Student poster, video contest winners recognized at State House

By EmmaLee Italia | Trenton Monitor Correspondent

Catholic education received special attention at the state level when Gov. Chris Christie released his proclamation of Catholic Schools Week from Jan. 29 – Feb. 4.

To see photoo gallery on this story, click here.

To kick off the celebration, which recognizes the unique contributions of Catholic education, delegations of Catholic schools from dioceses across New Jersey met Jan. 30 at the State House in Trenton.

Sponsored jointly by the New Jersey Network of Catholic Families and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the event included a tour of the State House, the reading of the governor’s proclamation, and acknowledgement of winners of the “How Catholic schools prepare students to be good citizens” poster contest and high school video contest.

“People get excited when they hear that the governor is supporting Catholic schools,” said Dr. George V. Corwell, NJCC associate director for education, who noted that the support has been ongoing for nearly the past 20 years.

“We work with one voice to represent the families of Catholic schools,” said Mary McManus McElroy, NJNCF state chairman from the Archdiocese of Newark, in addressing the group. “What we find in our Catholic schools you can’t quantify – to do the right thing, to be heartfelt, to be present in your community and state.”

Senator Steven Oroho (R – Sussex, Warren, Morris counties) enthusiastically welcomed the guests of the State House.

“I go back to Immaculate Conception in Sussex … my wife Rita and I have five kids who all went to Catholic school,” he began. “My issue is … the ability to give parents a choice for school. We were very fortunate to be able to afford to make that choice. I believe it should be available to every student – that’s why I call it ‘parent choice.’

“Study hard,” Oroho continued. “We are held to a higher standard, because of the extra work undertaken by all of you. Keep up the great work.”

A representative of the Republican office, Brian Alpert, was on hand to read the governor’s proclamation. “I myself went to St. Anthony’s Catholic School in Trenton, and it’s my pleasure to be here today to read the proclamation for you.”

Mary Boyle, who represented the council of Catholic school superintendents, expounded on this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week.

“‘Knowledge, Faith, Service’ – that is who we are,” she said. “I represent 66,990 students in Catholic Schools in New Jersey. We are successful contributors to the state, and a force to be reckoned with … I encourage you to make your voices heard – your voices are important.”

Students from the five New Jersey dioceses were then called forward to receive their certificates. McElroy congratulated the entire group, saying that “these posters and videos celebrate students at their best and the value of Catholic schools.

Poster contest winners from the Diocese of Trenton were Brianna Wojnar, eighth grade St. Charles Borromeo School, Cinnaminson; Jennifer Pilla, seventh grade, Pope John Paul Regional School, Willingboro; Erin Stout, eighth grade, Trenton Catholic Academy Lower School, Hamilton; and Karin Ojeda, eighth grade St. Joseph Grade School, Toms River. Video contest winners were Hunter Calvetto, editor, and Skylyr VanDerVeer, director, both seniors in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River. To view their video, visit

Frances Koukotas, director of the NJNCF for the Trenton Diocese, explained that, “The goal of the poster/video contest is to have the students involved in a project that reflects their own thoughts on being in a Catholic school and being a good citizen, and how where they go to school impacts that.”

Koukotas noted that in every poster submission she received, each student focused on how the aspects of their Catholic school experience – the community service work they were involved in, being able to pray in school and the quality of education they know they are receiving – all play a part in their development into well-rounded adults and good citizens.

“My favorite about the day was the State House tour,” said Calvetto. “I’d never known about [the history], and it was cool to learn about it.

VanDerVeer, who directed the Donovan Catholic video entry, said she was inspired by the other contest winners.

“I loved seeing the other students’ work and their ideas,” she said.

Both Calvetto and VanDerVeer credited their media arts teacher, JoAnn D’Anton for inspiring to produce the video.

Reflecting on her winning entry, Pilla said she was happy to have the chance to let her love for art shine.

“I’m really interested in all types of art,” she said.

“I loved the sculpture they showed us on the tour,” she said, referencing the “Glory of New Jersey” that depicts several state symbols. “It was my first time being [at the State House]; I was very interested to learn about the history of New Jersey since I’m originally from India,” Pilla said, adding that she arrived to the United States in 2014.

McElroy segued into bringing the group’s attention to the upcoming submission of the governor’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and how that must include an increase in allowance for non-public school transportation.

“When we raise our voices as one, we get things done,” she encouraged. “The state budget for non-public school transportation has been frozen since 2007.” The amount allowed per student, McElroy said, is $884 per student – which is not enough to hire bus companies in many districts whose busing has been rerouted over the years.

“It’s important to have secure, reliable transportation [to school],” she continued. McElroy provided fact sheets explaining the problem, and directed parents to visit the NJCC website to contact the governor’s office as soon as possible, asking him to raise the ceiling for non-public school transportation; the budget will be submitted Feb. 28. To contact the governor’s office regarding transportation funding, the Voter Voice link is

Dr. Corwell, who has been vocal on this issue for years, echoed McElroy’s entreaty.

“No non-public student should be denied a ride to school because of cost,” he emphasized. “Keep doing this repeatedly so there’s a drumbeat.”

Oroho reminded the group that “it doesn’t stop with the governor. Talk with your legislators, and remind them of the money saved by Catholic education … legislators listen to the volume of responses they receive.”

“Having this event at the State House gives the students the opportunity to understand more about how the process of government works, and how they can be a part of that process,” Koukotas said. “The budget process, money in the budget for security, technology, nursing services and transportation all affect them. It’s important that they understand that they can be involved by writing or calling their legislators.”

Overall the event was well-received by the students and adults who attended, Koukotas attested.

“[They] have been very positive in their comments, and are looking forward to doing it again next year.”

Artistic Accomplishments – Students from around the Diocese had an opportunity to artfully express what attending a Catholic school meant to them. The winners for 2017 who proudly had their work on display at the New Jersey State House are in front row, from left, Karen Ojeda, Erin Stout, Brianna Wojnar and Jennifer Pilla. Video contest winners were Donovan Catholic’s Hunter Calvetto and Skylyr VanDerVeer. John Batkowski photos

Educational Opportunity – Students and teachers from the five New Jersey Dioceses are shown during their tour of the State House Jan. 30.

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