Remaking Purcell Marian High School

Principal Andy Farfsing embraces the challenges of remaking his alma mater in the face of changing Catholic education trends and COVID-19 uncertainty.

First impressions can be critical. That’s especially true in the case of Purcell Marian, the venerable Catholic high school in East Walnut Hills. Walk into the main entrance on Hackberry Street, and the first thing you see is an information desk with a live human being who smiles, asking how she can help. The floors aren’t just clean; they gleam. The Rookwood tiles on the walls, also well-scrubbed, suggest that the period architecture, in vogue when the school was built almost 100 years ago, links a proud past to an optimistic present.

Photograph courtesy of Purcell Marian High School

Not so many years ago, the students cruising through these spacious halls would have been all white and, until 1980, all boys. Today they’re co-ed and 68 percent African American, reflecting in part the changing demographics of urban education—and neighborhood transition—throughout Cincinnati. But keep looking. They walk, seemingly, with purpose. On the wall above the information desk is a video screen flashing alternating messages concerning upcoming school events, news, and personnel. This is a place where everyone—students, faculty, administration—is expected to be involved and contributing.

On the building’s north walls, inset where lockers once stood, is a series of Maasai shields in red, black, and white, the handsome if unlikely products of Purcell Marian’s creative arts program. The teacher, Joey Versoza, says all four grades (9–12) made the shields after researching their signs, symbols, and color codes. “The arts are important for the students in terms of creating and recognizing their identity as they change and grow,” says Versoza. “It gives them an outlet to explore. I think it’s crucial.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic upended school schedules, the past few months have become a crucial time for Purcell Marian to explore as well. Andy Farfsing, soon to begin his fourth school year as principal, tells me in mid-April that he and his staff are focused as much on the students’ social and emotional needs as their academic requirements. “There is no replacement for friends, hallways, lunchtimes together, and face-to-face with teachers,” he says. “Still, we are taking all we can learn from it, and we will use it in the fall.”

Speaking again in June, Farfsing is determined to bring back face-to-face learning in the new school year. Like the rest of us, though, he’s trying to adjust, adapt, and remain flexible as an uncertain future unfolds.

Purcell Marian is a proud school with a proud provenance. Mid-century movie star Tyrone Power was a graduate, and there’s a story that at one point he offered to buy the houses across Hackberry Street and build the school a football stadium—but because he’d been divorced, Cincinnati’s Catholic Archdiocese turned him down. The story is likely apocryphal, but Purcell people like it anyway. It’s part of the lore of The Castle, as the main school building is known. Signs urging support for The Castle and the Cavaliers, their mascot, act as silent cheerleaders throughout the year.

Photograph courtesy of Purcell Marian High School

Purcell High School was founded on the site in 1928 as an all-boys school, while all-girls Marian High School was located down Madison Road in O’Bryonville. They merged for the 1981–82 academic year in East Walnut Hills; the old Marian campus now houses Springer School and Center. In the late 1990s, a handsome new wing added a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a modern library, plus conference rooms and more, reflecting alumni faith in the school’s ongoing potential.

Like any enduring institution, Purcell Marian has evolved, either willingly or kicking and screaming. In an era of rising private school tuition—currently $10,500 annually—more than 80 percent of students receive some kind of scholarship. At a time when personal, familial, social, and societal stresses can shatter any student’s well-being, they and their families have access to four professionals from Beech Acres Parenting Center: two counselor therapists, a family coordinator, and a parent liaison. And The Castle serves all comers, from those with learning disabilities to advanced aptitudes.

Roughly 25 percent of students come from East Walnut Hills and Evanston, and Farfsing says there’s a strong contingent from Pleasant Ridge, Oakley, and Madisonville. The resurgent Walnut Hills neighborhood, he says, embraces Purcell Marian as a point of pride—a much-appreciated player in the ecology of the St. Francis de Sales district and a steady partner on the East Walnut Hills Community Council.

