CINCINNATI – Nestled on a 22-acre wooded estate featuring a storybook Tudor mansion, St. Ursula Villa has everything a premier private academy could offer. Everything but elbow room.
Preschool classrooms, two of which are in the basement, break down their classrooms to create the lunchroom. Junior high students working on group projects spill into hallways. Music classes are held in a “temporary” trailer that’s been on site for 15 years. In short, the school’s 460 students need some space to continue to compete for students from all over the Tri-State, school officials said.
Parents who can afford to send their preschool through eighth-grade children to a top-ranked private school have more choices than ever in Greater Cincinnati, with St. Ursula Villa competing with The Seven Hills School, Summit Country Day, Mercy Montessori, charter schools and top public schools like Clifton Fairview German Language School and school systems including Wyoming and Mariemont.
For these parents, geography isn’t the top concern. St. Ursula Villa draws children from 40 zip codes and three states.
The Villa, located high above Columbia Parkway in Mount Lookout, is holding its own. Next year, the school will add a program for 2-year-olds and new sections for 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers. And still, they expect the preschool – which offers Montessori and traditional classrooms – to reach capacity and turn away latecomers.
But the Villa is not resting on its laurels in this crowded marketplace. They launched the public phase of a $3.5 million capital campaign to renovate and expand the Manor House, add classrooms to other buildings and expand programming.
The private phase that courted big donors over the last year has raised $2.4 million, allowing for the school to begin construction on an extension to the century-old Manor House, which was built as the residence of industrialist/philanthropist Richard K. Leblond and his family.
The original Manor House is a natural stone building, with thick stucco crisscrossed by dark wooden beams and topped by a slate roof, creating an atmosphere that would have fit right in as a location for the “Harry Potter” series or “Dead Poet’s Society.” It’s filled with Rookwood tile flourishes, sweeping wooden staircases and a theater featuring ornate wood carvings.
It’s also chock full of children. After the expansion, which is designed in a similar style, it will have larger air-conditioned classrooms designed for Montessori and traditional preschool classes and, for the first time, space dedicated for lunch, naps and indoor play. A balconied room now used as a classroom will be restored to its previous use as a chapel.
Construction is scheduled to be finished in time for the 2014-15 school year.
The expansion is also heralded as a victory for preservationists, who have fended off numerous calls to raze the old home to replace it with something new and customized for a school rather than to retrofit it.
"I don’t think there has ever been a year there where there hasn’t been some talk about tearing down that building and building a new one," said Paul Loechle, who was principal from 1984-2006. "It was never really ideal for classroom situations, but it's architecturally beautiful."
The Main School, which houses first through eighth grades, is a much newer, more utilitarian building. It will add a junior high wing, which will free up space for primary and middle school students.
If fundraising goes well, the Main School renovation and construction, including the junior high wing, is projected to begin in spring 2014 and be completed in August 2015.
“Every student will be impacted by the program,” Principal Polly Duplace said during a tour of the campus.
The effort has enthusiastic backing of Villa parents, including Matt Stautberg, who is a parent of two Villa students, a capital campaign volunteer and group vice president of financial planning and investor relations at Macy’s.
“This campaign will bring the facilities on par with the excellence of the curriculum,” he said.
Stautberg graduated from the Villa in 1991 and wasn’t committed to sending his children there until he looked at the school with fresh eyes when his son, Charlie, was headed to preschool.
“Immediately upon entering, there was a very strong sense of family and community,” he said. “You already knew the merit of the education based on the school’s track record.
According to Marta Runnels, director of admissions, 97.6 percent of the 2013 graduating class were accepted into their first-choice high school, garnering 39 merit scholarships totaling $763,000. About 61 percent of 2012 graduates were placed in high school honors programs, she said.
“I think the individualized education is a draw, and the overall academic experience that meets high expectations of parents,” Runnels said.
Catholic To Core, Room For Friends
Villa is an independent Catholic school with 70 percent of its enrollment being Catholic. The 70-30 mix has stayed fairly steady
for decades, school officials said. While the Catholic faith is taught to all students and religious services are part of the curriculum, the school is welcoming to all faiths and beliefs.
“It’s a family of families,” Runnels said.
Ursula Villa was founded in 1961 by Ursuline nuns who bought the Leblond estate and initially did everything from mowing lawns to roof repairs themselves. The first students were seventh- and eighth-graders who were moved to the Manor House from what is now St. Ursula Academy high school in Walnut Hills.
By 1962, the nuns had built the first school building adjacent to the Manor House on the foundations of the Leblond’s greenhouse. By 1973, they expanded to kindergarten through eighth grade.
“It was a time of growing quickly. That new building accommodated the rest of the school,” said Sister Mary Jerome Buchert, one of the founders of the school.
She was in leadership in the late 1980s when the nuns realized that their dwindling ranks couldn’t sustain the school. After years of discussions and preparations, the order transferred control of the school to a board of trustees in the early 1990s.
The transition wasn't difficult: "Our community has always had the reputation of being collaborative with our parents. We were not nun's nuns. We had good friends among the laity," Buchert said.
She praised the board for honoring the school’s tradition. “I can’t say enough for the lay boards that we have had out there since 1993,” she said. “They’ve gotten progressively better and more adept at setting policy for the school. They’ve done tremendous things at expanding and improving the three buildings that we had.”
The school continues to thrive, she said, in part, because of its relatively affordable tuition. While some elite schools in the area charge tuition approaching $20,000 annually, Villa’s tops out at $10,032 for junior high.
“Many see it as a great value. Our principal and board have worked to keep the costs in check,” said Diane Hopper, director of advancement.
Loechle remains active with the school and is happy about about the expansion.
"There’s a lot of me in that building still after 22 years as principal, and to me the campaign is kind of symbolic of what the Villa has always represented -- the combination of the administration and the parents working together," he said. "They really feel that the effort they put in the school is going to bear fruit."
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO photojournalist