By Steve Novotney
On the inside, the hallway walls remain green, and the doors are still thick, the windows continue to glow, many lockers are decorated in celebration of athletic achievements, and the student body wears a lot of maroon.
From the outside, Wheeling Central Catholic High School appears the same as it did when John Corbett attended. The facility rests at 75 14th Street in East Wheeling within the borders of the Wheeling-based campus of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
But that’s where most of the similarities cease. Today, the library is a lab; one classroom has been transformed into a chapel; all students receive a Google Chrome Notebook on their first day as Maroon Knights, and they take the tablets with them once they graduate; the lunch room is now a “Great Hall;” the next-door grade school is the Chancery – minus the gymnasium; coded-card keys are necessary to navigate secured areas; and now there are a lock and a buzzer on the front door.
And more changes are coming in the near future.
The student population also is different today from when the majority of the school’s alumni graduated during the school’s 150 years. This year, Wheeling Central welcomes 253 students (an increase from 246 during the 2013-2014 academic year), and athletically the school currently competes on the Single-A level in West Virginia, and on the Class-AA division in the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference.
And no longer do the Maroon Knights line up against the Patriots of Wheeling Park High in any sport. Wheeling Central officials would like to see the rivalry resume, but the decision-makers for the larger public school maintain that point systems and postseason expectations provide only a few reasons to compete against the cross-town opponent.
Athletics, though, remain a strong tradition at Wheeling Central. The boys’ basketball team advanced to the Class AA finals against the Bulldogs of Bridgeport on Saturday during the Wheeling Hospital-OVAC Boys Basketball Championship at Ohio University Eastern. The girls’ basketball team claimed the Double-A OVAC title, and the cheering squad was also crowned champions two weeks ago at Wesbanco Arena.
Trophies celebrating 65 state championships captured in nine different sports since 1938 line the school’s hallways in a plethora a glass cases, and developing those key players remains critical to success.
These days, though, team depth in every sport is an issue because of enrollment numbers, and that means a single injury now can derail any pre-season expectations. But no matter what, there is that ever-present Central pride, there are engaged parents, and half of those who attend athletic events are alums with no current ties to the high school.
But no longer is “Doc” the principal. Dr. Joe Viglietta served as the head of the high school for 40 years, and following his retirement in 2011, Julie Shively served in the position for two years before Becky Sancomb was hired in 2013. The daughter of a military man, Sancomb was born in Okinawa, Japan, and she was raised in the Baltimore area. She is a 1994 graduate of Meade High School, and she’s acquired her undergraduate degree (B.S. in Kinesiology/Physical Education) from the University of Maryland, and her graduate degree (educational leadership and supervision) from The College of Notre Dame in Baltimore.
She and her husband, Dan (the athletic director and head men’s basketball coach at Wheeling Jesuit University) have three children: Eli, 8; Luke, 6; and the new addition, Jack, 3 months. Her resume is impressive, and she served as the assistant principal at Wheeling Central before being hired for the lead role.
The position of president was added in July 2014 with the welcoming of Larry Bandi, a 1972 CCHS graduate who has experienced a very successful career while working in financial roles for Valley Welding, West Virginia Northern Community College, and Property Management Corp.
Sancomb handles the academic and athletic side, and Bandi, who acquired his undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheeling Jesuit University, supervises the finances and development. Together, they are constructing a new Wheeling Central Catholic High School.
Those Green Walls
Bandi landed at Wheeling Central with his fundraising wheels churning in order to quickly upgrade several out-of-date educational amenities, including school security, the technological infrastructure, and the use of technology in the educational process. On his first day he toured the school, and reality smacked him in the face. There they were — the same desks he sat in as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He readily admits he and the high school have been blessed with benefactors who have supported the vision with contributions, and the improvements to the physical facility have already permitted an evolution of the curriculum.
“We are now in the process of planning short-term and long-term for the school. It’s a process involving strategic planning,” Sancomb explained. “Prior to the beginning of that process, we laid a solid foundation of improvement to both the curriculum and to the facility itself. It may look the same from the outside, but it certainly doesn’t look the same inside these walls.
“We’ve made some changes to a lot of things that we knew had to be immediate,” she said. “One of those changes involved our technological infrastructure because we knew we were going to make a lot of improvements to the technology that we use here at Wheeling Central. That’s why, at this point, we’re able to look at where we are going next.”
