Tom O’Neal still recalls the uncomfortable feeling as his English teacher at Grand River Academy drilled him on a reading assignment that O’Neal had neglected the prior evening. The instructor repeatedly called upon O’Neal for answers he obviously did not have, embarrassing him before his six classmates.
“You can’t hide,” O’Neal says of the small class sizes and personalized instruction that are among the hallmarks of the academy.
O’Neal, Class of 1971, is the academy’s director of development, and he says the teaching methods employed at GRA have not changed since he squirmed in his seat more than 40 years ago. If students fail to complete their homework, they are banished to a Saturday afternoon in study hall. And just in case that does not affect change, there’s a second study hall on Sunday.
“It really does not take long before you see there is an easier way,” O’Neal says. “That’s what parents are paying that money for.”
That money, for resident students, is $36,000 for the nine-month program, more than what some colleges cost. Nevertheless, there is a market for the academy, which has an annual enrollment of about 100 students in grades 9 through 12.
“It seems outrageously expensive, but in New England it would be closer to $50,000,” says Randy Blum, headmaster of the school.
Grand River Academy, unlike its cousin schools in New England, does not have long list of highly accomplished alumni, although its 19th-century notables include B.F. Goodrich, founder of the eponymously named rubber company, and several state and national legislators.
Blum says it’s always been a niche school since the 1930s, when it was reborn out of the Grand River Institute.
“The niche has been the boys who are not achieving academically up their potential,” O’Neal says. “By our methodology, we get them turned around.”
Unfortunately, in the public eye, that has inspired a myth, Blum says.
“There is a perception in the community this is the place for bad boys,” Blum says. “I’ve heard the phrase ‘It’s where rich people dump their troubled kids.’”
O’Neal says the reality is that students at GRA are like those from any other family or place in the world — “Good kids from good families facing all of the problems all kids have.” He says many of them come from urban settings and are amazed to discover the radically different way of life endemic to a small community like Austinburg.
Most learn about the school through educational consultants, who recommend its unique approach to parents exasperated with the failure of other approaches. Alumni and the Internet are also sources of referrals.
The Austinburg academy is literally an Ashtabula County and Western Reserve institution. It was founded as the Grand River Institute in 1831, when Ashtabula County itself was just 20 years old and public education in Ohio did not include a high school option. It is one of the oldest educational institutions in the Western Reserve, antedating Western Reserve and Hiram colleges, the latter once sending its surplus students to Austinburg.
Pioneer families of Austinburg Township — Judge Eliphalet Austin, the Rev. Eliphalet Austin, Jr., Dr. Orestes K. Hawley and the Rev. Giles Cowles and others —envisioned a school where young men could prepare for the ministry. When the school was formed in the late summer or early fall of 1831, it was given the name of “The Ashtabula County School of Science and Industry.”’
“The primary object of this school shall be to add pious young men in preparing for the gospel ministry; but the Trustees may admit young men of good moral character, other than those preparing for the ministry, under such regulations as shall be from time to time established,” stated one of the by-laws of the new entity.
Another bylaw required that each student would be employed not less than three and not more than four hours daily in agriculture and mechanical labors unless excused. This provision was dropped in a few years as it became evident a student could not fulfill all his academic requirements and have time left over for manual labor.
The school opened with just one student and one teacher, Lucius M. Austin, but by the spring of its first year, the enrollment had increased to 60.
Orestes K. Hawley, one of the incorporators, gave several hundred acres of his land in Mechanicsville to the school. The property along the Grand River included several mills and “River Glen,” a favorite recreation spot for students. But in 1835, Joab Austin enticed the school’s leadership to relocate it to center of Austinburg. A $25,000 endowment sealed the deal.
With the relocation to its present site along Route 307, the name was changed to “Grand River Institute.”
With the school relocating to Austinburg came the challenge of moving an essential building from Mechanicsville some three miles. As is often the case with history, the story has been embellished with each telling, but conservatively, it took at least 200 oxen, that is 100 “yoke of cattle,” to move the two-story frame building, which was mounted on log runners.
The effort ran into difficulty when it encountered the hill ascending toward the ridge. The chains snapped, and materials were unavailable for forging stronger ones. A sailor watching the fiasco suggested they use ropes and pulleys. Although the landlubbers were skeptical, they dispatched a man to Buffalo to obtain the equipment (one has to wonder why the man did not get the proper material for chains while he was at it). The sailor’s suggestion worked, and the building took its place on the campus.
O’Neal says the old building was still standing when he was a student at the academy, although it was no longer in use. A multi-functional structure, it was razed in 1973; a plaque marks its former location next to Shepherd Hall.
Joab Austin’s commitment to the school deepened and he gave his entire farm to the effort; his residence was used a boarding house and he gave two other residences to the effort. Thus began a tradition that remains to this day, virtually all the houses surrounding the school are occupied by teachers, whose 24/7 presence in the lives of the students help account for the program’s success.
Nine years into the school’s history, young ladies were admitted on equal footing with male students. Betsey Cowles, who graduated from the Reserve’s other ground-breaking co-educational institution, Oberlin, served as preceptress of the institute from 1843 to 1848.
Cowles would go on to make her mark on the world as part of Ohio’s abolitionist movement, which was felt at GRI, as well. Anti-slavery notables such as James Monroe, Stephen Foster, Parker Pillsbury and Benjamin F. Wade lectured at the institute. John Brown Jr., whose father led the failed raid at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859, attended the institute in the 1840s.
Fire, war take a toll
The 1850s brought huge challenges for the institute after fire destroyed the ladies hall and an an academy opened at Kingsville. Joseph Barnum, an experienced school administrator from Elyria and Oberlin, breathed new life into the institute — and then war came to the land.
“A shadow fell upon the school,” wrote Mrs. Helen Ryder French in her recollections of Civil War days at GRI. “It was a daily experience to see the vacant places in class room and campus, and hear the question, ‘Why, where is G---or A---? And the answer, ‘Oh! He left last night to volunteer for the Army.”
The school was forced to recruit students from beyond the county to fill its desks, and that outreach grew favorable assessments of its quality.
“Oberlin College gets no supplies of students better than those it draws from GRI,” noted an “Oberlin News” column of 1862.
The institute’s reputation was further strengthened under Jacob Tuckerman, principal from 1868 to 1882. Tuckerman attended the Kingsville Academy and Oberlin, became a superintendent of schools by the age of 26 and organized the Orwell Academy. The Tuckerman years are often referred to as the institute’s golden era — during that time, he was principal to more than 3,100 students from most parts of the United States. After leaving GRI, Tuckerman continued his success at New Lyme Institute.
Grand River weathered several decades of ups and downs until the rise of public high schools threatened to make the institute obsolete. On May 8, 1930, trustees announced that the school had a deficit of $12,000 and a corresponding dearth of students. Trustees suspended GRI and leased the recitation hall to the township for a high school as plans were made to open a junior boys school (pre-high school age) under the direction of Mrs. F.M. Wood as principal.
In the mid-1930s, under the leadership of Carl and Ruth Bauder, the institute was pulled from the brink of extinction with their Bauder Educational Foundation, more popularly known as the “Grand River School for Boys.”
Seven students enrolled in the Bauder boarding school in the fall of 1933. The goal was to reach boys from broken homes and those needing a more supervised environment. The Bauders accomplished that by providing a farm-family atmosphere that involved administration and teachers in the lives of the boys around the clock.
The Bauder Educational Foundation grew slowly during the1930s as it catered to boys. While the Civil War hurt the GRI, World War II helped grow its enrollment because of its focus on single-parent and working-parent homes.
In 1949, the school’s name was changed to Grand River Academy, which purchased the assets of the old Grand River Institute. The institute’s trustees donated the $24,000 from the sale of its assets to Oberlin.
After a stormy decade in the 1950s, a new board of trustees was formed to head up the academy. George Armington, a Euclid businessman who had retired to Austinburg to farm, was picked by Carl Bauder as the board’s chairman.
During the 1960s, the board changed the school’s direction from a first-through-ninth-grade program to, eventually, a high school. By the end of the 1960s, it had received a six-year high school charter from the state.
The school’s current headmaster, Randy Blum, arrived in 1973 and has announced he will retire at the end of the 20012 school year. Blum, who taught in Mahoning County public schools, said the board is conducting a national search for his replacement; several candidates from within the institute are under consideration by the board, whose membership includes several prominent county citizens.
The commitment of the headmaster and faculty must be 100 percent as they live on campus, some in dorm halls, others in houses around the campus. Blum says much of the school’s success is due to these relationships built between the resident faculty and students.
To graduate from the academy, a student must be accepted by a college or university. And when that acceptance comes, staff and students make a big deal of it by recognizing the student’s achievement during one of the communal gatherings held several times a day.
The school had students from six nations and 17 states in the school year that just ended. Today, as when O’Neal was a student at GRA, the campus of 100 students is a microcosm.
“There has always been a nice cross-section here,” he says. “It really is a nice cross-section of the world. They are not just upper-crust, upper-scale students here. It is a very diverse community.”
Blum says the campus covers 56 acres, undoubtedly to the dismay of the county, because the GRA is a non-profit and thus pays no real estate tax. However, he points out that it brings in $4 million into the community annually and employs 70 persons with good wages and benefits. And it injects cultural diversity into Ashtabula County as GRA students participate in various events with other high schools.
Further, the campus is a resource for the community. A new lecture hall is under construction, and O’Neal says it will be open to the community for meetings and assemblies when it opens later this year.
“I think we’re a good business for Ashtabula County,” Blum says.