Just a stone’s throw from the beach in Playa del Rey, St. Bernard High School is witnessing a shifting of the sands.
It wasn’t long ago that some wondered if the school, suffering from declining enrollment and a carousel of leaders who each pulled the school in different directions, was even going to survive. It seemed like nothing was working, and the school was in jeopardy of going under.
But three years ago, two men arrived with a plan to make St. Bernard one of the best high schools in the area.
“Not, ‘one of…’ the best school in the area,” said Carter Paysinger, who was hired as the school’s Executive Director of Institutional Advancement. “We have a lot of motivation to be the best. That’s where we’re coming from.”
Paysinger knows plenty about being the best. He spent 36 years at Beverly Hills High School as a coach, teacher, department chairperson, athletic director, assistant principal and, ultimately, the first African-American principal in the school’s 80-year history.
With him at the helm, the school produced the highest test scores it had ever seen and developed a reputation as the finest public high school around. He instituted peer tutoring, created a Medical Science Academy and watched as the school’s Academic Decathlon team ranked in the top five in the country twice. There was a journalism program, robotics team and even culinary arts.
Now, Paysinger is bringing those same blueprints to St. Bernard.
Teamed with Principal Richard Billups, a Westchester native who previously served as principal of high-performing St. Paul the Apostle School in West Los Angeles, the pair is in year three of a turn-around program that is beginning to open eyes and change opinions about what St. Bernard is and what it can become.
“When you look at enhancing the campus and building programs, you have to do it with a plan,” Billups said. “You have to look at costs over time. You have to look at professional development. You have to have parent and teacher feedback. You talk to people, do lots of research, see the technology and programs that are out there and tap into that vision.”
Paysinger and Billups’ vision is starting to come in to focus.
The school, which counts among its alumni the likes of space shuttle pilot and astronaut Kevin Chilton and Gerard Robinson, Virginia’s Secretary of Education, began with academics.
A full complement of AP and honors classes were instituted beginning in ninth grade. New and better technology was brought in to enable students and teachers to access a world of new educational tools. And the school began to put a greater emphasis on the whole child, ramping up co-curricular activities and providing the kinds of unique programs that knowledge-hungry students craved.
“We need to meet the needs of all of our kids, Billups said. “And that means providing more than just mainstream programs.”
So they created a marine biology program that provides hands-on learning for students who can smell the ocean air from their classrooms. They created a Film and Television Academy taught by Emmy-Award winning writers that teach students about how to succeed in front of and behind the camera. They hired a football coach with eight city titles and two state titles to his name.
“It’s important for kids to find their passions in high school, keep them engaged and make sure they are successful after they graduate,” said Paysinger. “I had no idea we would get to where we are today as quickly as we have.”
And there is more on the horizon.
Billups said the school is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar revamping of its football and soccer fields and stadium, has installed new floors and lighting throughout the school and even added a fresh coat of paint to the exterior.
“It just shows the commitment we have from our donors and the Archdiocese to be competitive,” said Billups, who added that much more is in store.
There are plans to add programs in sports medicine and sports marketing.
“We want to show kids that there are sports opportunities not just on the court or on the field,” Paysinger said. “There are lots of careers in sports where you don’t wear a uniform.”
There are plans to enhance the school’s performing arts program.
St. Bernard has already hired Chavonne and Nisan Stewart–Chavonne is an instrumental vocalist who has recorded vocals for everyone from Jackson Browne and Al Jarreau to John Fogerty and Beyonce; and Nisan is a noted drummer, record producer and songwriter who has worked with Missy Elliott and Timbaland.
“Who we hire is important, and what they bring to the table is important,” said Paysinger, who said finding experienced professionals who can both teach and connect with students is critical.
And while providing innovative programs and outstanding teachers is important, that is only part of the blueprint at St. Bernard.
Paysinger and Billups agree that competition is stiff and finding success beyond high school is as hard as it has ever been. That is why their plan includes a significant focus on college counseling and preparing students for life after graduation.
“It’s not good enough to be just a four-point-whatever-GPA student,” Paysinger said. “You need to have substance, too, because today, you are competing with students from all over the world. That is why we have clubs, activities, internships–some kids are starting their own businesses while still in high school. We spend a lot of time talking to admissions officers about what they are looking for. We want to get a bead on kids’ passions as early as possible and help them develop those over time.”
Paysinger said college counseling is a key component of the school’s work with students and their families. Once the COVID-19 situation eases, he plans to create an annual college fair, bringing in college representatives from around the country to talk about their schools and what they are looking for in freshman students.
“That is the biggest difference between a good high school and a great high school,” he said. “We are putting in place the path and the procedures for kids to realize that college opportunity, and we’re doing it early on.”
That part of the plan is working extraordinarily well.
St. Bernard students have a 100 percent college acceptance rate and move on to some of the most highly competitive universities in the nation, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Brown, Yale, USC and more.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, with the nation struggling both economically and politically, St. Bernard is starting to gain momentum. Enrollment is up for the first time in years and students are doing bigger and better things.
“I think that’s because of the work we’ve done,” said Billups, who added that there are still a lot more items on his to-do list. “There will continue to be revisions and enhancements as we move forward.”
But for Billups, Paysinger and the entire St. Bernard team, that is the constant goal–moving forward.
For more info, visit stbernardhs.org.
Pictured: Richard Billups and Carter Paysinger pose in front of the school’s sport fields that are in the midst of a revamping to better serve students and the community.
Posted December 2020.