The TEAL Initiative (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) has led to the installation of the TEAL Lab in the space that once housed the school library, and a new Physics Lab. Many more improvements are scheduled for Easter Break and in the summer months.
“We’ve been working very hard to be able to garner the resources that are necessary to bring the school from a facility perspective to match the academic initiatives that we have going forward,” Bandi said. “During the last eight months, we have put in the TEAL Lab, and now the use of that lab is being injected into every class we offer here.
“Along with the TEAL Lab, we’ve added a new physics lab, and over the course of the coming summer we’ll be able to add a computer science and robotics lab, and video distribution system, a broadcast and communications studio, and the graphics arts lab,” he said. “That whole initiative ended up being about $800,000, and we have been so blessed with generous donors that we have all of that funding in place now.
“We have also been able to upgrade all of our electric throughout the building, and that’s allowing for the technology aspect to be installed and implemented in our classrooms. And we’re addressing the HVAC system so we can also enhance the comfort level inside the school.”
Sancomb’s vision for the TEAL Lab has been realized with all CCHS students gaining access while studying any and all offered classes. It’s about interaction. It’s about real-life problem solving. It’s about the future.
“The TEAL Initiative is here to support all of the curriculum. This lab speaks to the philosophy of preparing the students for college and beyond because it’s all about developing the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity,” Sancomb explained. “The TEAL Initiative is 100 percent about the future because it is this kind of technology that is being used in the professional world today.
“These kinds of classrooms are now being used throughout the country, and it is modeled after what was developed at MIT,” she continued. “This technology has allowed us to grow our curriculum beyond what many of our alumni grew used to while a student here, but education is changing, and it was imperative that these improvement took place.”
Non-graduating students should expect many more alterations when they return to classes in August. The computer science and robotics lab, video distribution system, a broadcast and communications studio, and the graphics arts lab will be complete, and more of the classrooms will be updated as well.
By next year:
“By the start of the next school year we will have all of the labs completed, and those programs will be ready to unveil to our students when they return, and from there we’ll move forward with what is next on the list,” Bandi said. “I believe the difference between what we are doing now and what has been done in the past is that we realize that this project will never reach a completion point. And that’s OK.
“We have completely renovated eight classrooms so far, and we have about 20 to go,” Bandi explained. “We have donors secured already for four of those classrooms at this time, and we’re always working to be able to do more and more.”
The faculty lounge and guidance office areas will receive a facelift over the Easter holiday, and a board room dedicated to the service of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Marist brothers is funded and is scheduled for the summer vacation.
At the same time, Bandi insisted, there is also a concentration on maintenance to ensure the high school never falls out-of-date again.
“Right now we are focusing on how we can add to our operating budget the resources necessary to maintain our facilities on an ongoing basis, “Bandi said. “In my background, I have always believed that 5 percent of our operating expenses should go into a reserve so you can replace things when they come due.
“My goal is to build an operating budget that includes monies that allow us to stay current with our facilities,” he continued. “As far as the technology side, we do have a technology fee that we instituted two years ago, and every dollar goes into upgrading the technology.”
But none of it takes place without the financial support beyond the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Under the leadership of Bishop Michael Bransfield and Superintendent Vincent de Paul Schmidt, the diocese has conducted much research on future educational needs, and funding assistance has flowed to Wheeling Central. The scope of the necessary projects, however, tallies into the millions, and Bandi has been successful thus far in recruiting the resources.
“We have had many, many alums step forward and contribute to this initiative, but it’s gone beyond that. We’ve had a lot of businesses step up, and some of them have no ties to Wheeling Central. They are believers in what we are trying to do here, and they have been very supportive,” Bandi said. “I think that’s because our alumni and others realize the importance of improving the education process for the good of our community as a whole.”
The Future in Focus
The high school education process has greatly evolved since Bandi’s graduation 43 years ago. No longer are reading, writing, and arithmetic classes the most important. Today, skills in those areas are expected on a student’s first day.
Plus, Wheeling Central is a parochial school that receives zero state or federal funds, and this year the tuition was set at $5,160.
“We do everything we can to keep that cost down for our parents,” Bandi said. “Thanks to the support from the Diocese and from our parishes, we are able to offset a lot of the costs that are involved. While our tuition is $5,160, we are spending a little more than $9,000 per student per year.
“I think that education is an individual choice for the parents and the students. It has to be right for the family,” he continued. “I think we are blessed in the valley to have great choices. It comes down to the family, and I think a lot of people don’t even look at Central because they don’t believe they can afford it. That’s absolutely not the case because we have diocesan tuition assistance and with the endowments that we have for tuition assistance, no student, no matter what their economic situation is they can still attend Wheeling Central if they want to be here.”
