Massachusetts Boys and Girls State participants go through several sections of the program together, including convocations and classes. Photo By Steve B. Brooks

Boys and Girls State ... together

Larry DiCara came to Massachusetts Boys State as a participant in 1966. The following year, he returned as a counselor. And every year since, DiCara has returned to the program, this year serving as an advisor to The American Legion Department of Massachusetts Boys State Committee.

During his 45 years with the program, DiCara - a Harvard graduate and prominent attorney in Boston - has seen many changes. But the most recent change in Massachusetts - the integration of Boys and Girls State in the education portion of the program - might be the most important DiCara has seen.

Last year, Girls State participants began attending some of the educational classes that have been taught to the Boys State participants for years. That integration continued with even more involvement this year at Stonehill College, including a joint Boys/Girls State convocation during the second full day of the program.

"The girls going through the program have told us that they want more involvement with the academic side," said DiCara, the dean of political science for Boys State this year. "When I went to Harvard, the ratio of males to females was 4-1. Now it's 50-50. The world is changing. These girls are smart, and they want more opportunities. I have three daughters of my own, and I think this is a pretty good deal."

The classes taught during the program include governmental organization and budgeting, the electoral process, getting into college and the Bill of Rights. Economics and law courses also are available. This is in addition to the normal Massachusetts Boys and Girls State activities of electing senators and other officials, studying state and local government, setting up fictional municipalities and dealing with issues that face town and city governments, and hearing from an array of guest speakers."I think we have the best academic program of any

Boys State program out there," DiCara said. "I can't prove that, and I'm not sure how you'd judge that. But we have had many graduates go on to serve in public offices. Two of the six members of our state budget committee are Boys State graduates. We work very hard so they can take advantage of the program as much as possible."

Bonnie Sladeski, Massachusetts' immediate past department president, is in her fourth year as director of Girls State. She says a changing society made it necessary to alter the Girls State program.

"Girls nowadays are interested in learning the same things boys are," Sladeski said. "But our Boys State has a staff of 40-75 people. We were lucky to have 30, and it was an all-volunteer staff. We don't have the lawyers or economists on staff. We did everything that involved government, but now they're getting classes in economics and law taught by professional people."

And the feedback has been positive. "We hand out a survey at the end of each year, and last year was the first year we started some of the integration," Sladeski said. "Participants thought it was fabulous. They enjoyed it, and they loved the classes. Most of the kids were very receptive to the entire program because they know it benefits them. We have the cream of the crop here - these are all A- and B-students - and they're getting a new opportunity here."

Legionnaire Mark Avis, a past national vice commander, has chaired Massachusetts' Boys State Committee since 2001. "We felt we needed to bring this program into the 21st century," he said. "Women are in the same professions as men. They're doctors, politicians, lawyers - everyone is on the same plane. We needed to treat (Girls State participants) in the same way. I think it's a phenomenal idea, and I'm looking forward to watching the program continue to grow."