By Daniel J. McGraw
Rich Osborne is slowly walking through the gym of Villa Angela-St. Joseph’s High School (VASJ), a Catholic school on the east side of Cleveland. Villa Angela-St. Joseph has been around for about 25 years now, since the separately operated all-boys and all-girls schools pretty much had to combine as a coed school to save their existence. When Osborne went to school – he graduated from St. Joe’s in 1969 – the gym was the center of much of his life.For instance, he asked a Villa Angela girl named Della to dance with him at a mixer here in this gym. Rich and Della had known each other in grade school, but, since she was a year older, he was shy about asking her out. That night in the gym, he saw her standing with some of her girlfriends and got up the nerve. “A lot of stuff happened in here,” Osborne says with a laugh and a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
They slow-danced on the tile floor and later married, had four children and, now, nine grandchildren, together. Osborne doesn’t remember which band was playing that night, but it was the late 60s and it was probably the Mods or the Choir or the Raspberries or one of those famous Cleveland bands from back then that made the St. Joe’s dances the place to be when the baby boomers were coming of age.
I remember being in this gym a lot too. We played CYO basketball every Saturday morning when I was in grade school, and I remember distinctly watching Pat Lyons (he has since passed away), the all-state St. Joe’s basketball player who scored an amazing 24 points per game in 1970. We all chanted “P Ly’s Come in” before those high school games started, and he would always then drain his first shot, a warm-up jumper from 20 feet. It all happened in a daze of purple — this gym used to be called the “Purple Palace,” after the low-resolution fluorescent lights that bounced photons off the blue and red tile floor, creating a purple veil of eeriness that confused opponents and helped the home team win some games.
Arguably the greatest high school athlete Cleveland has ever produced played in the Purple Palace. Clark Kellogg went to St. Joe’s from 1975-79, grew up in East Cleveland, and then went on to star at Ohio State University and play in the NBA for five years before his knees blew out. For the past 20 years, Kellogg has been in every living room in the country during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament; he has long been one of the lead basketball analysts for CBS Sports. He told Belt Magazine for this story that his time at St. Joe’s was the “experience [that] prepared me for almost everything in my career.”
Osborne points out more memories and important experiences as we stand in that storied gym. The stage at one end of the gym is where the school put on plays and had concerts and graduations through the years. Up in the balcony, boys and girls tried to get away from the Marianist brothers and Ursuline nuns who chaperoned at the dances. And, as 2,000 boys used to go here to school, the daily gym classes were pretty packed.
But unlike so many baby boomers who are now pining for the good old days, Osborne, now married to his slow-dance partner for 44 years, is adamant that the best days for this school on Cleveland’s east side are right now and tomorrow. A former journalist and now president of Villa Angela-St. Joseph, Osborne stands firm that the school is not just in stable condition but growing.
The two schools used to have a combined 2,000-3,000 students back in the 1970s, but five years ago enrollment was down to about 265. The conventional opinion among alums of both schools was not if the school was going to close, but when. “Each fall, the school would open, and it was almost as if we were saying, ‘We’re not dead this year,’” Osborne says.
Most thought VASJ story was going to play out along the lines of the typical decline of an inner-city Midwest Catholic school script: there has been job and population loss in the city, increasing poverty in the neighborhood. Many white Catholics left for the suburbs a few generations ago, and many graduates no longer felt ties to their alma mater. Older St. Joe’s grads, most of them white, saw black kids hanging out on the corner of the school at East 185th Street and Lakeshore Boulevard after school. As a guy who graduated in the mid-80s told me, “You’d drive by, and you’d think that isn’t my school.”
When the enrollment dropped to those dangerous lows about five years ago, the alumni weren’t thrilled with ponying up money, because who wants to throw money at a school whose shelf life is getting shorter by the day? And while Cleveland cheerleaders like to point to all the quaint urban neighborhood rebirth, this part of Northeast Ohio has never really been in that trendy category. VASJ sits at the border of Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood and the City of Euclid, and on both sides of that border much of the working middle class left a long time ago. Crime and Section 8 housing moved into the void.
