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Smart enrollment growth is focus for St. John Paul II STEM Academy

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The tour of St. John Paul II STEM Academy on Friday for underclass members started with a game of rock, paper, scissors to break the ice.
(Ross A. Benson)

Continual low enrollment was the leading reason for the closure of 74-year-old Bellarmine-Jefferson High School in the summer of 2018.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced the school would close in October 2017 as Bell-Jeff posted an enrollment of 98, while about 15 students were its final graduating class.

Rebranded, refurnished and refurbished, St. John Paul II STEM Academy at Bellarmine-Jefferson opened this past August on the campus of the former Burbank institution with the hope of continuing the legacy of its predecessor, while creating its own future in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Despite $300,000 in upgrades and a change from a college preparatory curriculum to STEM courses, this year’s pilot class of just 13 students — all freshmen — marked the lowest enrollment in campus history.

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While those numbers may have raised red flags two years ago, the school’s founding director Jeff Hilger said he thinks the opposite is true now.

“We’re offering a unique small-school experience that no one else in the [San Fernando] Valley can offer,” Hilger said.

“If you want that intimate school experience among students and teachers and a staff where everyone knows your name, this is the place,” he added.

On Friday, St. John Paul II showcased that Cheers’ atmosphere during the school’s “Guard for a Day” event, named after the mascot of both Bell-Jeff and St. John Paul II.

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According to Roger Ranney, the school’s director of admissions, 80 seventh- and eighth-grade students from 17 schools throughout Los Angeles County attended.

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Teacher Bridget Higgins shows the Snapchat application used to help teach math and robotics at St. John Paul II Stem School during “Guard for a Day” on Friday.
(Ross A. Benson)

While some students hailed from St. Robert Bellarmine and Saint Finbarr schools in Burbank, there were also visitors from Santa Rosa De Lima in San Fernando, Incarnation in Glendale and St. Patrick’s in North Hollywood, along with other schools.

St. John Paul II’s 13 students, along with about 20 volunteers, staff and parents, met the participants.

St. John Paul II students, all dressed in white STEM academy shirts that were donated by the Bell-Jeff alumni association, led tours and demonstrations of the school’s curriculum and facilities in an event that was a cross between an open house and a student-shadow day.

“This was led by the high schoolers, so both the students and prospective students got to be a little freer and listen in to what each other had to say,” Ranney said.

“When you have teachers and administrators leading those talks, it’s more formal and sometimes questions about campus life and clubs don’t get asked,” he added.

Ranney spearheaded the event on Friday and was also asked about the importance of enrollment and the financial sustainability of a school with 13 students and an annual tuition of $14,950.

“The pilot class is small, yes, but there are two ways to look at it,” Ranney said. “The enrollment number is misleading because there are no upper classes, just this first [freshman] class.”

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Guest students joined current St. John Paul II STEM Academy students and worked on projects at Friday’s “Guard for a Day” event.
(Ross A. Benson)
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Ranney noted Bell-Jeff opened in 1944 with a similarly small student body of 21 and enjoyed a nice run.

He added that building a firm educational foundation is paramount.

“It’s better to start small and get this right; that’s most important,” Ranney said. “We’d rather [have] this than have 80 kids and these classes being a mess, and we’re not serving the kids.”

Hilger said that while “everyone loves a big school” it’s more important to have responsible growth, which may be in the school’s future.

“I already have more applications for next year’s class than I did at this point last year,” Hilger said.

“When people become aware of what’s going on here, they’ll send their children,” he added.

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