LAWRENCE — Dozens of Lawrence middle-school boys are studying and working their way out of poverty at Bellesini Academy.
Starting this September, girls will have the same opportunity at the 94 Bradford St. school. The boys and girls will be in separate classes, Head of School Julie DiFilippo said.
“Studies show they do better in single-gender environments,” she said. “Boys and girls learn differently.”
Bellesini students are in school 12 hours a day and have an abbreviated summer vacation. Considering that a conventional school day is six hours – and many young people think that’s too long – the longer hours in the classroom don’t sound like much fun.
Yet graduates of Bellesini Academy say the extra effort pays off. Jhoneidy Javier, 18, just graduated from St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers. He will enter Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he will major in English or history, in September.
Javier’s academic average at the Prep was about 4.0, he said, and he earned a full scholarship to Haverford.
Javier graduated from Bellesini in 2011. Asked what he gained from the school’s intense academic regimen, he said, “The biggest thing was a passion for not only learning but working.”
Javier attended Parthum School before enrolling in fifth grade at Bellesini. The transition to a much more demanding curriculum was not easy.
“it was so tough the first year,” he said. “Intensely difficult.” He made the adjustment, however, and like many Bellesini graduates, he went on to St. John’s Prep.
Julian Delgado is among the 12 boys who graduated from Bellesini on Friday afternoon at St. Mary of the Assumption Church. He’ll be following in Javier’s footsteps by attending St. John’s Prep this fall.
Five of his classmates are joining him, he pointed out. Actually, he refers to them as brothers.
“I don’t have friends (at Bellesini Academy), I have brothers,” he said.
Like Javier, getting used to those 12-hour school days was a challenge for Delgado, who attended school in Woburn before entering Bellesini. His mother, he explained, moved the family several times because she wanted to obtain better educational opportunities for her children outside Lawrence.
They ended up finding what they needed in Lawrence, he noted.
During his first year of the demanding academic grind, there were times when Delgado asked, “Mom, are you sure?” He persevered, however, and he’s glad he did.
“It’s worth it,” he said of a daily schedule that starts with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., followed by a school assembly and prayer, then classes until 3 p.m. – with breaks for lunch and recess.
After-school activities – sports, music, art, clubs – are offered from 3 to 5.
Back to school at night
Students go home for dinner, then they come back to the school for the evening study session, from 6:30 to 8:30, where tutors are available.
All of the 60 students at Bellesini are from lower-income families. That’s a requirement for admission. Students must be from families that are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, DiFilippo said.
The average income for Bellesini’s families, she said, is $24,780 per year. Annual tuition at this independent Catholic school is $12,000.
So how do these families foot that bill?
The answer is: generosity.
Bellesini’s budget is about $1 million per year, DiFilippo said. About half of that comes from foundations, with the rest provided by individual donors and corporations. The budget pays the salaries of DiFilippo, five full-time teachers and five after-school staffers, she said.
Bellesini Academy is named for Blessed Stephen Bellesini, OSA, an Augustinian priest who fed, clothed and taught poor children in Trent, Italy, in the early 19th century. DiFilippo explained that the academy is named for an Augustinian priest because of the school’s strong connection with Merrimack College, which was founded and is run by the Order of St. Augustine.
This school, located at what used to be St. Francis Church, the city’s Lithuanian parish for many years, is the product of a vision, DiFilippo pointed out. Several years ago, Dr. David McGrath, an Andover veterinarian, read about Nativity Preparatory School in Boston, which educates students from poor inner city families.
“He (McGrath) fell in love with the model,” she said. “He wanted to change lives.” One thing led to another. McGrath shared his vision with others, contributed to the cause and persuaded others to do so.
Bellesini Academy was established in 2001 and admitted its first students the following year. The first class graduated in 2005.
The school is still relatively young, but its alumni are starting to make an impact. Euris Gonzalez graduated from Merrimack College and works as a civil engineer. He is a member of the Lawrence Zoning Board of Appeals.
Jesus Colon, who earned a computer science degree at Merrimack, works in the information technology department at St. John’s Prep and also provides IT help to his middle school alma mater.
Javier said he aspires to be a high school teacher. He wants to help other young people break the cycle of poverty through education, he said.
“I hope to go to MIT. It’s my dream school,” Delgado said. He hopes to become an architect or an environmental engineer.