LAWRENCE — Thirteen years ago, the founders of the Bellesini Academy in Lawrence wanted to provide a place where boys from low-income families who showed academic promise could come for a Jesuit education.
Now, head of school Julie DiFilippo is working alongside a team of educators and builders to make that happen for girls in the community, too.
The school, which serves a maximum of 15 or 16 boys in each grade from grades five through eight presently, was still waiting for a space when it was founded, and classes met in academic trailers in back of the building for several years. Similarly, the new girls' school will be housed in an addition to the building that has yet to be constructed. But until then, DiFilippo feels confident the boys can move over to make room for an all-girls class in the fall.
"We felt that this time we have the ability to expand and we wanted to offer the same opportunity to young women in Lawrence because they do face very similar challenges to boys," she said.
The school began taking applications for the girls' academy Feb. 2. For the 2015-2016 school year, only sixth--grade girls will be admitted. Other middle school classes will be added over time, DiFilippo said. In order to qualify to attend the tuition-free school, students must live in Lawrence, show academic promise and be from a low-income family.
Yolanda Gonzales' son, Alejandro, graduated from Bellesini Academy and is now a junior at Austin Preparatory School in Reading. Her daughter Penelope, 10, will apply for a spot in the first girls' class, after watching her brother's positive experience at Bellesini.
"I'm excited for making history to be in ... the first class of girls that have been here," Penelope Gonzalez said.
As a mother, Yolanda Gonzales said, her children always come first. She said she feels blessed to be able to send her children to a place where they receive a quality academic education as well as religious instruction.
"He's very educated and respectful in the house and outside," Gonzales said of her son, Alejandro.
Penelope said she liked the idea of having fewer students in class with her than she does now at Spark Academy.
"When you have bigger classes and you raise your hand to talk, like for an answer, a lot of people judge," she said.
Bellesini students have a highly structured school day that is longer than the typical public school day. They are dismissed from their academic classes at 3 p.m. participate in extracurricular activities in the afternoon and return for evening study until 8:30 p.m. on certain days of the week.
In addition to more hours, DiFilippo attributes the school's success to the instructors' ability to focus on how boys learn. She anticipates hiring two new teachers for the girls' school, who will also focus in on their specific learning style.
"Girls and boys, they learn at different rates and they need different types of styles. In general, boys learn better with hands-on activities and moving around, where girls like to talk and discuss and share more," she said.
In the coming months, staff members will concentrate on raising funds to expand the school building, which is a converted church on Bradford Street.
"We have an established program with our teachers all in place, all very excited to provide this opportunity to girls in the city of Lawrence," DiFilippo said.