Students and faculty members are getting ready for their upcoming fundraiser. (Photo by D’ana Downing)

Ask Sister Debra Liesen, principal of the Sisters Academy of Baltimore, what it’s like to be in charge of a school full of teens and pre-teens and she begins to laugh.

“Drama!” she said. “We call them our drama mamas.”

The school is preparing for their biggest fundraiser yet. The cowboy-themed Downtown Hoedown will be held April 25 at Montgomery Park in Baltimore. The event will feature food, a live band, line dance instruction, and even a trick roper. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin will receive an award.

The event, two years in the making, is important for the school. School administrators say that since they don’t charge students tuition, they depend on events like the Hoedown to keep the school’s doors open.

Sisters Academy has been educating low-income Baltimore girls since 2004. It is the only all-girls tuition-free middle school in Baltimore. Most of their students come from southwest and west Baltimore. The school is the result of the combined efforts of four Catholic organizations – The School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Bon Secours, Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Liesen said the middle school years are precarious ones, especially for young women. “It’s very exciting for them, but it’s also very scary.”

She said that to tackle this problem, administrators try to be firm but fair, helping the girls navigate both academics and personal issues. “They come in as fifth graders. They are so young,” she said. “You see them evolve over time.”

“The goal is to provide a top-quality private school faith-based education for families that couldn’t afford it otherwise,” said school president Sister Delia Dowling.

She said in order to keep classes small, they accept about 20 girls a year. The girls start at fifth grade and leave after the eighth. Downing said staff members and administration work hard to make sure that the girls have the well-rounded education they need to be successful in high school and later on in college.

So far, seven classes of girls have graduated from the Academy. Four of those classes are in high school right now and three are in college. Downing said 85 percent of the girls in the first three classes are in college. Frostburg University, The College of Notre Dame in Maryland, and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia are some of the places now educating Sisters Academy alumnus.

To ensure the girls do well, the school has an employee who tracks each girl through high school and periodically checks up on them. “They have come so far here that we want to be sure that they are successful,” Downing said.