Since its founding in 2010, St. Francis International School in Silver Spring has served families of all cultures and economic backgrounds, but in the 2016-17 school year, they were able to open their doors to even more low-income families with the help of the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today scholarship program (BOOST).
In April 2016, the Maryland state budget was passed with $5 million 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. Out of the 2,464 scholarships that were awarded and accepted, the four schools with the highest number of scholarship recipients and highest total scholarship dollar amount represented a variety of faiths, with one Muslim school, two Jewish day schools, and one Catholic school – St. Francis International School, which has 81 students who received the scholarship.
“The identity of our school has not changed tremendously because of BOOST,” said Tobias Harkleroad, the principal of St. Francis, adding that they were already committed to serving poor families, but “having BOOST has helped us to make a lot of those families more secure.”
Diana Femat is the mother of one of these families who has been assisted by the BOOST scholarship. While three of her five children attended St. Francis International School in the 2015-16 school year, Femat said tuition was a burden, and often caused them to fall behind on rent or not have enough money for things like car repairs. Likewise, Mary Cenord, who is originally from Haiti, said through an interpreter that she used to have to wait for her tax return to come in order to pay her kids’ tuition.
“We prayed that if it were God’s will for our kids to come to school here, we would find a way,” Femat said. “…We feel He answered our prayers with BOOST.”
With BOOST, families like the Femats and the Cenords are able to view sending their kids to St. Francis as a long-term decision, rather than having to decide year by year whether they will be able to make ends meet while paying the tuition, said Harkleroad. But in addition to making some of its families more secure, he said it also allowed the school to increase the amount of outreach that they do to the poorest of the poor.
Franciscan Father Chris Posch, the pastor of St. Camillus Parish, which is located directly next to St. Francis International School, went door to door in the Langley Park community to invite families to attend the school. While many of the families he talked to never would have considered sending their child to a non-public school because of the price, Father Posch encouraged them not to worry about the cost right away, because “we’ll never know until we walk the journey together,” whether or not they will be able to afford the education.
Last year, St. Francis International School had a record number of applicants, and even with BOOST did not have enough aid to meet the demonstrated need. Harkleroad said the school “could have done more good for more people” if BOOST had more funding.
“Our Catholic school families and their schools spent nearly a decade advocating for a program like this, citing widespread need,” said Garrett O’Day, the associate director of education, children and families for the Maryland Catholic Conference. “That continuing need was apparent during the application process, as shown by the number of Catholic school applicants.”
By reaching out to low-income families, St. Francis International School is creating an opportunity that normally would be reserved to children with parents who can afford a Catholic education at a non-public school. More than 62% of SFIS students live in households that meet federal poverty guidelines.
Through the contributions of four parishes in the area, the financial aid provided by the Archdiocese of Washington, federal pre-K expansion grants, and BOOST scholarships, the school’s families are receiving a total of about $1.6 million in assistance to attend the school. Parents are contributing about the same amount in total, which means for each dollar that a parent contributes towards their child’s education, the Church is providing 81 cents and the government provides 19 cents.
Harkleroad said he thinks this model of teamwork between the Church, the government and the parents is important to realize. While opponents of the BOOST program say that it takes funds away from public schools in Maryland, Harkleroad said, “We’re not taking resources away from anyone…we’re trying to enhance what is going on around us.”
When Nahil Barahona, who is originally from El Salvador, first came to St. Francis International School last year to get more information about their pre-school, she was worried about being able to afford to send her youngest child there, but was willing to do what she had to do, because “a Catholic school education is more important than any material thing,” she said through a translator during an interview with the Catholic Standard. With BOOST, she was able not only to send her youngest child to the school, but also her two older daughters, who are in second and sixth grades.
Like the Barahona family, who speak Spanish in their home, a language other than English is prominently spoken in more than half of St. Francis International School students’ homes, and 78% of students have at least one parent who is an immigrant to the United States. The school has about 400 students enrolled for the 2016-17 school year, and the parents and students were born in 52 different countries, representing all major regions of the globe except for Australia and the South Pacific.
Pelotty, a fifth grader whose family is originally from Haiti, said he thought the reason why his parents, and other parents, send their kids to St. Francis International School for a Catholic education is because they “don’t want you to go through what they had to go through.” A seventh grader named Isaac expressed a similar thought, and said his parents sent him there “to get a better education,” and to do better than they did. They are both recipients of the BOOST scholarship, which helped make their parent’s wishes a reality.
Anthony, Luis, and Snaha are students who are new to the school this year because of the BOOST Scholarship. Anthony said he likes his new school because there is less bullying than in his previous public school, Luis said it was easier to make friends there, and Snaha said she likes her new school because her teachers give her more in-depth assistance, and “try to help you as much as they can.”
While parents are looking for a school that will help their children on the way to pursuing their goals, many also want to ensure that their children are grounded in their faith as they do so.
“When we moved to this area we were looking for a school where they would not only be able to grow academically and physically but also spiritually in our Catholic faith,” Femat said, adding that she appreciated how the faith that she and her husband are fostering in their kids at home will be reinforced at school.
Students also expressed appreciation for their ability to learn about the faith in school, and Snaha, whose family is originally from Bangladesh, said before she came to St. Francis International School, she didn’t understand Mass or pay attention. “Now I pay attention,” she said.
The BOOST recipients at the school who spoke to the Catholic Standard all have big dreams for what they want to do when they grow up. Emely, a fifth grader, said she wants to be a doctor “because I would like to see the happy faces they would have” when her patients are no longer injured or sick. Gabriele, an eighth grader, wants to be a veterinarian, Pelotty wants to be a car engineer, Snaha wants to be a pharmacist, and Anthony wants to be a computer scientist.
“The staff likes to know in the future you will grow up to be greater than you thought was possible when you first came to St. Francis,” said seventh grader Ysabel. “They want to make sure they’re part of who you grow up to be.”
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