But in the past few months, an odd thing has happened. Last spring, VASJ graduated 38 seniors. This fall, about 130 freshmen are enrolled. VASJ is suddenly the fastest-growing private school in Ohio, with a total of 420 students. This is happening in a city that has lost about 20 percent of its population in the past few decades, and on a side of town that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
What caused the turnaround? While we walk outside the gym – over by the football practice field that abuts Lake Erie – Osborne explains the unusual marketing strategy that upped enrollment so dramatically: turning down applicants. That’s not a misprint. The school started getting more students when it started turning away more.
“We decided that if we are going to serve our students, those students and their families had to buy into what we were doing,” Osborne says. “If you do not accept what we expect, and do not appreciate what it is we are doing in terms of education, well, it is not going to be a good marriage.” About one-third of their applicants don’t make the cut.
[blocktext align=”right”]“The idea that this school or any school is place where you drop off your problems, forget it.”[/blocktext]“The idea that this school or any school is place where you drop off your problems, forget it,” he continues. “That doesn’t mean we are selective to such an extreme that a kid who may have struggled academically is not going to be able to thrive here. But we have to see the potential.”
VASJ realized they had to improve their product to keep it alive, and one way to do that was to restrict who can purchase it. Marketing geniuses often tell you that approach is dicey; marketing exclusivity is great when a business is growing (because a business can limit the product and raise the price), but real risky when a business is spiraling downward. In this case, VASJ was taking a huge risk, because if their enrollment dropped by even 50 or so more they would probably have had to close.
But the enrollment chart line is now spiking upward. Plus, the 20,000 or so alumni from both schools have noticed. Donations are up too, including a $250,000 gift to refurbish the Purple Palace, which will soon have new stands and lighting and, eventually, better restrooms and concession stands.
“This school is much better than it was when I went here,” Osborne says. “Having boys and girls together makes them learn about each other and respect each other. The school is half men and women, and half black and white. And we are proud of those numbers, because we are trying to be more like the real world than some isolated institution that doesn’t prepare its kids for how things are in the world out there.”
It is even better than “the world” when it comes to race and gender: VASJ is one of the most integrated schools in the country, and it focuses on gender equality, not just male sports prowess.
Tim Misny, St. Joseph High School graduate, class of 1973, is mostly known as that lawyer who pops up on the TV all over the country and tells viewers that if you hire him, he’ll “Make Them Pay.” He lives in a mansion he calls “Misnyland, ” on 55-acres in tony Waite Hill.
Misny was one of those alumni who wasn’t too involved in the school prior to Osborne’s appointment as president about three years ago (Osborne served as board president prior to that). “I can’t speak for the other alumni, but I get approached all the time to work on political campaigns and fundraisers, and you’re always just too busy, with work and family and kids,” Misny said. “But Osborne was infectious in how he told me that the school was going to emphasize what we have always been. That is, a school with middle-class kids who don’t come from rich families and who have to work hard to make it.”
“The kids there now are just like I was, and race doesn’t matter,” Misny says. He tells of his middle-class upbringing in Euclid, sharing the attic bedroom with his brother, and working cleaning toilets and emptying trash barrels at a local golf courses in order to pay his way through St. Joe’s. “When I go in there and walk those halls,” he says, “I see kids who were just like me. These boys and girls know that this is their ticket to a better life, and they work hard at it. It’s really great to see.”
The two schools have always had a mix of rich and middle-class though their history. Villa Angela Academy was founded in the mid-1870s, as a boarding school for girls on the eastern edge of the city (about ten miles from downtown) on property they had purchased on Lake Erie at the mouth of Euclid Creek. St. Joseph High School was opened in 1950 a few miles east (and also on the lake) of Villa Angela as the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland saw the Catholic population moving to suburbs like Euclid and into Lake County.
Because of those locations, the schools have drawn rich kids from the wealthier suburbs of Bratenahl and Shaker Heights, but also the middle-class, bungalow-living kids from Collinwood and Euclid and Eastlake. For Clark Kellogg, that mix was part of the attraction for his parents and him. His father was a police officer, his mother, a part-time hospital worker, and he grew up in a neighborhood in East Cleveland that was almost all black. In 1975, when he started at St. Joe’s, the school was almost all white.
