Faith in the value of a Catholic education backed by science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, principles, plus months of planning and building, resulted in the rebirth of a shuttered neighborhood education institution on Tuesday morning.
School and community leaders gathered to celebrate the opening of St. John Paul II STEM Academy on the former campus of Bellarmine-Jefferson High School, located at 465 E. Olive Ave., Burbank.
Auxiliary Bishop Alex Aclan led a pre-opening mass at adjacent St. Robert Bellarmine Church before an on-campus ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Burbank mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy, Vice Mayor Sharon Springer and Councilman Jess Talamantes joined with representatives for county supervisor Kathryn Barger, state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), state Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) and the Burbank Chamber of Commerce to present certificates of recognition.
“It’s awesome and fulfilling to get to this moment, and we’re just grateful for the support,” said Jeff Hilger, St. John Paul’s founding director and a former charter-school advocate.
Bell-Jeff closed last year after 74 years because of low attendance last summer, as its 2017-18 school year enrollment dipped to 98 students.
St. John Paul II opens with a smaller freshmen-only group of eight boys and five girls, despite estimates of 60 students last summer. The school did, however, attract students from Burbank, Glendale and surrounding areas.
“We’re starting small, but I’m excited,” Hilger said. “It allows us to do it right. It allows us to really focus.”
He added, “We have the support from the archdiocese to have that growth curve, and we expect to grow quickly and adequately.”
The name St. John Paul II was suggested by Archbishop Jose Gomez in honor of the recently canonized pontiff, who visited Los Angeles in 1987 and was perhaps most famous for his efforts combating Communism.
However, the school’s co-institutional approach is perhaps what makes St. John Paul II most unique.
The high school will split up STEM classes between genders, an idea championed by Bridget Higgins, dean of academic excellence, who believes single-sex education is particularly beneficial in the sciences.
Former Archdiocese of Los Angeles Supt. Kevin Baxter, who was in charge when the decision to close Bell-Jeff was made, said he was pleased with the remodeled school.
“We’re really excited about this and just so hopeful,” he said. “You know it’s a little seed we’re planting, but through a lot of hard work of nurturing and growing that seed, we hope it will bloom into a really successful high school.”
Student Caden Baur, 13, said he was excited to see changes happening at the school.
“It feels good to be here because we’ve been seeing progress of the school being built,” said Baur, a Tujunga resident.
Baur’s mother, Lilly, said the small class size has made getting to know other families very easy.
“The staff here is amazing,” she said. “It feels like family already, and we haven’t even started.”
Northridge resident Vivian Khorozyan was also excited to enroll her son Hovanes at the school and expressed feeling a similar family atmosphere.
“I’ve seen [Bell-Jeff] alumni here who are 89 years old and they’re still gathering here and coming together,” she said. “They’re so involved and now my son will have that chance.”
Los Angeles resident Thelma Coradl said she gets to continue a legacy set by her brother, Garrett, who attended Bell-Jeff before its closing.
“I’m really excited and happy to be here,” she said. “Bell-Jeff has been a part of my family and now St. John Paul II STEM Academy will.”