ST. BERNARD, Ohio -- Beatrice Borgert had a long list of high schools she was considering in eighth grade, and she ranked Roger Bacon High School sixth.
"But when I shadowed, right after the first bell, I knew that it was very special," she said. "It wasn't like any of the all-girl high schools that I shadowed. And I just knew that I could see myself walking the halls every day."
Three years later, she's a happy junior at the Catholic co-ed high school that is enjoying a renaissance of enrollment gains and facilities upgrades.
The turnaround didn't come with a promise to return to Roger Bacon's heyday when it was bursting with 1,200 boys in the 1970s. The turnaround hinged on getting smaller.
Principal Steve Schad and the school's board decided four years ago to cap each incoming class size at 120
students. That set off a good chain reaction:
• Perennial budget deficits were erased as the school cut staff, mostly through attrition.
• Donations were shifted from buying essentials like school supplies into upgrading facilities.
• Enrollment actually rose at the highest pace in the archdiocese among high schools.
• Applications rose 79 percent compared to five years ago. For the 2017-18 school year, 248 students applied for 120 spots, a five-year high.
"We were trying so hard to be what we were that we were missing the opportunity to be what we could be," Schad said.
With twice as many applicants as spaces, the school now has the luxury of accepting boys and girls who will thrive there, including those with mediocre grades but qualities like a good work ethic.
"We turn kids down who score 99 percent on the placement test," Schad said. "The biggest things we look at are teacher recommendations from the elementary schools. We look for kids who try hard, who have high honesty and integrity."
As a result, Roger Bacon has a 99 percent retention rate, and 96 percent of graduates move onto college even though the school isn't expressly a college preparatory institution like St. Xavier High School or St. Ursula.
Senior Aliyah Huff considered Purcell Marian High School before choosing. The basketball standout plans to continue her athletic career in college and become a business major.
"It's been great. I love the small feel, and we're all at home and everybody knows everybody's names," she said. "We always have new experiences here but still the same feel."
Senior Ben Hoffmann was accepted at Moeller and St. X before choosing Roger Bacon, drawn by its small size and the opportunity to play multiple sports that might not have been available at the larger, more competitive boys' schools.
"When I shadowed (at St. X and Moeller), I was following one of a thousand kids. When you're here, they make you feel special. You're part of the body Bacon," he said.
Hoffmann has applied to the Air Force Academy and West Point and is waiting to hear back from both.
Roger Bacon is a Catholic school run by the Franciscan Order, but its student body is 43 percent non-Catholic and 32 percent minority. The diversity doesn't stop there.
"We have kids from the most affluent neighborhoods in Cincinnati, and we have kids who may have slept in a car last night," Schad said. "But I would dare anybody to come in here and find them."
To put that creed into action, the school has kept tuition down to $8,500, one of the lowest tuitions in the region, and 80 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.
Bacon accepts vouchers and seamlessly integrates free and reduced lunches onto debit cards so that low-income students aren't singled out. Students who use vouchers pose no more or less of a discipline problem than kids from higher income families, Schad found.
"If you concentrate on getting good kids, then it doesn't matter where the funding source is coming from," he said.
To make sure that kids of all incomes enjoy a full experience at the school, students get into every sporting event, theater production and other events for free. Every student gets a free yearbook and a free school sweatshirt, and there's no charge for parking.
"We try to put our kids on an equal footing," Schad said.
More bang for the buck
With the school's debt erased and increased enrollment, Bacon has begun rolling out ambitious facilities upgrades, beginning with construction of a multipurpose theater and hall that opened in January 2016.
The facility has sentimental touches, like leaving center court exposed of the parquet basketball court that was built there in 1928. Our Lady of Angels all-girls high school, which merged into Bacon in 1984, is honored by mounting a 2,800-pound terrazzo insignia on one wall. The emblem had been mounted in the front hall of the school, and alumnae recalled that girls serving detention had to scrub it with a toothbrush.
Directly above the insignia, one chair upholstered in OLA blue is mounted among the theater's uniformly Bacon brown chairs.
It remains unoccupied for all functions in honor of the closed school.
The gym was renovated for the first time since 1984, including a high-definition jumbo screen with a camera that zooms in on students to bolster an already raucous atmosphere.
"It's all part of the renaissance," Schad said.
Dip in demand projected
The capped enrollment also anticipates a long-term trend of lower demand as fewer students apply to Catholic schools in 10 to 15 years. Should that projection turn out to be accurate, the school will be the right size to weather the lower demand, Schad said.
Tyra Jones, a sophomore from Golf Manor, said she was accepted at Summit Country Day, St. Ursula and Walnut Hills but decided to follow her sister to Roger Bacon.
"I didn't even shadow Roger Bacon because when my sister was here I just knew from experience it would work out for me," she said.
Jones is a cheerleader and enjoys being a Bacon Buddy, volunteering at elementary schools mentoring children. She was headed to a school to talk about tolerance with students on the day she chatted with WCPO.
"That's what we sell here," Schad said. "We're diverse, real life. We're co-ed and we have a small number of kids, and that's exactly where we want to keep it."