School-House Blues

Lutheran East is hanging by a thread -- one its principal seems bound to break.

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The flag sags and grass grows long at Lutheran East High School. Dandelions dot the football field. Weeds sprout from the cracks in a running track overgrown with moss. The bleachers look bound to collapse under the weight of 40 spectators -- if 40 people actually were to witness a game here.

It's just past 2 p.m. on a Monday in mid-May, but there are no signs of students on campus. No teacher's voice disturbs the silence of the dim halls.

A phone rings in the outer office of Principal Clarence Griffin. An athletic director from another school is calling to see whether a scheduled track meet will in fact happen. Lutheran East's team consists of four boys, each with his own leg on a relay team, the only event they compete in -- hardly worth traveling all the way from Ashtabula.

Griffin tells the secretary to say that of course the meet is on. His team is looking forward to the challenge.

Then he's informed that a reporter has arrived to see him. Griffin can be heard sighing into his phone before he orders the secretary to get the reporter's number. "I'm sorry," she says sweetly, oblivious to the fact that Griffin's voice can be heard from the waiting room. "Mr. Griffin wants very much to speak with you, and he wouldn't have scheduled an appointment if he knew you were going to be here. Is there a phone number where he can reach you?"

Griffin never calls. Nor does he return repeated follow-up calls. Apparently he's too busy trying to rescue what must be the most troubled private school in Northeast Ohio. It may be an exercise in futility.

Located about a mile from the East Cleveland border, the school is hard put to find students who can pay the $5,800 annual tuition -- or Lutherans who can afford big donations. And without money, it's even more difficult to create a gleaming campus and an array of classes and athletic programs.

Then again, these problems are not new to Lutheran East. Griffin is. Completing his first year as principal, he inherited a predicament that left no margin for error -- and he's made some big ones.

Lutheran East didn't feel desolate to Almarita Hailes and her daughter Edeisha. They were impressed by the small classrooms -- with 10 students to every teacher -- and the affection that seems to grow out of such intimacy. "I like this school because they're like family," Hailes remembers her daughter saying.

Edeisha had attended a public middle school the year before. She brought home harrowing tales; once, classmates cornered her in a bathroom and threatened to cut her hair. Not trusting the school to police its own students, Hailes, a single mother, worked overtime to pay Edeisha's way to Lutheran East.

The individual attention from teachers invigorated Edeisha. She made new friends, played basketball, and improved her grades. For Mom, the progress was worth the bill.

But Edeisha has a tendency to challenge her teachers. After Griffin overheard a disagreement she had with the science teacher, he wrote to Hailes recommending that Edeisha transfer.

"His reasoning was that she's immature -- but she's only 14," says Hailes. "She's not an adult. If she does something that's wrong, you tell her it's wrong. You don't tell her not to come back."

Students like Edeisha represent a difficult balancing act. On one hand, many private schools believe that a disruptive student is not worth the tuition. Schools like Saint Ignatius, with a student body of more than 1,000 and a deep pool of donors, can afford to do this.

Lutheran East cannot. Enrollment this past year totaled 89 students, whose combined tuition isn't enough to cover even spartan expenses. Lutheran congregations on the East Side are small and shrinking, words that would also describe income levels in the surrounding neighborhood. Against this backdrop, the search for donors and students is a search for miracles.

So when Almarita Hailes sends a tuition check, the fruit of hours of overtime, it would seem unwise to send it back. There is also the logic, as Hailes points out, that a Christian school ought to be more ready to forgive a mistake, especially a child's. "Christians aren't supposed to hold grudges," says Hailes. "You're supposed to pray to get rid of that grudge."

Hailes was flattered that the science teacher called to discuss Edeisha's behavior. It resolved all tension -- except on Griffin's end. She is bracing herself for a letter announcing Edeisha's expulsion, which Hailes is prepared to fight. Her hope is that Griffin will drop the matter and allow Edeisha to return in the fall.

Keeping a child enrolled at a school so desperate for students is harder than it would seem.

