At the top of steep, winding Tusculum Avenue, high above the traffic and bustle of the Columbia Parkway corridor, sits the 20-acre campus of St. Ursula Villa.

Partially bordered by woods, the independent Catholic school enjoys a secluded, pastoral environment in the middle of a metropolis. Located in Mount Lookout, the site overlooks Columbia Tusculum, Cincinnati's oldest neighborhood, and the Ohio River.

The school, which draws students from throughout Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for pre-school through eighth grade, is so hidden from view that few of the thousands of motorists traveling on Columbia Parkway each day realize it's there. But school officials are trying to change that.

As it tries to keep tuition steady in a tight economic climate and to compete with other private and public schools in the region, St. Ursula Villa has launched a marketing campaign designed to give the school a higher public profile, keep enrollment stable and increase funding contributions.

"We used to say that St. Ursula Villa was the best-kept secret in Cincinnati," says Madhu Vrishabhendra, a school trustee who has two children enrolled there and a third who is a graduate.

Sharing the message

"But we realized that it's not a great thing to be the best-kept secret. We're trying to get our name out there and make sure as many people as possible know how great the Villa really is."

Although the school hasn't been hurt badly by the recession, it faces the same challenges as other private schools in the area. The Villa has 450 students, down from a peak of 493 two years ago. In recent decades, enrollment generally has ranged between 445 and 490. The school doesn't want a large increase, but does want to keep the numbers stable.

"One of the things people like about us is that we're small, provide an individualized education and present students with leadership opportunities," says Marta Runnels, director of admissions and marketing.

The Villa's annual tuition has been increasing at a rate of about 2 percent to 3 percent a year. Annual tuition now ranges from $9,735 for grades seven and eight to $2,321 for three half-days a week of traditional pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds. That's less than the most expensive private schools in the area but more than the parish parochial schools.

"Paying tuition is a struggle and a sacrifice," Runnels says. "We know that families are evaluating their investment year by year. We want to make sure they are comfortable every year with what the Villa has delivered for them, and feel like such a part of the community that they aren't interested in going elsewhere."

Raising Money & Volunteers

Tuition comprises 84 percent of the school's budget. There's a $1,400-per-student gap between what the Villa spends each year and what it receives from tuition. The school tries to cover that by raising private funds and soliciting volunteers "” especially students' parents "” to help as much as possible.

Its two biggest fundraisers are the annual fund drive and Villabration, an auction of donated items. Each of these events generates about $200,000 a year. The fund drive's total dipped slightly below $200,000 in the 2008-09 school year, just after the economic turndown began, says Diane Hopper, Villa's development director.

"We felt the pinch like everybody else. But I feel we're out of the woods."

John and Kathy Desmond of Hyde Park send two children to the school's Montessori program. Bella is in the first grade, and Rafferty is in pre-school. John is an advertising account manager, and Kathy works in investor relations. They need both incomes to send their children to St. Ursula Villa.

"In these times, you try to save money where you can," Kathy Desmond says. "But education is one place we don't want to skimp. There's a huge sense of parental involvement and a sense of community at the Villa. It's so critical for a child's foundation. The small class size allows for individual attention for students "” not just from an educational standpoint, but also from a personal standpoint."

School Values

The most ambitious part of the Villa's new marketing campaign involves the redesign and expansion of its website. In addition to providing extensive information about its academic programs, tuition costs, extra-curricular activities, religious programs, faculty and administration, it emphasizes the spirit of camaraderie and community among all sectors of the school. In large letters at the top of the home page, the school touts what it calls "the Villa values." Those values are education, faith and community. 

The site, which includes a brief video about the school narrated by principal Polly Duplace, encourages viewers to "explore, believe, prepare, and invest in the Villa values." To underscore the academic quality, officials point out that for the past two years, all of its eighth-graders were accepted by their first choice of high schools.

"We didn't feel our old website accurately reflected the Villa experience," Hopper says. "We wanted a more current, more user-friendly website that made a more accurate statement of what is being delivered here. It makes a much better first impression for parents who are doing Internet research to search for schools."

The Villa's educational values stem from a woman who lived in Italy during the 16th Century "” St. Angela Merici. When she was 20 years old, she turned her home into a school for girls. She later founded the Ursulines religious order in 1535. The primary mission of the Ursulines was education. 

In 1910, a group of 20 Ursuline nuns came to Cincinnati to open St. Ursula Academy in Walnut Hills. In 1960, to accommodate an expanding enrollment, the Ursulines bought the current site of St. Ursula Villa, which industrialist R.K. LeBlond had willed to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The nuns converted the ornate 40-room Tudor-style manor into a school for seventh- and eighth-graders. Since then, a main school building and other facilities have been added to the site. By the early 1990s, the Ursulines, whose order had been shrinking, were having difficulty running the school. At that time, the Ursulines and the parents decided to transfer operation of the school to an independent board of trustees. Today, there are no nuns or other religious teaching at the Villa. 

But the school still reveres its connection to the Ursulines and retains their core values. Although it's a Catholic school, non-Catholic students are welcomed.

Vrishabhendra and his wife, Levla, are Hindu, so it wasn't for religious reasons the Anderson Township couple enrolled their children.

"The Villa really focuses on building the entire child," he says. "We don't want our kids turned into Catholics. We appreciate that ethics and morals are taught there. Your individuality is celebrated. Not for one second have we felt like outsiders."

He and his wife have often discussed what they might cut from their budget if money becomes tighter. Vrishabhendra said they would eliminate many other expenses before taking their children out of St. Ursula Villa.

"We feel it's so valuable to our children. We will try everything we can to make sure their education there continues."