As snowmen, Santa Claus, a marching band and others proceeded down Kilimanjaro Road in Columbia Saturday, as part of Oakland Mills High School’s inaugural holiday parade, student body president Rohan Warrier tried his best to hold back tears.
“To actually see this many people want to come out and see something that was so much a part of me was just amazing,” said Warrier, 16, who donned a tuxedo and rode in a black Jeep during the parade.
The Oakland Mills High junior had dreamed of organizing the parade for nearly two years as part of his mission to showcase the school to the rest of Howard County. After the pandemic delayed initial plans, Warrier’s vision finally came to fruition as dozens of residents, students and alumni gathered to watch floats and to enjoy a range of holiday-themed activities inside the school.
“I think it’s important to show the highlights of our school that we don’t really get recognized for,” said Oakland Mills senior Annmarie Weaver, 17, who helped plan the festivities and captained the marching band’s drumline.
While other county high schools host homecoming parades, Oakland Mills had discontinued the practice and Warrier hoped a new event with a holiday theme would help dispel negative stereotypes about the school.
“Oakland Mills is a school and a community of creativity and power and love,” Warrier said. “That’s just not what we’re labeled as by pretty much anybody outside of the community.”
With more than 70% of students identifying as non-white and nearly 39% in the Free and Reduced Meals Program in fiscal 2021, Oakland Mills stands apart from many other Howard high schools.
“People make assumptions based on demographics,” Warrier said. “What I’ve been trying to do as president of my school is to try to change that.”
After he was redistricted from Long Reach High School to Oakland Mills in 2019 ahead of his freshman year, Warrier remembers feeling disappointed, having harbored negative preconceptions about the school. But once classes began, he was struck by the community’s warmth and teachers’ willingness to connect with students amid virtual instruction in fall 2020.
“Our students really do shine in wonderful ways,” said Katie Florida, a media specialist who serves as the Student Government Association adviser and marched in an inflatable snowman costume during the holiday parade. “Our community sees that and really values what our students do.”
Oakland Mills students have also been outspoken in advocating for their school’s needs and equal treatment at school board meetings recently.
At a Sept. 22 public hearing, Warrier and several of his classmates urged the school board to address air quality and maintenance problems at the school after the superintendent’s proposed capital budget for fiscal 2024 delayed funding for a renovation and addition to 2033.
“These are the times where your love for our community really, really counts,” Warrier testified. “I truly know that you do care about us. What we ask now is that you all prove it.”
Their efforts paid off, with the board voting the next week to move the Oakland Mills project to fourth on its construction priority list, with funding scheduled to begin in fiscal 2026.
The parade itself was also a testament to the executive board and parade planning committee’s students’ leadership skills, Florida said, as the SGA executive board and planning committee arranged all event logistics in about a month.
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“People often underestimate high school students and what they’re capable of,” Florida said.
Turnout to the parade and subsequent “Holiday Hangout,” which featured a book giveaway and build-your-own gingerbread houses at the school, was far higher than planners anticipated, forcing them to buy 10 emergency pizzas to help feed the crowd.
Student body vice president Erin Gunther, 16, a senior, says she was heartened to see attendees of all ages join the festivities.
“It’s important to be excited about the high school you’re going to and feel connected to the community,” she said.
Weaver agreed, and said she hopes the parade becomes an annual tradition and a celebration of the members of the Oakland Mills community.
“I don’t think that I’d wish to go to any other school,” she said. “It really is a place that is home.”