LAWRENCE -- Located in the heart of Lawrence, one of the poorest cities in America, is a small school with very big aspirations. Bellesini Academy, a tuition-free Catholic middle school for grades 5 through 8, aims to "build bridges for a brighter future," as its motto explains. So far, it has accomplished its mission.
According to Julie DiFilippo, head of school, when the school first opened its doors in the former St. Francis Lithuanian Church in 2002, the graduation rate for male Lawrence high school students was an "appalling" 29 percent.
In the 14 years since the school opened, she has seen her students break that cycle.
"Our graduation rate is 100 percent," she said with pride. "99 percent of our students go on to a private high school. 87 percent go on to college; 10 percent go on to a trade school. Not one of our students has ever dropped out of high school."
"Our aim is to break the cycle of poverty through education," she added.
Students of the school arrive at 7:30 am, where they receive breakfast. The school day continues until 3 p.m., when the school shifts its focus to extracurricular activities. Students participate in a variety of after-school clubs and activities such as theatre, science club and intramural sports. At 5 p.m., they go home for dinner. Three days a week, they are required to return at 6:30 for a two-hour evening study. On Thursdays, students who wish can stay at the school for dinner -- where community volunteers serve the students a hot meal before the evening study session.
"We know that a 12-hour day isn't for everyone," DiFilippo admitted, "but the students here are very happy. In fact, students on the honor roll aren't required to attend the evening program, but they almost always do."
When Bellesini Academy first opened its doors in 2002, it was an all-boys school. This past year, the school has begun an all-girl's school as well. It began with 18 sixth-grade girls, most of whom are siblings of former or current Bellesini students. The total school population is under 80 students: 60 boys and 18 girls. Each year another grade will be added to the girl's school until enrollment reaches 120 students -- 60 in each school.
"It's important to note that it is a separate school within the school," DiFilippo noted. "At this age, boys and girls learn very differently. Being able to teach them separately helps take away from any distractions."
Getting to attend Bellesini Academy has been "totally great" for 6th grader Berenice Lopez. After watching her brother attend the school, Lopez is happy to have the opportunity to further her studies.
"Since we have small classrooms, you get to know the teachers, and they give you all the attention you need," she said.
"Unlike public school, you also get to go on a lot more field trips," chimed in fellow 6th grader Ciara Maldonado.
Maldonado too is happy to be able to attend Bellesini Academy after watching her brother go through the school.
Currently the school is beginning a $1.5 million capital campaign to build a separate wing for the girl's school using the church's former rectory area as well as the adjoining building which Bellesini Academy purchased.
"For us, being able to offer high quality Catholic education for families in Lawrence and being able to help families break the cycle of poverty is what we strive to do, and I think we do that through the support we offer to our students and their families," DiFilippo said.