Advanced Placement American History. Advanced Placement English. Advanced Placement Calculus. Those are examples of the long list of classes offered today, and Wheeling Central students have the opportunity to earn college-course credits, too.
“We are a college prep school and we should be preparing our students for their next level of education. The majority of our students go onto four-year schools from here, so that’s what we are preparing them for,” Sancomb explained. “The important thing for us is to give them the foundation to build upon when they get to college.
“It’s been a concentrated effort to make sure we are meeting those standards and that we are developing the skills in students so they are ready to move on,” she said. “The AP courses we offer are on the college level. We have the highest-level math taught by the most phenomenal, second-to-none math teacher I’ve ever been around. So our students are getting exactly what they need for when they get to college.”
There also has been growth in the listing of the elective classes available to the boys and girls of Wheeling Central. “It’s about adding layers of educational opportunities every year so they are ready. They have to be ready,” Sancomb insisted. “And we are making sure we are keeping up with what we have to do as a school.”
Sancomb refers to Wheeling Central as a college preparatory institution, but Bandi explained how the high school also has become something of a “professional-prep” academy, too.
“We are looking at providing opportunities for our students to experience things that they might be considering as careers. We are working on mentoring programs with local businesses so they can consider where they are going to go with their professional lives before entering college,” Bandi said. “These days college students are frequently changing their minds after two years of college because they were not exposed to what they thought would be a good career for them. That scenario adds to the time and the expense of higher education.
“It’s great to be able to look at these opportunities and be able to provide them to the students,” he said. “You see, there was no calculus when I was here. There were no mentions then of college-credit classes or Advanced Placements classes, and at that time we didn’t have computers, so we’ve come a long way since then, and that progress will continue.”
The Central Community
Wheeling Central Catholic High School is exactly what it sounds like – a school that includes religious teachings along with the sciences, humanities, and mathematics courses. Faith, after all, is the primary reason why parents choose to pay instead of relying on public education.
Central students are mandated to take religion classes every year that focus on history, traditions, belief, and a Christian community.
“Faith underlies everything we do, and it drives every aspect of our school community,” Sancomb explained. “At the core of everything we do is about what is best for our students and our families, and that comes from a place of true caring and love for our kids here. And that’s not fake. That’s real. When students graduate from here, there are a lot of tears and that’s because of how loved our students are.
“And the alumni are unbelievable. If you go to one of our football and basketball games, and half of the people in the stands have no affiliation with anyone in the school today, but they are there because they love the school,” she said. “That’s really important, and it’s a really unique thing that we get to do here. And it is all Faith driven.”
Winning state championships and OVAC titles are important, too, said Sancomb, a former soccer and lacrosse coach. Athletics are a part of student life, a part of the school culture, and an extension of the academic programs and of the school’s transitioned mission.
“Athletics are important to the students because they enjoy doing it, so I see our athletic teams as an opportunity for our students to work together for a common goal,” she said. “But when it comes to athletics, sometimes the lines get a little blurred, but it helps the school culture when everyone gets to root in unison. It is exciting when they achieve success, and students learn things from the failures, also.
“Now is it above and beyond anything else? Absolutely not. It’s in its place. It’s in its rightful place because what we want to do is get them ready for the next level in their lives, and the reality is that the majority of our students will not go on to play professional sports for a living.”
Bandi never imagined he would return to Wheeling Central in a professional capacity, but when the opportunity was presented, it was the Wheeling Central community that lured him to return. He often makes his appreciation for Sancomb, the faculty and staff members, and for the student body obvious, and now he hopes to end his professional career by navigating his alma mater into a position that will allow future mothers and fathers to consider a Wheeling Central education.
“It’s kind of interesting how life develops for you. When the knock came at my door, I had no clue that it would lead to this and I’d be here, but I am proud to be working with Becky and everyone else,” he said. “Her vision and her knowledge on the academic side of things have been a real inspiration for me.
“And just being back at my alma mater is fun for me, too. The kids are invigorating and motivating for me. They keep me going. They make me want to go out there and find the resources for what we need so we can offer them the best education possible,” he said. “This is truly a special place.”
(Photography by Steve Novotney)
Every Wheeling neighborhood holds memories for us all. Here’s a few from a Woodsdale kid: