A school transformed: Warrensville Heights aims to grow minds, spark creativity with new campus

At a Glance

New Warrensville Heights Middle School and High School

4270 Northfield Road, Warrensville Heights

  • Open House, Saturday, Sept. 2, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
  • Size: 230,000 square feet
  • Cost: $69.8 million
  • Features (High School)
  • 500+ seat auditorium
  • Extended Learning Areas
  • ESports room
  • Music and band room
  • Modern Cafeteria
  • Student-run Tiger Cafe
  • Turf football field and stadium that seats 1,500

After a tour of their new combined Warrensville Heights high school and middle school campus—punctuated by exclamations of “Ohmigod!” and “This is beautiful!”—the Warrensville Heights High School senior football players gathered in the extended learning area on the third floor with Warrensville Heights City Schools superintendent Donald J. Jolly II.

Jolly, a 1991 graduate of Warrensville Heights High and former standout athlete, led the tour of the new $69.8 million combined middle school and high school building, which will open to students on Tuesday, Sept. 5. He asked the players what they thought.

“Excited!” exclaimed senior center Jerry Johnson.

“I’m ready to learn!” shouted Robert Wesley, a senior wideout who came back to Warrensville Heights this year from a nearby private, all-boys school. 

It was mid-August, two days before the team’s first football game and three weeks before the start of a new school year.

One of the extended learning areas on each floor that resemble student union lounges on college campusesOne of the extended learning areas on each floor that resemble student union lounges on college campusesWarrensville Heights-based Infinity Construction Company began work on the new campus in October 2020, with construction on the new building beginning in early 2021. The final details were being completed earlier in August when FreshWater got a sneak peek at the new school. Tours will be given to the public this Saturday, Sept. 2 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., at 4270 Northfield Road.

There were still plenty of boxes to unpack and furniture to arrange but the promise of the new school was evident, as reflected in the players’ wide-eyed faces and jubilant reactions during the tour.

“I love it!” said Christian Shoulders, a junior linebacker. “It just gives me goosebumps, the atmosphere.”

“This is so gorgeous,” gushed Wesley after he and a teammate sang a tune to test out the sound-enhancing ceiling in the music room.

Jolly took this time of excitement and energy to impress upon the players his expectations and, more importantly, their opportunity, this year.

“We’re not going to tolerate anything but the best,” Jolly said, to which senior linebacker Deishar Caldwell responded, “We appreciate you giving us a better environment to learn. We’ve gotta do our part.”

“You can’t say you go to an old school, you’ve got everything” Jolly continued. “You have the opportunity to make history: Have the highest GPA, 3.0 or higher, and win the most games. Either you’re going to be legendary or just another group that came through. I’d want to be legendary; wouldn’t you?”

The high school outdoor patioThe high school outdoor patioA school backed by the community

The opening of the new building, a combined high school-middle school that the administration emphasizes will remain separate during school days, has been years in the making. It sits on Northfield Road on the site of the old high school, most of which was torn down. [Its original science wing, built in 2003, was kept and renovated and is now part of the middle school.]

The project started where all public school projects start—with resident approval. They overwhelmingly approved, by a 76.9% vote, an 8.8-mill bond issue, and an additional 4.5% tax increase in 2018 to raise the nearly $70 million needed to build it.

School district spokesperson Savannah Heck says the decision to build new was made because the cost of renovating the old school was “astronomical.”

A group of Warrensville Heights senior citizens who, through their property taxes, will help pay for the new school building, came for a tour with Jolly the same day the football players did.

The Auditorium in the Warrensville Heights High School new facilityThe Auditorium in the Warrensville Heights High School new facility“They are committed and dedicated to you,” Jolly told the players of the older residents. “They want to see you do your best. They invested in you.”

The investment is an impressive one. The 230,000-square-foot school building serves 550 high school students and 450 middle school students. It features 45 general education classrooms for the middle school (grades 6-8) and the high school (grades 9-12).

The only shared space is the cafeteria kitchen, which is only open to staff and sits between each school’s separate cafeteria seating areas. The high school side also has an outdoor patio.

In addition to the general classrooms, the high school has 27 specialized learning spaces that include:

  • Media center (with “Learning Stairs” on which students can gather)
  • Modular tech lab
  • Project maker’s space
  • Firefighting classroom
  • ESports room
  • Auditorium
  • Band and vocal rooms
  • Gym and locker rooms
  • Wrestling/multi-use room
  • Culinary arts lab and the student-run Tiger Cafe
There are extended learning areas on each floor that resemble student union lounges on college campuses. The areas are airy and modern, dotted with high-top tables, a couch, and a large technology board on the wall. Classrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows surround each learning area.

The high school auditorium features 518 soft seats, a state-of-the-art audio-visual room, a catwalk, a large stage, and an orchestra pit.

In October, the auditorium will be dedicated to Warrensville Heights High School alum Yvette Nicole Brown, an actress and comedian who’s starred in network sitcoms like “Community” and “The Mayor.”

The gym will be dedicated to Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers, a local basketball star who was instrumental in building support for the project, Jolly says.

The gym, auditorium, and cafeteria are near the main entrance of the high school. There’s also a concession stand and a large digital screen.

There is a community entrance down the hall, which has a community meeting room that is open to Warrensville Heights residents.

School spokeswoman Heck says one benefit of the different entrances and sectioned off-building is that they can be locked down independently if needed. “It’s really good from a school safety perspective,” she says.

Media center with “Learning Stairs” on which students can gatherMedia center with “Learning Stairs” on which students can gatherSpace to change minds

Behind the school, close to Warrensville Road, is a new turf football field, a new track, and stands that seat 1,500 fans. Baseball and softball fields will come soon. The $7.8 million sports complex was also funded through the levy.

Jolly knows every nook and cranny of the new school. He quickly shared room capacities and uses.

He spoke passionately about the intention of the new building, noting that it’s meant to evoke creativity, collaboration, and independence.

He says the building is not meant to feel like a “box” with walls and doors—and that’s the point of the open spaces, or what Heck and Jolly call “flex spaces.” These areas have no walls, and the chairs, couches, tables, and desks can be easily moved. They’re bright and inviting and available to everyone at the school.

Even the classrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that make them feel spacious and open.

“I think your environment creates your energy,” Jolly says. “We tried to create a wall-less school to create wall-less thinkers. It’s hard to think differently when you’re in a box. They have to think out-of-the-box.”

For teachers, too, Jolly hopes the openness and flexibility of the spaces invite more collaboration and innovation.

All of this is not purely altruistic. Jolly says he needs students to return home and give back to the community and district. The building is like a bright, shiny, positive advertisement for the city.

“We need people to come back and work and be positive and productive,” he says.

An upward climb

The new school illustrates the kind of improvements Jolly and others have brought to the district.

Since taking over as superintendent in 2015, Jolly has led the Warrensville Heights City School District to an academic uptick.

The district, about 11 miles east of Cleveland, was at risk of a state takeover several years ago because of its poor academic performance.

Since 2015, Warrensville Heights has moved from near-last place in the state (607th place) to the top 300 in the state, according to an analysis by cleveland.com shared by the district, and had a 93.5% graduation rate with the class of 2022, the most recently reported four-year graduation rate.

Leaving a mark

Although Jolly says the district lost students to charter and other schools over the past few years because of its poor academic performance, enrollment has improved, and new facilities have been built—the district opened a new elementary school in 2020 and a new Early Childhood Center this year.

While new school buildings alone are unlikely to attract students, Jolly thinks the promise and amenities they offer can motivate students to strive for more.  

“Leave a mark,” Jolly implored the football players on the tour. “Go be great! I’m tired of average.”