North

Making the grade in Lawrence

Jose Munoz (left) and William Lam, eight-graders at Bellesini Academy in Lawrence, prepared their science project for a test run.
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Jose Munoz (left) and William Lam, eight-graders at Bellesini Academy in Lawrence, prepared their science project for a test run.

LAWRENCE — Smartly dressed in his Bellesini Academy blue fleece vest, shirt, and tie, William Lam is excited that he will be wearing new school colors when he enrolls at Phillips Academy Andover in September.

“I’m going to live there,” said Lam, 14, an eighth-grader from Lawrence and son of Vietnamese immigrants, who will be attending Phillips on a full scholarship. “But I’ll be going home on the weekend, and I’m going to call my parents every day.”

At Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School, senior Emilio Joubert is elated to be heading to Georgetown University on a full scholarship in the fall.

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“It’s a great opportunity,” said Joubert, 17, of Haverhill, dressed in a white button-downed shirt with NDCR stitched in blue on his collar. “I never would have been able to go there if I didn’t come to this school.”

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Amid the excitement of high school and college acceptances, Bellesini and Notre Dame both are preparing to begin a new era of growth and opportunity.

Bellesini, a tuition-free middle school for boys that opened in 2002, will start a girls school in September.

“Truly, truly after all these years, this is an exciting thing to roll out,” said John Schutz, chairman of the Bellesini board of trustees.

Notre Dame, a coed school for low-income students that opened in 2004, is conducting a feasibility study with an eye toward increasing enrollment from the current 274 students to 350.

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“We need to expand,” said Sister Maryalyce Gilfeather, president of Notre Dame. “But it all depends on people believing in us and helping us financially.”

The two schools are modeled after Nativity and Cristo Rey (Christ the King) schools founded by Jesuit priests decades ago in major cities, including Boston, that employ financing models that make private education available to lower-income children.

Nathalie Ventura (left) and Jazmin Flete, juniors at Notre Dame Cristo Rey, at work in Burlington.
Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe
Nathalie Ventura (left) and Jazmin Flete, juniors at Notre Dame Cristo Rey, at work in Burlington.

Lawrence, with a population of about 77,000, is one of the state’s poorest cities. Its poverty rate in 2013 was 29.2 percent, compared with 11.4 percent statewide, according to the most recent US Census data.

“Nativity schools believe that through education, we can eliminate the cycle of poverty,” said Julie DiFilippo, head of school at Bellesini, which accepts only children from Lawrence. “Our goal is to graduate kids at, or above, grade level.”

“A Cristo Rey school is for the poor,” Gilfeather said. “We have only one goal for our students, and that’s to become college-graduated leaders.”

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Nativity and Cristo Rey schools rely almost entirely on private donations and corporate support to run the schools.

‘It’s not a charity. We work with a company to fill their [workforce] needs.’

“We raise 100 percent of our budget,” DiFilippo said of Bellesini. “That’s the only way we can offer a tuition-free school.”

Bellesini raises nearly $1 million per year from contributions by individuals and charitable foundations, most of which have ties to the Merrimack Valley.

“It’s the best return on an investment,” said Don Bulens, a major donor who lives in Andover. “They are high-quality young men who are committed to their education.”

Notre Dame students work five days per month at a private company to earn 60 percent of their $12,000 tuition. Families are charged $2,900, but most receive financial aid covered by a mix of grants and donations.

“It’s not a charity,” said Sister Mary Murphy, the school’s founding president. “We work with a company to fill their [workforce] needs.”

The financing models have helped the schools, which are located just three blocks apart, to thrive amid the run-down homes and broken sidewalks of the north Lawrence neighborhood.

Sister Mary Murphy, the founding president of Notre Dame school, holds the door for students.
Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe
Sister Mary Murphy, the founding president of Notre Dame school, holds the door for students.

