From the outside, the replica of Independence Hall in Burbank will not be changed. 

Yet inside the walls of Bellarmine-Jefferson High School’s campus, an extensive overhaul inside is currently underway, leading up to its reopening as St. John Paul II STEM Academy on Aug. 14 with the arrival of its inaugural freshmen class. 

The transformation includes new engineering and digital media arts labs, a learning commons area, and an updated library using a mix of old and new materials. The STEM Academy — STEM — for science, technology, engineering, and math, is the first Catholic STEM-immersion high school in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. 

“We are excited for ourselves and our son to have the opportunity to be present at the launch of this great school and their new educational STEM model,” said Vivian Sarkisian, parent of an incoming, or “rising” freshman. “We believe the educational model is at the leading edge of education and will provide relevance in the context of our world today.” 

Dr. Jeff Hilger, the founding director of the STEM Academy, jumped full-steam ahead in July 2018 after the archdiocese closed Bellarmine-Jefferson High School due to low enrollment. 

Hilger, who has a record of successfully opening charter schools and graduating students to the top quarter of colleges nationwide, began researching how to make the STEM Academy a reality by mapping out what it means to “be STEM.” 

Hilger and staff members visited more than 25 schools across the United States to observe, learn, and plan the curriculum. The staff also has attended conferences at the Buck Institute, the National Conference for Teachers of Mathematics, New Technology Network, and the Q-Computer Conference. 

Construction has begun on an engineering lab. (GLORIA RIVERA/ST. JOHN PAUL II STEM ACADEMY)

The STEM Academy, which is co-institutional, (co-ed, but girls and boys are in separate classrooms) will offer two tracks: Digital Media Arts and Engineering. The students choose their path in the 10th grade. 

Juniors and seniors will have the opportunity to take classes for college credit, too, through the University of Texas at Austin, Glendale Community College, and Los Angeles City College. The high school will offer four classes each semester with two interdisciplinary labs.

“Students can do three years of math in two years. Teachers are able to give the students more time with this format,” said Hilger. 

The STEM Academy will begin the day with an optional lab at 7:30 a.m in the morning followed by daily Mass. The actual school day will begin at 9 a.m. Another unique feature of the high school is that the students are required to build partnerships in the community by interviewing professionals in the media industry and visiting studios and businesses in Burbank. 

Students are expected to collaborate with one another and with people in the community to get projects done. 

“A lot of the learning is project-based,” said Hilger. 

According to Hilger, an example of a project students will be assigned in the fall entails building a sound-recording device: Teachers will give the students equipment, but no instructions. The budding engineers will build a prototype in co-educational groups and will be expected to build a real world prototype. 

“The students will be graded equally on the content and processes, and will receive an individual grade on how they think,” said Hilger. 

A freshly painted hallway at St. John Paul II STEM Academy. (GLORIA RIVERA/ST. JOHN PAUL II STEM ACADEMY)

An important part of the STEM Academy will be integrating science and faith and instructing students that faith and science do connect, said Hilger.  

“Catholic identity is very important to me. We absolutely do believe that faith and science go hand in hand.”

Parents of some of the first students to sign up for the STEM Academy were attracted to the school not only because of the innovative approach to academics, small size and CYO sports like track, volleyball and basketball, but also its approach to form a balanced understanding of faith and science.  

Theresa Rosette, whose son will attend the STEM Academy in the fall, chose the academy because of the spirit of its namesake, who famously said “that faith and reason are like two wings on which the spirit rises.” 

“The Catholic faith is both the steering wheel and the anchor of their boat. I would like my son to be, as Father Spitzer says, a ‘credible’ Catholic. The St. John Paul II STEM Academy will give him that foundation,” said Rosette. 

Tuition is $14,950, which includes textbooks, an Amazon Kindle, and three annual trips during their time at the school. 

The first trip will be nature-themed and will encourage classmates to bond; the second trip will be related to community service such as building a house in Mexico; and the third trip the students will go on will be a college tour to the east coast, south, and midwest. 

The founding class will visit the East Coast first, with the trip beginning in Philadelphia (in a nod to Bellarmine-Jefferson’s original founding as a military academy 75 years ago). The trip will culminate in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

And uniforms? Those will feature an updated version of red, white, and blue, carrying on the colors of Bellarmine-Jefferson’s traditional uniform. 

The original archway from Bellarmine-Jefferson is being preserved during the renovation. (GLORIA RIVERA/ST. JOHN PAUL II STEM ACADEMY)

St. John Paul II STEM Academy is located at 465 East Olive Ave., Burbank. For more information on admissions, go online to or call 818-972-1400.

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