they were able to assemble there in person.
“We’re healthy, we’re good, we’re inspired, and we’re coming together to support our schools and our families,” he said, emphasizing the importance of the scholarship program, and practicing a BOOST cheer that he led moments later in a rally in front of the State House.
The nonpublic school groups gathered at Lawyers Mall near a bronze statue of Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore native who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court in 1954 that outlawed segregation in public schools and expanded educational opportunities for the nation’s children. He later became the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.
Joining her school group there was Lynnea Cornish, the principal of Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, named for Mother Lange, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a pioneer order for Black women religious.
Mother Lange, who is one of six African American Catholics being considered for sainthood, founded a school for girls of color in Baltimore in 1828, 35 years before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and that school continues today as St. Frances Academy, the oldest continuously operating predominantly African American Catholic high school in the United States.
Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, which opened in 2021 as the first new Catholic school in Baltimore in 60 years, now serves 371 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, and 13 of its students participated in the advocacy day. Cornish said that in addition to seeing the legislature in action, the day gave students a firsthand experience of “speaking up for themselves, and the things they want out of life.”
Speaking of the importance of the BOOST program for her students who receive that scholarship, Cornish said, “We want to ensure they’re continuing with their Catholic education that’s important to their future.”
Her school, she said, is “developing a culture in our community that education is important.”
About 10 members of Maryland’s House of Delegates and State Senate, including members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, spoke at the rally at Lawyer’s Mall, voicing their support for the BOOST program, telling students they are the future of the state of Maryland, and encouraging them to tell legislators about the impact that the scholarships are having on their lives.
Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat representing District 11 in Baltimore County, said, “I am a strong supporter of public schools, and I am a strong supporter of independent schools.” She added that it’s important for the state to support aid that most meets the needs of families. Addressing the students, school representatives and parents, she said, “Thank you for participating in the democratic process!”
Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican representing District 5 in Frederick and Carroll counties, said he agreed with Gov. Moore’s goal of Maryland providing a world class educational system for its students.
“It’s not one size fits all. Every school, private or public, it all fits together,” he said, adding, “I’m a proud supporter of BOOST, and we’re going to fight with everything we’ve got to protect that program.”
At the rally, Nefertari Lee, a leader of a parents’ group advocating for BOOST, announced the names of each participating school as students from those schools cheered. Lee, whose two sons graduated from Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school in Baltimore, in 2022 and 2016, said in an interview, “I have a passion for education, and I have a passion for learning. I believe that education will bridge the gap of economic backgrounds, and it will bridge the gap of racial backgrounds.”
Lee added, “I believe in school choice, and BOOST gives these children opportunities that will help them later in life.” Later speaking about the scholarship program’s importance for families, she said, “It’s not (solely) a Democratic or Republican issue.”
The school groups that then entered the State House included St. Francis International School from Silver Spring Maryland. Sam Chapa, St. Francis’s principal, pointed out that 10 of its students had come to learn about “the legislative process and their role in it, and that they can start advocating as young as the fourth grade.”
Of the 310 students now attending St. Francis International School, about 90 of them are BOOST scholarship recipients, Chapa said, saying the program was vital to those families.
“It makes our schools accessible for these families, and gives these families an alternative to an education that might not align with their values,” he said.
Chapa noted that more than 60 percent of St. Francis’s students come from immigrant families, with many of the parents having emigrated from a foreign country, speaking a foreign language. “Catholic education is one thing familiar to them,” he said.
A survey of the school’s students found that they have roots in about 40 countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. Noting how St. Francis International School’s students from different cultures and backgrounds learn and play together, Chapa said the school’s mission is to help students be scholars, instruments of God’s peace in the Franciscan tradition, and to be global citizens.
Then the St. Francis students joined peers from other schools who sat in the galleries of the House of Delegates and State Senate chambers and watched legislators vote on bills.
After that, like other schools the St. Francis group attempted to meet with their legislators, first stopping at the office of Sen. William Smith Jr., a Democrat representing of District 20 in Montgomery County, where they along with students from Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md., spoke with the senator’s chief of staff, Luke Pinton.
Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, a coeducational high school sponsored by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Salesians of Don Bosco, is part of the national Cristo Rey Network of 38 schools, and it offers a college preparatory curriculum for minority students from families with limited economic means.
The school is known for its innovative Corporate Work Study Program, where students gain experience working at leading Washington-area businesses, organizations and institutions and help pay for nearly one-half of their education costs. Since the school’s first graduating class in 2011, 100 percent of Don Bosco Cristo Rey’s graduates have gained college acceptances, and many of those students have become the first members of their families to attend and graduate from college.
The four Don Bosco Cristo Rey students spoke about how important the BOOST scholarships were to them and their families. The St. Francis International students also emphasized that point.
Chapa underscored how the scholarship program helps schools serve more families in need, saying, “Neither of our schools could operate the way they do without BOOST support … We’re here to put faces to the program and recognize the importance of it. We are all Marylanders.”
Samuel Amaya Delcid, a junior at Don Bosco Cristo Rey, noted that BOOST scholarships helped him attend St. Francis International School in middle school and now his current high school, where he is gaining experience working at Georgetown University in the Corporate Work Study Program.
Noting that he comes from a low-income immigrant family, Delcid said, “People like us really need help and the skills Don Bosco gives. It’s like a second family.”
Pinton said he would share what the students told him with Sen. Smith, and he added, “You are all really the best lobbyists and the best advocates for your institutions.”
While many of the participating schools had success in meeting with their legislators directly, the students from St. Francis International School met with staff members when they later tried to meet with Del. David Moon, a Democrat representing District 20 of Montgomery County, and Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Democrat who also represents District 20.
Sharing her story with the legislative staff members, Maellys Akobi, a seventh grader from St. Francis International School, told how her mother immigrated to the United States from Benin, a country in west Africa. “She came so I could have a better education, and I could have a future that she wasn’t able to get,” Akobi said.
Afterward, Akobi said in an interview, “BOOST is important to me and my family. I want to become a lawyer and make my mom proud.”
Carmen Molina, a St. Francis seventh grader whose family is from Honduras, hopes to become a doctor some day. “My mom is a single mother, and she struggles to pay for my school. If BOOST is taken away, she’ll have a harder time,” she said.
After the rally and meetings with legislators, the school representatives returned to the Knights of Columbus hall for lunch.
In an interview there, Betselot Kassaye, a seventh grader at the Academy of St. Matthias the Apostle in Lanham, Md., said he had come to Annapolis that day with his fellow students “to support BOOST. We want to keep it going. Many families depend on it.” He added, “BOOST helped me go to St. Matthias.”
Kassaye said they spoke with their state senators and delegates to encourage them and the governor to support the scholarship program. He added, “St. Matthias means a lot to me. It’s like a family home away from home.”
In another interview at the hall, Rabbi Yochanan Stengel, the high school principal of Bnos Yisroel, an Orthodox Jewish school for girls in Baltimore, said the BOOST scholarships provide crucial help for hardworking parents.
“This (the BOOST program) is huge, it literally allows schools to keep these children who otherwise would not be able to pay the tuition fees,” he said.
As the school groups headed for home, Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, the president of CAPE Maryland, said in an interview that the students lobbying for the BOOST program on behalf of themselves, their friends and parents help energize him and O’Day of the Maryland Catholic Conference as they continue their work to convince legislators to restore funding for the BOOST scholarships and maintain the program for future years.
“The BOOST program, which is now in place for seven years, has had a massive impact,” Rabbi Sadwin said. “Let’s work with a program that has existed, that is successful. We have a working way to benefit thousands of kids, year in and year out.”