For St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland, partnering with government education grants and programs at both the state and federal level has allowed the Catholic school to enhance the school – offering not just benefits for the students, but support for the community as well.

Over the past decade, Toby Harkleroad, the founding principal of St. Francis International School, has worked to expand the existing partnerships with government programs.

Some of the programs, such as the Broadening Opportunities of Students Today (BOOST) scholarship program in Maryland that provides scholarships to low-income families, are used by many other Catholic schools. However, for other programs, such as the Maryland Pre-Kindergarten Expansion program that expands pre-kindergarten access for low-income families, St. Francis International School is the only Catholic school to participate.

“This is what we have been able to build up of the past 10 years for the good of our 440-plus students on a regular basis,” Harkleroad said.

Because of the school’s existing relationship with state and federal programs, Harkleroad added that the school was able to increase its programs for the benefit of both the students and the local community when the coronavirus pandemic affected many families in the area.

As the crisis emerged, St. Francis International School used its nutrition program to provide meals to families and individuals in Langley Park, which has an immigrant community that was hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting economic downturn.

When he became principal 12 years ago, Harkleroad said finding these partnerships was one of his priorities.

“I really believe that working together to meet the community’s needs... is really a way to expand the plate to serve more than either of us could do on our own – it’s not an either/or kind of thing, it’s a both/and model of feeding the community,” he said. “If we can work together, why don’t we work together? If we can share, why don’t we share?”

Harkleroad said that finding a way to maintain the high-quality Catholic education in a way that was best for the families that St. Francis serves was a top priority.

“Over the past 10 years, (we were) finding ways to increase the quality of services that we’re providing without increasing the tuition cost for the parents,” he said. “Or in the case of the BOOST scholarship, (and) the pre-K expansion grant, finding ways for the state to step in and help with partnering with the parents and the church in paying for these services.

“For us, the kids (at St. Francis International School) are largely low-income and the children of immigrants, two populations that don’t always get the attention they deserve in any school system,” the principal said.

On June 30, the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling that excluding religious schools in the state of Montana’s scholarship aid program was a violation of the federal Constitution. This order confirmed the ability of Catholic schools to partner with government programs that benefit their students.

“The decision challenges state and local communities to really be having conversations with Catholic organizations and Catholic schools about how we can be better citizens in our state and local communities, how we can contribute to the common good and also be allowed to be Catholic at the same time,” Harkleroad said.

He added that the court’s decision emphasized that the most important part of the government’s investment in any school’s educational programs, whether public or private, is simply to help children.

 “No group should be automatically disqualified simply because their motivation for doing it might be religious,” Harkleroad said. “Ultimately our goal is to help kids – that is the same motivation as every other public and private school teacher that I’ve ever met.”

Garrett O’Day, deputy director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said the court’s decision was built off the understanding of what the Constitution says about the separation of church and state.

“The ‘separation of church and state’ in the Constitution has two purposes: preventing government from endorsing a particular religion and protecting citizens’ freedom to practice their religion,” O’Day said. “It has nothing to do with school scholarships or similar programs designed to support a common good, where religion happens to be incidentally involved.”

O'Day noted that “in the Supreme Court case, Ms. Espinoza was a single mother working three jobs. Her children needed an educational option that she did not have the means for. Lawmakers in her state enacted a program to level the playing field for parents and guardians in her situation.  Empowering low-income single mothers with the opportunity to provide their children with the best education for their needs is a pretty good investment.” 

Working with the government to invest in the students and community of St. Francis International School, Harkleroad said, is an ongoing process.

One program in particular that St. Francis International School participates in is the Maryland Aging Non-Public School Building grant, which is an annual grant to help upgrade and maintain the physical buildings of non-public schools. In 2018, St. Francis used its many years-worth of saved funds to upgrade the kitchen and cafeteria, much of which had utilities that were original to the 65-year-old building.

Thanks to a federal grant, St. Francis International School replaced its stove for the first time in 65 years. In the photo below, the school's cafeteria staff now use new serving equipment thanks to a federal grant. (Photos courtesy of St. Francis International School)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the kitchen was able to be the “heart” of where many meals were prepared for the local community, Harkleroad said.

“If there hadn’t also been the ordinary partnerships, we would not have been able to step up in the midst of the crisis and be something more,” he said. “We can’t just have these conversations when it’s an emergency.”

As Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington continue to collaborate with local, state and federal educational programs and invest in the best future they can for their students, Harkleroad said that stewardship of the funds is key to this relationship.

“Catholic schools are looking to participate in these federal programs… and we’re looking to serve kids that we love. They call it religion, but the motivator really is love,” he said. “It again highlights to me what is possible in a crisis is only possible because we fought for years to try to make it part of the ordinary.”

Members of the Maryland National Guard distribute free meals for families in the Langley Park community made by staff members of St. Francis International School with federal funding. The immigrant community in Langley Park was hard hit by the coronavirus and the resulting economic downturn, when many residents lost their jobs. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis International School)