New $26.5 million high school set for St. Clair Superior neighborhood

In 2003, the founders of Saint Martin De Porres High School took a risk on a beloved and beleaguered Cleveland neighborhood and established their fledgling school in the old St. Vitus Elementary School, 6111 Lausche Avenue, which was built in 1912.

"We weren’t all that sure it would work," says St. Martin's president Rich Clark, adding that student employment is part of the school model. "Would area businesses hire students? We didn't want to build anything or get ourselves into anything long-term."

Part of the Cristo Rey Network, whose mission is to offer under-served urban youth a rigorous college preparatory education, St. Martin opened its doors in 2004 and forged onward. Fifteen years later, with the Great Recession still a bruising memory for the area, St. Martin boasts more than 420 students and partnerships with some 130 companies. That rousing success has resulted in some growing pains.

"We knew if we were going to grow past 375 students, we would eventually have to add on to this or buy out the lease or do something," says Clark.

That "something" has translated into a staggering project for the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. The school has purchased approximately 1.5 acres of land at the corner of Norwood Road and St. Clair Avenue on which it will build a new 65,000-square-foot building that will reflect old and new. Freed from the rigid space of narrow hallways and square classrooms in the old building, the new learning spaces will include common areas, study spaces and malleable classrooms that will accommodate 30, 60 or even 150 kids.

"Everything is usable space," Clark says. "It's very flexible." He estimates the total project cost, which is being funded by private donations, foundations and (hopefully) a federal new market tax credit, at $26.5 million.

The new entrance to the school will, ironically, be even older than the existing school. The architectural team of studioTECHNE and Fielding Nair International have incorporated the gorgeous frontage of the 1909 Kausek Brothers Building, which features two copper domes and ornate brickwork. The structure is known simply as "the coppertop building" to many of the neighbors and stakeholders.

"The neighbors are proud of it," says Clark. "It’s a cool building. We're going to keep about a third of it and incorporate that into our design."

Groundbreaking will be this June or July with a tentative opening date for the new school, which Clark aims to fill with as many as 525 students, slated for the start of the 2016/2017 school year. However, St. Martin is in the first year of a five-year lease for the existing building, allowing for some flexibility in the construction schedule.

"We're not compelled to have everything done on first day of school," says Clark. "There's a certain leeway in how this gets built." The Albert M. Higley Company is the construction manager on the project.

Perhaps most inspiring is the underlying ideology of the project. Clark notes that a Cristo Rey school should be woven in a neighborhood and "not a fortress with a moat." To that end, the school values other longtime St. Clair inhabitants such as Sterle's Country House, St. Vitus Church, Sheliga Drug/True Value the Slovenian National Home.

"We worked together with those groups," says Clark. "They use our space," he adds of the neighborhood at large. "The hope is that this will bring hope to the neighborhood -- not gentrification, but a vibrancy that has kind of died away a little bit. It's really an investment in this neighborhood. That's kind of our principle. We want to just blend in here."

Above all, the project is about area students and families, many of which are struggling, but still find a way to get their kids to school despite the challenge of working more than one job.

"We are not here because we are going to 'help these people,'" says Clark. "We've got to partner here. That's our mission: to help kids that wouldn't have an opportunity. To give them an opportunity, enable them, and let them run with it all the way to college and succeed.

"Some have already come back and are working at the school, which is fantastic.
We're hiring our alumni."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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