Bellesini, which is in an old Catholic church on Bradford Street, has launched a $1.3 million campaign to build a separate building for the girls’ school. School leaders will probably cast their fund-raising net beyond the Merrimack Valley, Schutz said.

“We want to reach a broader geographic audience,” said Schutz, who lives in North Andover and is the retired president of Cabot Stain in Newburyport. “We want to be able to give the opportunity for a good education to more kids in Lawrence.”

Bellesini now has 60 boys in grades 5 through 8. The 12-hour school day is a mix of class time, after-school programs, and tutoring and homework sessions. Classes are held for 10 months, and students spend another month during the summer attending a special enrichment program at St. John’s Prep in Danvers.

Bellesini aims to send all of its students to a private high school on full scholarship. Along with Phillips Academy, eighth graders next year will attend Central Catholic High School and Notre Dame in Lawrence, Austin Prep in Reading, and St. John’s Prep.

“Bellesini challenged me,” said Jose Munoz, 14, who will attend Austin Prep. “I got the highest education I could handle. That has helped me go to high school.”

Bellesini’s computer room will be turned into a classroom for 15 sixth-grade girls in September. A fifth, seventh, and eighth grade for girls will be added gradually. By then, the school hopes, it will have a separate building for the girls’ school.

“This will be a separate school for girls,” DiFilippo said. “We think single-sex education works well, particularly for this age group.”

Notre Dame aims to provide more opportunity for high school students in a city where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have been working with the poor since 1850.

But Notre Dame, located in the former St. Mary parish high school on Haverhill Street, must attract more business support to grow.

“We are totally dependent on people outside, believing in us, as much as we believe in our kids,” Gilfeather said.

Corporate work study generates $1.5 million per year, nearly half of the school’s $3.3 million annual budget, Gilfeather said.

Currently, 74 companies, including law firms, tech companies, and hospitals, employ Notre Dame students, who attend a two-week training course in August before starting their jobs.

Notre Dame’s school day runs from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Additional academic support is provided during study halls by volunteers from the community. As part of their work study, students earn credit for working one day per week at a business.

School vans deliver them from school to work and back again. Some students travel up to 90 minutes each way.

“It’s a lot to balance, going to work and school,” said Jazmin Flete, 17, a junior who works in the legal department at Nuance Communications in Burlington. “ But, the great thing is, we’re being prepared for college and life afterward.”

Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School

Students work one day per week at a private business to earn $7,000, or 60 percent of their tuition.

www.ndcrhs.org

FOUNDED:

In 2004, for low-income boys and girls from greater Lawrence.

ENROLLMENT: 274

ADMISSION REQUIREMENTS:

Open to students whose families qualify for free or reduced lunch.

TUITION: $12,000

FINANCING MODEL:

Students work one day per week at a business to earn money toward tuition. Family contribution is set at $2,900, but about $2,100 per student is paid by donations.

EDUCATIONAL GOAL:

100 percent acceptance to a four-year college, with enough scholarships and aid to attend.

EXPANSION PLAN:

Increase to 350 students.

OF NOTE:

“It’s a lot to balance, going to work and school. But, the great thing is, we’re being prepared for college and life afterward.”

— Jazmin Flete, 17, junior class president, who works at Nuance Communications in Burlington

Bellesini Academy

The middle school is funded by donations and grants from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

www.bellesiniacademy.org

FOUNDED:
In 2002, a tuition-free middle school for boys in grades 5-8 from low-income families.

ENROLLMENT:
60

ADMISSION REQUIREMENTS:
Must live in Lawrence, and families must qualify for free or reduced lunch.

FINANCING MODEL:
Donations and grants from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

EDUCATIONAL GOAL:
Place students on full scholarships at private high schools.

EXPANSION PLANS:
Opening a school for girls in September with a class of 15.

OF NOTE: “Here, there are 60 kids. So even if you’re kind of quiet, you still stand out. I’ve learned to be more open.”

— William Lam, 14, who will attend Phillips Academy in September on a full scholarship

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe-@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.