Upstairs, on the walls of the building’s west side, is another distinct set of visuals: flags representing the countries of origin of Purcell Marian’s diverse student body, their parents, and the staff. Like the Maasai shields, they’re as striking as they are unexpected, serving to not only enliven a potentially dreary stretch of hallway but to trumpet the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) accreditation. “I felt we needed a meaningful academic program,” says Farfsing (pronounced FAR-sing). “I wanted us to be part of a network that shared ideas looking at learning from a global lens. But more than that, we can use IB principles to educate everyone, regardless of ability. They will work for the kid who’s struggling; he or she will just go at a different pace. They won’t have IB on their diploma, but they’ll learn. They will benefit by what the honor student is doing, and the honor student will learn equally—maybe more—from them.”

The requirements for a school to attain IB status are rigorous. But for Purcell Marian, it may be particularly notable. Just four years ago, the school’s sustained existence was very much in doubt.

When Farfsing, then the principal of another Catholic school, DePaul Cristo Rey, was recruited to East Walnut Hills, Purcell Marian was arguably moribund. Enrollment was declining. Alumni support was crumbling. A number of parents were unhappy. An expense-saving “blended learning” program of computerized instruction, introduced at some cost and considerable energy, wasn’t working. The grounds and physical plant were in serious disrepair. The school had deep debt and disaffected vendors; no bus company would do business with it anymore.

Coming off a series of what one faculty member describes as “revolving door principals,” the once-proud institution was also devoid of mission focus. Was it to be for college prep, or a school to bolster pupils with learning disabilities? When the board of trustees recognized the magnitude of the problems during the 2016–’17 school year, they embraced an alumnus, Farfsing, class of 1995, to turn things around.

Short and goateed with a Mr. Clean dome, Farfsing exudes energy, intensity, and charisma that come quickly to the fore when he talks about education. “I was given the freedom to rebuild a Catholic school from scratch,” he says. “I loved Christo Rey, and I thought I would retire there. But I was approached in the spring of 2017 and told my alma mater was dying. They told me, If it can be fixed, you’re the guy. I let it sit on my heart for a month. Finally, I said to my wife, You’ll think I’m crazy, but I want to do this. She said, It’s about time.”

Photo illustration by Matt Herring; photograph courtesy Purcell Marian High School; illustrations by Getty Images

A principal for 10 years, Farfsing had also been a social studies teacher and director of student activities at La Salle High School. When he looked at Purcell Marian, he knew what had to be done. He told the Archdiocese his plan, and two months after the first contact, he was at work on Hackberry Street. “I spent the first semester on the phone, asking various people what had gone wrong,” he says. “My shortest conversation was 44 minutes. The school had had a series of leaders who made decisions for the wrong reasons. The blended learning lab was just one example. It had been brought in to reduce staff and cost, but there were 80 kids doing math with one teacher.”

Farfsing says computers had replaced a number of the teachers at the school—a big mistake. “Computers are a piece of the picture, but they can’t be the whole picture,” he says. “The number one variable that determines a kid’s success in the classroom is the teacher, the person who can engage students in meaningful learning and lessons. Kids will ask, Why do I have to know this? The teacher has to be able to answer. A group of Purcell Marian parents sounded the alarm to me. When I came in, 30 freshmen were transferring to other schools.”

The context in which Purcell Marian and other Cincinnati Catholic schools operate today has certainly changed in recent decades. A federation of high schools and “feeder” elementary schools serves under the Archdiocese’s oversight, with various forms of ownership and governance. Schools like Purcell Marian and La Salle are owned outright by the Archdiocese, while others are owned by various religious orders. All charge tuition, and all have reputations for varying levels of academic challenge. Should a school’s board of trustees want or need a new principal, it conducts a search and then makes a recommendation to the Archdiocese, which generally complies. Other Catholic high schools—notably St. Xavier, Summit, St. Ursula, and Ursuline—are independently owned, but have some accountability to the Archdiocese as well. They generally charge higher tuition and traditionally are thought to have higher academic standards. Not ev­eryone agrees, of course; teachers at Purcell Marian, for instance, would rank their best students with those anywhere.

Throughout much of the 20th century, each of the diocesan high schools served well-defined areas of the community, fed by elementary schools in their geographic districts. By the 1970s and ’80s, however, that pattern began to break apart. Lots of Catholic families moved to the suburbs, with the schools they left behind suffering inevitable—and often dramatic—enrollment declines. In its heyday, circa 1960, Purcell High School enrolled as many as 1,000 boys. The number was markedly less by 1980, but after adding the Marian girls enrollment jumped back up to about 800. Purcell Marian today has 335 students, with Farfsing citing an increase as a major priority.

At the same time, many of the nuns and brothers who had taught at Catholic high schools without compensation left their religious orders or died; the lay teachers who replaced them required salaries. In 2005–’06, the Archdiocese did away with districting, meaning that any student could go to any high school he or she chose—if the one nearby didn’t seem a good fit, it would be simple enough to move. Competition for bodies rose, and so did costs.

Purcell Marian was caught in the vise. George Strietmann, a 1972 alumnus who served on the board of trustees for 10 years, recalls, “When I was there, we had a strong football team, wrestling excelled, discipline was a big thing, and the education was very traditional. Maybe 75 percent of graduates went to college. The other 25 percent went to work at General Motors in Norwood.”

The population shifts, loss of “free” faculty, skyrocketing tuition costs, and lack of a strong alumni fund-raising effort all contributed to deterioration that, Strietmann says, made for “an incredibly challenging situation” at Purcell Marian. The “blended learning” initiative was rolled out over three years as a potential fix, affecting first math, then English and history, and requiring reoriented classrooms, new computers and software, and teacher training. It wouldn’t be cheap, but generous alumni stepped forward to underwrite the equipment.

It never worked, says Strietmann, because there were too many students in the room and not enough teachers, or teacher time, to go around. Before long, he recalls, “the blended learning program contributed to a negative reputation, and enrollment was dropping.” By early 2017, the board, which served largely in an advisory capacity and had been somewhat insulated from day-to-day operations, recognized that the school’s finances were seriously imperiled. Its best, and perhaps last, option was to replace the principal.

The first thing Andy Farfsing did was begin weeding the Purcell Marian faculty, hiring the kinds of people he wanted and encouraging others who wouldn’t be comfortable in the environment he envisioned to leave. Since his arrival, the faculty turnover has been about 70 percent. “I’m good at identifying young teaching talent,” says Farfsing. “I ask them to be their best every day. I ask them to be willing to reinvent themselves and to adhere to certain values, like being internationally minded. Education degrees are important, but I’m interested in people who understand what it means to be a mentor and a life coach.”

One early recruit was Bob Herring, a longtime acquaintance who, for 31 years, had been principal of Nativity Elementary School in Pleasant Ridge. After retiring in 2015 and hearing of Farfsing’s new post, he offered to help out as an unpaid teaching coach.

From the time he’d interviewed to become principal, Farfsing had proposed to both the board and the Archdiocese that Purcell Marian become an International Baccalaureate school. “I wanted something that would be bold, that would put us in a network of other high-minded educators,” he says. “Yes, we could have simply instituted Advanced Placement studies, but I didn’t want to do what other schools were already doing well. I wanted something that could be uniquely ours, and through which we could share resources, ideas, and even teachers.” He asked Herring to run it.

The IB curriculum grew out of a concept first introduced in the mid-1960s in Geneva, Switzerland, to offer challenging academics in a variety of subjects. Before graduating, students are required to give evidence of a well-considered “theory of knowledge” in oral and written presentations, do an extended essay of some 4,000 words on a topic requiring serious investigative research, and design a creative activity service project with an eye to making a societal difference in some way. IB professionals outside of Cincinnati evaluate student achievement in each of the areas.

IB programs can be found in nearly 5,300 schools worldwide, including 1,800 in the U.S., and qualifying for them is difficult. It demands training of the school’s principal and participating teachers, as well as a screening process by an outside verification team. Farfsing wanted every teacher to be IB-qualified, meaning that all would have to be trained. Herring, he knew, would be good at shepherding the school through the rigors. He also knew that Herring had a lengthy history of overseeing exchange programs with students in Ukraine and Ecuador, so his “international outlook” was proven.

Herring agreed to become the IB director, with nominal pay, and Purcell Marian’s IB program launched last fall. By February, 34 students were taking 77 classes in IB math, English, social studies, chemistry, Spanish, and the visual arts. “It’s experiential, problem-based learning in a local and global context, with emphasis on teamwork and collaboration,” says Herring. “The key is it provides the opportunity. If you want it, it’s here. We’re creating opportunities that to my mind are critical in a global era.”

Before the state closed down schools due to the pandemic, Farfsing and Herring used the IB network to find a COVID-19 protocol at a school in Taiwan and tweaked it for local purposes. They decided that classroom instruction would continue by computer—luckily, students already had their own school-issued laptops. Not every class met every day—“it was too much,” Farfsing says. Instead, each class met once a week for two and a half hours at a time.

Farfsing has made changes everywhere at Purcell Marian. He brought in a chief operating officer, Micki Spencer, whose first priority was to assure strong customer service in all its forms: teachers to staff, parents to teachers, administrators to parents. The welcoming front desk person reflects her aspiration. “We needed to build trust back for everyone who walks into the building,” Spencer says simply. Now with eyes on admissions, the business office, counseling, and athletics, she says, “I thought I knew what I was getting into, but it was bigger than I imagined.”

Farfsing hired a new chief financial officer, Jenny Jostworth, to eliminate bad debt, create a “rainy day fund,” and put the school in better standing with its vendors. He named Chris Wilke director of career initiatives to focus on preparing students for one of three post-graduate endeavors: college, employment, or the military. He hired Emma O’Connor to create a Spanish outreach program, Asistencia Latina, for the 8 percent of school families who don’t speak English as their primary language.

D.J. Dowdy, a University of Cincinnati graduate and football player, is the new athletic director, tasked with arresting what Farfsing perceived as a decline in sports success. Purcell Marian has long been strong in basketball, but less consistent with football. Farfsing withdrew the school from the Greater Catholic League to become part of the Miami Valley Conference, creating a more equitable level of competition, and eliminated physical education as a requirement. Instead, students play a school sport for two seasons. To the existing options of football, basketball, baseball, cross-country, bowling, and cheerleading, Farfsing and Dowdy reinstated girls’ soccer, which had been canceled years ago; 17 players signed up for the spring season. They also brought back the marching band.

English teacher Barret Bell says she was drawn to the school three years ago because of the student body diversity and Farfsing’s embrace of new approaches. “It’s a genuine coming together with a grand sense of possibility,” says Bell. “It isn’t a foregone conclusion that these students will go to college, and we don’t have the kind of ‘diversity’ you find in schools that, in truth, are segregated within their own walls. It is truly diverse. I don’t think there’s another school in this region like it.”

Sister Janet Linz, a 20-year veteran of The Castle, connects students of limited resources to the tools they need to be successful, as co-director of the Lavatus Powell program. “I’m passionate about working with kids,” she says. “I want to know how I can be part of their graduation, their lives, giving them the skills to move forward. The kids have kept me here.” The revived Purcell Marian hosts students of varying ethnic backgrounds, varying abilities, varying psychological profiles, and varying aspirations. Fewer than 50 percent are Catholic, but all take religion class in each of their four years. They hear a prayer once daily, either on the intercom or led by a teacher in the classroom, and they attend mass once a month. “We all share something in common when we look at a higher power,” says Linz. “But we express it differently.”

With the new school year set to launch this month, Farfsing has developed a three-pronged approach to reopening The Castle. Plan A calls for a return of the full student body with social distancing, including one-way traffic flows in the hallways and no use of the school cafeteria. Plan B will go into effect if tighter protocols are required, man­dating a 50 percent reduction in class sizes—meaning that half the students would attend one day and half the next. On the alternate days, when they remain at home, students would take class online. Farfsing says Plan C will be implemented only if COVID-19 resurfaces in a big way, which would mean a return to 100 percent remote learning.

As someone who likes to be bold while controlling as many variables as possible, Farfsing acknowledges that he needs to rely on faith and hope while plotting out students’ return to The Castle. He sees it as another opportunity to make a first impression.

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