Boys thrive with structured work and play

A faith-based study program works with boys in middle school to prepare them for demanding high schools and college.

It's a sticky day as teenage soccer players crisscross the campus of Merrimack College, just outside Lawrence, Mass. But for the boys of Bellesini Academy, which meet here in the summer, sports will have to wait. First there's a whole morning of algebra, social studies, and language arts to plow through. This isn't camp – it's the 11th month of their school year.

Yes, a few pens are tapping impatiently in the classrooms. But there are also eagerly raised arms, thoughtful questions, and expressive voices as they practice for a performance of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Before coming to Bellesini, "when I had homework, I could just pick it up with one pinky, but now the homework is harder and heavier," says Kevin Rosario, who's about to start sixth grade.

Based in a converted church in Lawrence, the tuition-free Catholic school has 60 boys enrolled in grades 5 through 8. It offers a 12-hour day that includes supervised evening study, sports, and clubs. The extended day, the summer program at Merrimack, and classes no bigger than 15 help explain why students' standardized test scores in language arts and math have improved an average of two grade levels each year.

Community members partnered with Merrimack to start the school in 2002 in response to low achievement and high dropout rates in Lawrence. By working with boys in middle school, they hope to prepare them for demanding high schools and college.

Bellesini's students are all eligible for free or reduced-price lunches; 96 percent come from homes where English is not the primary language; and nearly 70 percent have just one parent at home. Executive director Julie DiFilippo interviews applicants to ensure they have one other thing in common – a deep desire to learn. They often start off well below grade level, but the first two sets of graduates have gone on to private high schools with more than $2 million in scholarships.

Parents "get worried about all the negative influences around them, and this school shields and protects their children," Ms. DiFilippo says. "In helping their sons become more educated ... it's given them the encouragement to improve their lives."

The American Council on Education notes that although men of color increased their share of bachelor's degrees from 5 percent in the 1970s to 9 percent in 2003-04, they are still significantly behind whites and women of color.

More than 60 schools around the US use this "Nativity" faith-based model for low-income students. (Some of them are for girls or co-ed groups.)

Nine out of 10 students go on to graduate high school on time, and more than 75 percent attend two- or four-year colleges, according to the NativityMiguel Network of Schools in Washington. School staff stay in touch with alumni and plan to track them through college.

Alexy Santos has a thin frame that belies his firm handshake. On the brink of seventh grade, he's already comfortable thinking ahead to high school and college, especially after experiencing life on a college campus in summer school. He likes "the vibe" at Merrimack, he says. "It's very heartwarming, because ... [when I go to college] I know I'll be able to fit in with everyone else."

Alexy speaks mostly Spanish at home, but his favorite class is language arts, also known as English. "I learn new words every day, and it makes me feel better when I can use them in a sentence ... and people actually look at me as if I was smarter."

His classmate Anthony Lopez raves about all the play equipment they have access to through a partnership with the YMCA, but he's also got his mind on higher education. "Nobody in my family went to college, so I think that's one of my biggest goals.... My mom always tells me that she has to work hard in a low-paid job because she couldn't go to college."

Marcus Soule, coordinator of the summer program, left an engineering job to become a science teacher at Bellesini. He grew up in a poor, rural part of Maine, and a teacher who saw he wasn't fully applying himself asked him to tutor a student with disabilities. Seeing that student progress "changed my life, honestly," he says. "It instilled in me a great belief that education is the grand liberator."

Some students are used to hiding in crowded classrooms before they come to Bellesini. But soon, Mr. Soule says, they realize "that we're really at bat for them and they can explore themselves academically.... And they're excited, which means that any behavior problems they might have had are now gone."

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