One thing remains unchanged in 90 years at Our Lady of the Elms.
“The education of women is the same as when they started back in 1923,” said Sister Maura Bartel, an assistant principal at the all-girls Catholic school. “You know we’ve been asked several times would we go coed. It isn’t in our mission.”
As the West Akron school takes another monumental step, turning 90 years old this month, administrators say it will take much of the same to reach a centennial anniversary.
It all starts with the girls, they say.
“We were taught, and we have this saying, ‘Once an Elms girl, always an Elms girl,’ ” said Peggy Smith, a 1965 graduate and current Elms database coordinator.
Elms girls are taught to lead and learn independently. They take charge of their futures.
“That’s what I see in all the generations,” Smith said. “You see girls come in at any age, and they can be shy or it’s overwhelming. It’s a heavy workload. But by the time the end of the year comes, they are so independent. And they become at ease with themselves.”
The school of roughly 270 girls has the flexibility to offer selective courses to classes of less than 10 students. Tuition — ranging from $7,000 for preschool to $9,800 a year for high school students — accounts for 80 percent of the private school’s revenue. The other 20 percent is raised through donations.
Graduates and alumni are undoubtedly the greatest asset, officials said. They’ve almost always attended college and found success in life. They usually give back.
“You pay now or you pay later,” Ruth Friedman, chief administrative officer, said of investing in an Elms education.
“We’re giving you qualities that you can’t get anywhere else. And the qualities are women in leadership positions; we’re giving them a more than adequate college preparatory education,” she said. “It’s almost an individualized education. Nobody falls through the cracks here.”
The Sisters of St. Dominican purchased what has become the 33-acre campus from Arthur Hudson Marks, an industrialist and former B.F. Goodrich vice president, in 1923.
“Elm Court” mansion, built in 1911, was renamed Our Lady of the Elms. It became the sisters’ living quarters and remained unchanged until 1956, when a 300-seat chapel was added.
Forty sisters still live there.
Classes began the day after the purchase in 1923, with enrollment for the entire school growing from an initial 14 students to 34 over the year. In June of this year, 32 girls comprised the graduating class.
Over the years, iconic plaid skirts and blue tops have replaced blue serge dresses, the original uniform from 1927.
The task of educating students has slowly transitioned from sisters to laymen and laywomen. Few sisters still adorn the traditional habit.
But the mission remains deeply rooted in religious morals and independent learning, “guided by the Dominican ideals of prayer, study, community and preaching.”
The convent served as the Ohio Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Peace for many years. Sisters lived there, worked in the local community or were sent to other convents in Ohio and elsewhere to do the same.
“I was about 3 weeks old when the school was established in 1923,” said Sister Lin Howley, who turned 90 in September. “When I was 15 in Youngstown, I found out that I could get a good education and also start preparing to become a sister if I would go to Akron. So I went to Akron, lived at the Elms and went to school at the Elms.”
Like most sisters at the Elms, Howley took post-secondary master’s courses in theology and education from private Catholic universities.
They’re learned, religious women. Not just nuns.
“In 1932, Our Lady of the Elms was the only preparatory school in Ohio where two members of the faculty held doctoral degrees. These were women. Women didn’t hold doctoral degrees,” Smith said.
While the world around them has changed, they stand firm on their mission.
“There’s a difference in family life from when I started,” said Bartel, who has lived and taught at the Elms for 34 years. “There are certain things that have stayed the same. You have these young women who want to work hard, want to do their best. They want to learn for the sake of learning. Go to college. Make a difference in their lives. I would say that that is rather constant over the years.”
“We have had a great legacy and history in our 90 years of being adequately funded up until a point where our whole dynamics changed,” said Friedman, the school’s superintendent.
After enrollment dipped in the 1970s, the school survived on the philanthropy of alumni and the community. Then the Akron congregation voted to merge with others to form the Dominican Sisters of Peace, a national consortia operating in 39 states. That meant spreading the wealth.
Then the bottom fell out of the economy and the prospect of paying for private school became a harder sell.
“It became difficult to convince people that they should pay for something they can get for free,” Friedman said. “Do I think it’s worth it? My daughter was here for 12 years. The answer is yes.”
All 32 graduates from the Class of 2013 now attend a four-year college or university, according to school data. More than 90 percent of them earned scholarships that will average about $180,000 over the next four years.
Friedman wants to sell the success of an all-girls environment to international visitors, attracting the daughters of global executives.
A year at a prestigious college preparatory school in America could go a long way in applying for college back home, she said.
For American students, international appeal could have a positive impact.
“This is something that will enhance our culture and environment,” Friedman said of Akron girls learning alongside international students. “I would be ecstatic in five years if I could hear three of four languages going on in my halls.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.