In Toledo, Historic High Schools Shaped a Generation

In the last few decades, Toledo’s economic and social landscape has changed dramatically. The young people of today’s Toledo may have a very different experience than graduating classes of the past, who until today recall their high school days with surprising depth and heartfelt warmth. School-time memories of generations spanning the mid-twentieth century not only reveal personal histories, but also preserve an era formative to the city at large. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

Change is a hallmark of Toledo’s history. The city experienced a population influx during the late 1800s, then a gradual brain drain. It housed a booming manufacturing economy, toted the “Rust Belt” moniker and now boasts efforts for urban revitalization. Through it all, Toledo’s schools remained at the core of the city. 

“The history of the school district is really the history of the city, and they’re tied to one another,” Robyn Hage, a teacher in Toledo Public Schools for 31 years and the district’s historian, said.

When Toledo was first developing, it grew in clusters or neighborhoods around two things: the church and the school. 

“In the north end, you’d have an elementary school and you’d have a Catholic church, and that really was the nucleus of that neighborhood,” Hage said. 

Libbey High School, 1958. Image courtesy of Herral Long via Ohio Memory.

According to Hage, Toledo Public Schools were at their largest student population during the 1960s. The young men who served in WWII had returned and were starting their own families and putting children into schools, consequently expanding Toledo’s communities. 

London Mitchell, a 1968 graduate from Roy C. Start High School and the vice president of the Toledo History Museum, said he distinctly remembers how close-knit the communities were. 

“Many of the friends that I had in high school were some that I made in elementary school and junior high,” Mitchell said. “We all kind of had this common bond, so we could share experiences, share emotions, likes, dislikes.” 

Mitchell and his classmates lived in the same neighborhoods, explored in the same boy scout troops and had parents that were friendly with one another. Even when each started to go down his own path in the late teen years, Mitchell said their relationship remained close as their early memories connected them. 

For students of Mitchell’s generation who graduated from Toledo schools in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, their teenage years were interlaced with the tensions and transformations rippling through America. 

“It was a time of transition for myself and for the country both,” said Nick Russell, a member of Libbey High School’s class of 1971. 

Russell’s high school years overlapped with the escalation of the Vietnam War, rising racial tensions, national protests and a hippie movement in full swing. 

The events that personified America’s 1960s and ‘70s became part of his everyday life. The names of former students who had been killed or wounded in Vietnam were shared on the school’s morning announcements. Even if students did not know the soldier personally, they may have known their siblings or another relative, Russell said. 

As young men from working class families, Russell and his friends knew they could not afford college and would eventually get drafted into the war. According to him, the circumstances created a fatalist mindset. 

Russell recounted a time when his friend was scolded by a school counselor for goofing off. The friend responded with nonchalance, “Hey. I’ll be dead in a year in Vietnam, so what do I care?” 

“There was that attitude with a lot of young people. That kind of put a damper on some things,” Russell said. 

Despite the national turbulence that characterized his high school years, Russell said some of his formative memories were distinctly normal teenage experiences. War casualties were a part of his life, but so were class pranks and casual fights between friends. 

“You’d have kids have fights like kids do, but nobody pulled a gun or a knife. You have a fight with a guy and the next day you’re friends again,” Russell said. 

Even in the midst of such uncertain times, some were laser-focused on building a brighter future for themselves. Christine Scarlett was one such go-getter. She was determined to fashion her four years into a strong foundation for her adult life. 

Scarlett graduated from Start High School in 1977. She said that at the time most people from working class backgrounds like herself were not attending college — especially not female students.

Roy C. Start High School, around 1962. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

Scarlett had attended a small, nurturing Catholic parish school for her elementary and junior high education. The experience, along with her parents’ values, embedded different expectations in her. 

“My parents’ expectations were that with hard work, you guys [Scarlett and her siblings] can do better than your grandparents or your parents,” Scarlett said. “I always knew college was the next step for me.” 

Scarlett was a student that tried everything. She signed up for basketball and volleyball despite being less than five feet tall. She made it onto the cheerleading team after three years of tryouts, but still coveted the position of yearbook editor the most. 

“Yearbooks were a much bigger deal then because there was no digital media and things like that,” Scarlett said. “It was competitive to get on the staff and it was treated as an academic class in the fine arts field.” 

Scarlett’s mother, Barbara Kunkel, said when the teachers at Start High School went on strike in 1976, yearbook operations moved to the Kunkel household. 

“Of everything I did in high school, being on the yearbook staff for two years and leading the staff without having a lot of people get angry at each other was probably one of the best preparations for adulthood that I can think of,” Scarlett said. 

Joe Boyle* graduated from St. John’s High School in 1993 and was a teacher in Toledo Public Schools from 2004 to 2023. A student at an all-boys, majority white, Catholic school, Boyle said he experienced his high school years in a bubble. 

When Boyle first started teaching at Rogers High School, a majority Black public school on  Toledo’s west side, he said the experience was a culture shock. He said his first few years were spent learning how to communicate with and teach people of  a different background. 

Jones Junior High School class portrait, 1964. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

“We were intellectually prepared for the world that we walked into. We were spiritually prepared for the world that we walked into. We were not socially prepared for the world that we walked into,” Boyle said. 

As Toledo aged through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the city’s largest manufacturers left for southern states, taking both jobs and people with them. Facing decreasing populations and investment, Toledo began to close down schools. 

“It was a very heart-wrenching decision made by the administration because people, when they attend and they graduate from their high schools, there’s civic pride in that,” Hage said. 

Removing these anchor institutions led to a swift decline in some Toledo neighborhoods, leaving alumni to reckon with the erasure of their childhood memories. 

Both Jones Junior High and Libbey High School were torn down. According to Russell, the area that surrounds the demolished buildings is unrecognizable from the neighborhood he grew up in. His home, his best friend’s home and the homes that housed numerous generations are gone or boarded up.

“It’s like our past was bulldozed down and nothing replaced it,” Russell said. 

Toledo’s declining economic situation translated to million-dollar budget cuts for Toledo’s public schools over the past decade. A declining city population eroded student enrollment, and teacher shortages remained as a continuous problem. 

Jones Junior High Library, 1938. Image courtesy of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.
Jones Junior High Library, 2000. The school was demolished in 2010. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

According to Hage, teachers have stayed dedicated to their roles as educators through it all.

“If you have good teachers, they’re not there for the money. They’re there for the students,” she said.

To prepare its students for a constantly developing world, Toledo Public Schools pivoted by investing more into vocational education and college preparation programs. 

But no matter how the city or the school system changed, some things have never changed. Students plan pranks and get in trouble, but they also work hard and dream about their futures. They start fights, spread rumors, fall in and out of love and, perhaps most of all, find community among teachers and classmates.

“At the heart, the process of teaching and learning is something that is relatively stable over time,” Boyle said. “I think, fundamentally, we’re wrong when we say [high school] is completely different today. I think human nature doesn’t change that much.”

*Joe Boyle passed away in November 2023, shortly after being interviewed for this story. You can learn more about his remarkable life, as well as his love for Toledo and its history, here.

Lasetta Pickard, a teacher at Roy C. Start High School, 1966. Image courtesy of The Shield via Ohio Memory.

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