“People think I went there for the athletics, but my father wanted us kids to broaden our horizons and experience the lives of different people and cultures in Cleveland,” Kellogg says. “It was little difficult at times for me, but that experience prepared me for almost everything in my career in playing pro basketball and broadcasting.”
“I love to see VASJ growing again, and I’ll do anything to help my school,” he says. “What is interesting to me is that when I go back to the school and talk to the kids, race doesn’t come up with them. The school is pretty much half black and half white, but to the students, they don’t even notice. In their world, it is irrelevant. And I really think that is where VASJ is on the forefront of many things right now and maybe part of the reason more students are going there.”
Joanne Gross is an Ursuline nun, a lawyer, a former policy advisor for Cuyahoga County Council, and is currently president of the Catholic Community Connection, a division of Cleveland Catholic Charities which oversees education, health care, human services and senior living ministries. She grew up in the St. Jerome’s parish just west of Villa Angela, and graduated from the all-girls school in 1973.
Gross admits that it’s taken a long time for grads of both schools to accept the merger, “sort of like an arranged marriage.” But she said a big part of the acceptance is the fact that the school has “worked hard to make the VA women a big part of the basis for the new school’s history.”
“If you walk down the hallways [of VASJ], you see all the pictures of athletes and the sports trophies – and that is great – but I have always loved the fact that they also honor all the men and women who achieved things outside of sports,” Gross says. ”I see great women being honored and I also see the girls there now being very confident with who they are and where they fit in at the school.”
“I agree with Rich [Osborne] that things are better now than when I went to high school,” she says. “One of the things I am seeing at VASJ is the fact that gender equality is not really even thought about by the students. The girls and boys don’t think it is important, because the equality exists. That’s a huge change.”
And a bigger change is the perceived difference in the quality of the education at the school now. “I think five years or more ago, the thinking was we had a school that needed to be maintained and a staff to pay and we needed to fill the seats to pay for those costs,” says Don Dailey, class of ‘70, a retired managing partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers and an adjunct faculty member at John Carroll University.
“There had been a decline in the quality of education and we had discipline issues,” he continues. “We had lots families who were no longer convinced they could get a quality education at VASJ and they felt it was a place they didn’t feel comfortable with. So we made changes. We are not a playground or baby-sitting service. Once we established those changes, parents and their kids started seeing that we agreed on what our purpose is. It brought the people back.”
Dailey and his wife, Mary Jo, have thought so much of the changes at VASJ that they wrote a check for $250,000, half of it gift, half of it loan. In August, the school honored the Daileys during a ceremony highlighting the new look for the six-decade old gym. As part of the ceremony, Bishop Robert W. Gries blessed the gym with holy water, sprinkling some on the backboards and rims, presumably to ensure that the Purple Palace home court advantage was preserved.
In a recent interview with Reason.com, author and journalist P.J. O’Rourke commented on the innocence of youth: “Children have not too much sense of futurity and no sense of history.” I would add an addendum that children do, however, usually have a better sense of the now than their adult counterparts do.
I came away with that feeling after several group interviews with VASJ students. I talked to athletes and band members, those interested in philosophy and culinary trends, girls and boys, black kids and white, some with braces and some without. And my experience could be summed up thusly: the things I thought they would be interested in they were not, and the things I thought they could care less about they did.
I asked about race. My interviews happened soon after the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and I was wondering if racial tensions ever came into play at school. They looked at me like I was some old guy who they should pat on the head and smile at. “I guess maybe you notice race in the first couple of weeks when you are a freshman,” Alison Sukys, a senior white girl and student council president says with a laugh. “But why would you notice it after that?”
And while many think that high-school students find comfort in being with like-minded kids, these students didn’t. Cliques seem to have gone the way of Myspace. Vaughn Johnson, an African-American senior who lives in Euclid near where Misny grew up, says most of his friends from grade school are at public high schools and at schools with predominantly African-American enrollment: “I want to be in a school that has all types of kids,” he says. “I like how my friends are white and black and come from the inner city and the suburbs and are girls and boys.”