Each year, nearly every graduating Lutheran East senior departs for a four-year university. Diana Roth, the secretary who has to reassure dubious athletic directors and fib for her principal, blushes with joy at the arrival of a student who graduated last year, finished his first year of college, and is now spending his summer working at a law firm. She hugs him and peppers him with questions like a doting aunt.

These personal touches represent Lutheran East at its best.

So did Mac Stephens, a football coach with the broad shoulders and bullish bearing of a former Big Ten linebacker -- which he was, at the University of Minnesota, before a brief tour of the NFL. During occasional speaking engagements at Lutheran East, Stephens stressed his Academic All-American credentials above his athletic glory. Above all else, he gave praise to God. It was exactly what Lutheran East wanted in a coach. He was hired for the job last July.

The previous year's team was ravaged by graduation and transfers. Armed with a list of student phone numbers, Stephens embarked on a telemarketing campaign. Even the few who had played the year before were skeptical. "The first thing they would say was 'How many players do you have so far?' I had to tell them, 'Right now, I have three kids. You'd be number four.'"

Of the roughly 45 boys enrolled in the school, Stephens persuaded nearly half to join. Darryl Buckley, who Stephens knew from their days as gridiron stars in Akron, signed on as an assistant coach and brought his nephew, Courtney Brown, a running back already being recruited by Big Ten schools.

Still, of the 21 players he recruited, half had never played organized football.

Stephens convinced an alum to purchase socks, and shoes were recycled from the previous year. The shoulder pads were 10 years old and smelled it. There were no decals on helmets. On those rare occasions when the team scored, there was no band to play the fight song. Though a few parents and cheerleaders dotted the sidelines, it was up to Stephens and Buckley to inspire the shorthanded team to play through the fatigue.

"The opposing coaches just couldn't believe that we finished the game," Stephens says with evident pride. "They couldn't believe our kids played as hard as they could." But the Falcons still lost every game -- by an average of 48 points.

Survival alone was heroic, and in this way the team was a fitting representation of the school. The Plain Dealer wrote a sprawling article honoring Stephens's dedication to his underdog team. Published last October, it was a rare bit of positive publicity for a school so often cited as an example of the savage educational inequities between the inner city and the suburbs.

With that, Lutheran East suddenly found itself with a new recruiting tool.

Brandon Mills was a sophomore playing at Shaw High in East Cleveland. He wanted to study in a Christian environment and was so impressed by Stephens that he transferred to Lutheran East and began working out with the team.

"I love Coach Stephens," says Mills. "He had the inspiration of the players. He tells you about college, about camps, what you need to do to get better."

Several more players contacted Stephens and Buckley about enrolling. With a little momentum, Stephens believed he could develop a solid program, then a powerhouse. He envisioned his twin sons, now nine, suiting up for the Falcons.

If Stephens was the school's feel-good story, however, Principal Griffin wasn't feeling it. He too had been a candidate for the football coaching job, and Griffin had his own ideas for the team. As the season progressed, he began coaching from the sidelines, then demanding that Stephens call particular plays.

And while Griffin could see that Stephens was a dynamic recruiter, he cautioned the coach against beckoning the wrong kind.

"We don't want to attract at-risk kids to this school," Stephens recalls Griffin saying. "We want kids who are involved in extracurricular activities, who are 3.0 or 4.0 students in middle school right now."

"It's not that I just want to work with at-risk youth," Stephens responded. "I just feel that, especially in a Christian school, you should never give up on a kid. If anything, you should reach out to that kid."

At the time, their differences were merely philosophical. It wasn't until an episode occurred with Courtney Brown that it became emotional.

Coach Buckley and his wife had guardianship over Brown, his nephew and an all-conference tailback. In early February, Brown was involved in a shouting match with a girl -- Buckley says she did all the shouting.

Griffin told Buckley and his wife that Brown would be expelled. Buckley says that, as an employee of the school, he wanted to stay out of the argument. But as his wife questioned Griffin's decision, Griffin looked to Buckley for support. Buckley took his wife's side. He didn't think the expulsion was fair.

The day after that meeting, athletic director Roger McClinton informed Stephens that Buckley would not be invited back as assistant coach.

Stephens went to Griffin's office to demand an explanation. Griffin's first remark, says Stephens, was that Buckley was guilty of using improper language -- swearing in the locker room during halftime months before. Second, he mentioned how Buckley had taken Brown's side the day before. When Griffin refused to budge, Stephens threatened to resign. He sought out members of the school's operating board to plead for Buckley's reinstatement. But he couldn't win them over. In mid-March, Stephens resigned.

"It was tough, because I had to explain to kids, 'I'm not resigning because I'm quitting on you guys,'" he says. "'I'm resigning on principle.'"

David Harasym had always wanted to teach, but it took 28 years in marketing -- and his second corporate downsizing -- before serendipity guided him to Lutheran East, where Harasym began teaching four years ago.

In a school with so few students, there are also few teachers. The faculty this year consisted of nine full-timers and three part-timers. For the school to offer any range of courses, those teachers must be qualified in more than one subject. Harasym was a dynamo in this respect, teaching advanced-placement English, British literature, American history, psychology, and journalism.

Harasym also sought to resuscitate a moribund girls' softball program. His quest for a victory was every bit as quixotic as Stephens's. He recruited each year, until his roster peaked this past season at 15 players. Even so, most of his team had never played the sport.

"In the history of Lutheran East softball, the girls haven't won a game," says Harasym. "I felt that this year's team would rise to the occasion." The closest they came was a 13-8 loss.

Hired by the previous principal, Harasym tried hard to win his way into Griffin's good graces. It didn't work. On April 30, Harasym was told he was no longer welcome at Lutheran East. "I basically didn't fit the politics of the school," says Harasym, who wouldn't elaborate on what those politics were, other than to say, "Griffin and I have different views on athletics and academics."

John Barcza was a science and math teacher who also volunteered to operate the yardage chains at football games and man the clock at basketball games. Griffin nudged him into early retirement, say school sources.

Jamie Garrison, an art teacher who helped with the basketball and football teams, was the third casualty among faculty, reducing what had been a veteran roster to one staffed with relative rookies.

Lutheran East won't explain the dismissals.

The school has also seen turnover across its athletic programs. Troy McQueen had been the girls' basketball coach for two years, and the team was growing up around his all-conference stepdaughter, Brittany Smith. But after a parent complained about her daughters' playing time, Griffin dismissed McQueen. Seeking more from her classes, Smith transferred. McQueen's daughter, Skyler, was expelled in the same incident that got Courtney Brown kicked out of school.

"This is not a Christian environment," says McQueen. "They do things very underhanded."

A student who played for McQueen says that he was a demanding coach, whose emphasis on running during practice irked some players. She says that Griffin listened to these players and didn't seek the input of those who supported McQueen.

The girls' volleyball coach, whose daughters were both students and players, was also dismissed.

Even custodian Les Terrell was fired. He would open up the gym at 6 a.m., mop puddles on the court from the leaky roof, and then invite middle schoolers to play basketball. "I'd tell the kid and the parents that this was a good school," says Terrell. "I brought five kids [to enroll at the school], and I was bringing in eight more."

But Terrell clashed with Griffin over a November fund-raiser. Griffin wanted Terrell to volunteer to cook the chicken dinner. Terrell had plans with his family. Two days after the fund-raiser, he was fired. "It's a shame how he's doing people out there," Terrell says.

Board members prefer to discuss the rosy prospects of incoming staff, not the unpleasantness surrounding departures. But the newcomers haven't inspired confidence. Take Roger McClinton, a close friend of Griffin's, who became the boys' basketball coach and athletic director. He had a talented team that compiled a 14-5 record. But it was all wiped away by McClinton's failure to file paperwork on players who had transferred to the school. The team was stripped of its victories and grounded for the playoffs.

If Lutheran East's small classes and teams engender intimacy, change can also give rise to the feeling of a broken family -- and all the resentment that comes with it. "The biggest fucking problem at Lutheran East," rages one student, "is Clarence Griffin."

Tall and graceful, dressed in black satin vestments, Griffin cuts a regal figure at the graduation ceremony. With his shoulders back and chin high, he exhibits an austere demeanor not seen in the other school officials on stage and especially not in the students, who are increasingly restless as the ceremony drags on.

"This being my first year at Lutheran East," says Griffin at one point, "there were many adjustments I had to make."

That's an understatement. Prior to his appointment, he had been a business and math teacher, first at Patrick Henry Middle School and then at John Hay High, where he also spent a year as football coach before the school closed for renovation.

Rick Labus, chairman of Lutheran East's board, says that Griffin was one of just three candidates who responded to the job posting and met the basic qualifications. That Griffin is a practicing Lutheran and a native Clevelander gave him the edge over the others.

With his extensive public-school background, Griffin may have triggered an initial culture shock upon his arrival. He struck some students as distant.

"He doesn't have nothing to do with us," says a sophomore, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't talk to us. It's a small school. You're supposed to talk to us. We have full-blown conversations with the other teachers. He just looks at us and says, 'Hi.'"

A football team that had anointed Mac Stephens as their leader felt threatened by Griffin's efforts to coach them. "He had his own ideas of what he wanted done -- that was the big problem," says one player.

"Principal Griffin, he treated Coach Mac like a sack of garbage," says Brandon Mills, a sophomore who is transferring back to Shaw because of Stephens's departure. He calls Griffin a "backstabbing hyena."

"Problems exist at Lutheran East," declares a poster on the sidewalk across the street from the school. Standing next to the sign, waving at passing cars, is Alan Ryan, who used to serve on East's fund-raising committee. He knows Stephens through his grandson, whom Stephens coaches in a youth league. Ryan resigned after Stephens did and began a routine of protests, Fridays at the school and Sundays at the Lutheran church Griffin attends. His pamphlets quote Bible verses alongside a list of Griffin's failings, the suggestion being that under this principal, Lutheran East has strayed from Jesus.

The people who hired Griffin say that they've been pleased with his performance. "The faculty, the students, and the parents that I know think he has done a very credible job," says Labus. Griffin's critics, he adds, "are a very tiny minority."

Dr. Tom Ahlersmeyer, former head of the Lutheran High School Association, approved the hiring of Griffin, whom he calls "a very fine Christian man." Ahlersmeyer is now the president of Concordia University-Ann Arbor and was unaware of the many departures since Griffin's arrival. Whatever the reasons, says Ahlersmeyer, "I'm sure he operates from Christian motives."

"I think he really believes he's doing the right thing," adds Stephens, who works as the head of youth programs in Euclid. "But I believe it's mismanagement."

Sometimes, what looks like mismanagement is actually a weeding out.

Rev. Walther Marcis of Saint John Lutheran Church has been a long-time East supporter, serving on the board and even teaching psychology courses. His four daughters graduated from the school and all now teach at Lutheran schools. Asked about the upheaval, Marcis says, "Sometimes you grow by subtraction.

"We're not just going to take warm bodies to get tuition. If we do that, we might as well close."

The reverend represents a moderate view, simply because he still believes that East is "viable." Another group across town seems frustrated by the school's stubborn survival.

"East has a charm," sighs Ahlersmeyer. "The kids who are there, the parents who send them there, they value it."

This is the problem. As former head of the Lutheran High School Association, which oversees East and the better-funded Lutheran West in Rocky River, Ahlersmeyer says that emotional connections got in the way of what he says should be a pragmatic, "dispassionate" decision to shutter the school.

East is urban. West is suburban. East is black. West is white. East is poor. West is -- by comparison -- rich. "It's a situation that is tailor-made for organizational conflict," Ahlersmeyer admits. "Geography, race, children. All these buttons."

That Pandora's box sprang open in 2000, the moment the association asked delegates from Lutheran churches to consider closing East and busing students to West.

Ahlersmeyer, who led the charge, became a lightning rod for East Side Lutherans who saw the school as sacred. "I had people say I was abandoning the community," he says. "People thought I was racist. All kinds of things."

Four years later, those charges still rile him. "Ironically, if that had been a little community of German farmboys, that school would have closed long ago," he snaps. "It's precisely because of the church's desire to have input in traditionally underrepresented populations in the Lutheran church that we have strung along with that facility."

To a church whose base is so characteristically German, the thought of duplicating services and doubling costs across two schools was wasteful, repugnant. Better to take that money and use it to pay for buses that go from the East Side to Rocky River. Then there would be enough money left for more scholarships, more teachers, and greater course selection, which had grown increasingly narrow at East.

Ahlersmeyer says that the word "busing" ignited fury in some East Siders, though he noted that the biggest Catholic schools -- Saint Ignatius, Saint Edward -- bus students.

"Why can't they do that for a Lutheran high school?" he asks. "And if they wouldn't, do we owe these folks a high school in their backyard that is potentially going to bankrupt the association?"

But the high school association is senatorial in design, with each congregation having the same number of votes. Ahlersmeyer's lobby was trounced, largely by delegates from the East.

Today, Ahlersmeyer admits that East's mission vacillated too much between survival and the quest for excellence. "It could have been an elitist academy, or it could have been a vocational school," he says. "But it couldn't be both."

Since the debate over closing, there has been an uneasy peace between the Lutheran church's two Cleveland hemispheres.

For the East Side churches, there's an almost universal unwillingness to address the subject. Many of the debate's loudest voices -- such as Rev. Dennis Mims of Saint James Lutheran in East Cleveland -- did not return phone calls for this story.

Those from the West Side speak in hollow tones. Dr. David Buegler, Ahlersmeyer's replacement as executive director, chirps that East and West are "one big happy family."

In 2000, when the possibility of closing East was bandied about, enrollment stood at 200. Four years later, it's less than half that. Some, like Ahlersmeyer, say that it was due to the departure of Mims, who served as the school's athletic director and assistant principal in addition to fulfilling his pastoral duties at Saint James. Mims was also an energetic recruiter and catalyst for fund-raising drives.

Others, like Rick Labus, chairman of the Lutheran East board, blame the collapse of enrollment on all the negative publicity and East-versus-West enmity.

While the funding drives launched by East are about survival, those at West are about expansion, like the $7.2 million addition that opened last fall.

Arriving in September for an annual game that almost seems sadistic, the East football team marveled at West's stadium, surrounded by landscaped grounds and shiny facilities. The weight room looked like a health club's -- especially compared to East's, which consists of two benches and a rickety squat rack.

"We said, 'Wow, look what they got. Look what we got,'" says one player, who fears reprisal from Griffin if his name is used. "But it's Lutheran West, in a better community, surrounding better alumni. They have people filling their schools, and if Lutheran East could get people like that, we'd be a great school, too."

As for the game: East was drubbed, 54-6.

All 17 seniors at the June 5 commencement ceremony are headed to college, with Cleveland State the most popular choice. They seemed confident, poised, though a bit nervous before a school auditorium three-quarters full.

Jack Williams, the commencement speaker who graduated from East in the early '70s, remembers accepting his diploma with about 85 fellow graduates. Next year, it will be tough to have that many students in the entire school.

The administration's goal is to enroll 50 freshmen for the next year. Only 19 have applied so far.

Dropping enrollment has slowly eroded the school's course selection. The curriculum offers few electives, concentrating almost exclusively on the basic courses required for acceptance into four-year colleges.

And while the school's college placements remain above 90 percent, at least some at Lutheran East believe that's a misleading stat.

"That's what they pump up -- 94 percent graduate and go to college," says one sophomore. "But most of those people aren't in college now. They're not preparing us for college. I feel like I'm really not learning the things I need for college, except for religion."

Lorain Catholic High School, which closed its doors in May, had more than twice as many students. Speculation about Lorain Catholic's closure hampered enrollments there. Lutheran East has remained open, despite the same constant speculation. But in the face of scant academic offerings and athletic programs in flux, idealism has given way to realism. "We're walking a fine line," says Labus. "Between life and death."

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