COLORBLIND AND RISING: WHAT’S BEHIND THE SURPRISING SUCCESS OF CLEVELAND’S VILLA ANGELA-ST. JOSEPH HIGH SCHOOL?
- September 23, 2014
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.
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 185thStreet 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.
“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, I’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.