“That’s how the real world is, isn’t it?” Johnson asks.
Chelsea Kline, an African-American female senior, went to Montessori schools before she entered ninth grade, and chose to go to VASJ instead of the local Montessori high school because it was “more traditional and not as exclusive as Montessori is.” Taylor Sawicki, a white senior girl from Mentor, wanted to “be somewhere different, and not in the boring suburbs where everything is the same.”
But Vincent Mauceri, a white sophomore from Mentor, said I sounded a bit like his “fake people” friends from grade school who wondered what it would be like going to school with inner-city black kids. “Don’t be surprised by the black kids doing this or that, they told me,” Mauceri says, with a big smile. “I find that funny now. They don’t even know black kids, and they have some idea about what they are like. But I don’t even notice any more. These are just my friends at school.”
And all of them surprised me by saying that religion and spirituality were very important to them, even though about half of the school is not Catholic. “There is a sense of community that comes from being here, and a part of that is that we think about God and religion and stuff,” Kline says. “My friends at Cleveland Heights High School don’t have that sense of unity. A lot of that unity comes from a lot being expected of us.”
It was interesting that the students all said that part of the reason they came to VASJ was because of the 50-50 black/white ratio. That type of balanced mix is quite rare these days, in both private and public schools. According to the Ohio Department of Education, only seven of the 611 school districts in the state have an African-American population that is between 40 and 60 percent. Two of those are in the Cleveland area: Shaker Heights and Garfield Heights.
I found out later that some of the students had become a bit worried after I had interviewed them, because I had asked them if the possibility of VASJ closing had influenced them when they made the decision on what high school to attend. The students pretty much shrugged their shoulders and said that they hadn’t thought about that, but later they asked around about whether VASJ was at risk of closing down.
“I heard from some of the teachers that the kids you interviewed had come up to them and were asking if the school was closing,” Osborne told me later. “They were worried that their brothers and sisters and other family members might not be able to come here.”
They obviously hadn’t seen a T-shirt that was making the rounds among VASJ alums a few years ago: “VASJ: 20 years and Still Closing.”
Ohio spends about $130 million a year on private school vouchers, with about $25 million coming to Cleveland, and there is a no doubt that VASJ students and the school benefit from the plan. High school students who come from families that have income that is less than 200 percent of the poverty level can get a $5,000 voucher for each high school student in the family per year. The program is extremely complicated, with many exceptions, but suffice to say, if one comes from a family in the City of Cleveland and attends a private school located within the City of Cleveland, the voucher is easier to get.
And with VASJ tuition at $8,450, cutting that down to $3,450 with a shot at additional financial aid from the school makes private school affordable in some respects. Osborne wouldn’t go into the specifics of how many students come in with the $5,000 voucher, but did say that 85 percent get some financial aid. “But everyone pays something,” he says, noting that a financial investment from the family makes for a more engaged student and buying into the sense of community.
While at the recent VASJ-Euclid football game (won by Euclid, 23-13), I was sitting next to a man named Brian, whose son is in this year’s big VASJ freshman class. Brian (who didn’t want his last name used) works in marketing at a local company, and barely qualifies under the 200 percent for a family of six poverty level ($64,000 annual earnings). He moved to Cleveland from the suburbs to more easily qualify.
“We did move to Cleveland for a number of reasons,” he says. “One was to make it easier for transportation to school, and the other was for the voucher, because we have three more kids coming through and we would like them all to go to VASJ. So first was we wanted to send our son to a good school, but we also wanted to make it affordable.”
And in the world of marketing, VASJ had narrowed its consumer base. While other Catholic high schools in the area, including St. Ignatius, Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin or Lake Catholic, like to brag that their students come from an eight-county area, VASJ has concentrated its recruiting efforts on the east side of Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs in the eastern part of Cuyahoga County.
“We have students from all over,” Osborne says, “but we do concentrate on students close to our school as our main market. First, there is a need in this part of the city that we see as part of our mission. But we also know that students in the inner city want good choices for school, and we know that we can be successful in providing that education.”
If you look at the costs, VASJ comes in on the low end in the Cleveland-area private school marketplace. St Ignatius and St. Edward are both around $14,000 per year, while Gilmour Academy and University School are in the $25-30,000 range. Only Cleveland Central Catholic in Slavic Village ($7,790) is lower than VASJ ($8,450).
“I’m real proud and happy that my alma mater didn’t move out of the city,” Clark Kellogg says. “But I think one of the reasons we are doing so well now is that we have a renewed sense of identity, and that identity has always been a part of the east side of Cleveland. Part of it is the leadership changing some of the ways we approached our role in the community, and some of it was just getting used to changes over time.”
“But we have more than 20,000 alumni from the two combined schools, and what we are seeing is that when that many people get engaged in a cause, a lot of great things can happen.”
Great things have not happened at other Catholic high schools in the Midwest. In 2012, St. Scholastica Academy, a girls school that had occupied the same building in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood (similar in many ways to Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood) since 1906, was closed, to the dismay of many on Chicago’s north side. In Detroit, Holy Redeemer High School closed in 2005 after being in operation for 123 years. Detroit’s East Catholic High School (formerly St. Anthony’s), also met the wrecking ball recently.
In the Cleveland area, the coed St. Peter Chanel High School in Bedford closed last year, and all-girls Regina High School in South Euclid closed in 2010.
U. S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s, when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the nation. But over time, the enrollment has dropped and the Midwest – with its strong numbers of Catholic immigrants – has taken the biggest hit nationally.
According to the National Catholic Education Association and Georgetown University, there were about 1 million students in Catholic high schools in 1970, and about 582,000 today. But since 2003, almost one-third of the nation’s number of secondary and elementary Catholic schools that have closed (376) have been in the Midwest. About one-fourth of the decline of students nationally in all Catholic schools have been from the Midwest.
This has all happened while the number of people who call themselves Catholic has risen in the United States from 50 million in 1970 to 75 million today.
Osborne, 63, is aware of those trends, as it is in his nature to be so. He worked in journalism since his first job as a copy clerk at The Cincinnati Inquirer in 1971 until taking over as VASJ president three years ago. Over the years he served as managing editor at Cleveland Magazine, and editor of the The (Lorain) Journal and Industry Week magazine. A two-term past president of the Press Club of Cleveland, he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame in 2007.
So what caused a guy with ink in his veins to give it up in the twilight of his career to walk in the hallways with teenagers and beg people for money? Or perhaps a better question is: why would a high school that was nearer to death than many would admit hire a journalist to run things?
“I was asking those questions myself when I decided to apply for the job,” he says. He had been appointed as president of the school’s board of directors in 2009, and in 2011, the VASJ president stepped down. Osborne took stock of his life, asked his high school sweetheart for advice, and decided to apply for the job.
“It wasn’t that I was dissatisfied with my work, but there were days when you come into work and you don’t look forward to it,” he says. “But I gave it a lot of thought, and decided that this might be my last chance in life to make a difference. And it’s funny, because every day I am excited going to work. Because every day I see those kids, and unlike what everyone thinks, kids don’t change. They are exciting and they are wide-eyed and I learn something from them every day.”
And he found that his skills as a journalist can be applied in his new career. As a reporter, he says, he had to assess things quickly and get people to trust him and talk to him instantly. And as a publisher, he had to sell the idea to advertisers that there would be a future benefit for them to advertise that might not be plainly obvious at the time.
[blocktext align=”left”]“I used to be like them. We all used to be like them.”[/blocktext] It was clear he really enjoys his new job when I went to the football game against Euclid High School with him a few weeks ago and sat next to him for a quarter. He pointed out two young girls sitting about ten rows in front of us; they had paint on their faces and were standing and cheering enthusiastically. “I saw them at freshman orientation two weeks ago, and they were real quiet and shy like all freshman are. Now look at them. They look like they have been here forever.”
“I used to be like them,” Osborne says with a big smile. “We all used to be like them.”
Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
Cover photo by: Daniel J. McGraw
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