Sunday Sit-Down: Catholic Schools Superintendent Vince Schmidt

– Let’s start with education. What case can you make to a parent for why they should choose a Catholic education for their children?

Schmidt: I say it often that two plus two is four no matter what school you’re at – public, private, parochial. The big difference in the case for us is the value added, the plus one, if you will, that makes Catholic education different. We’re not just building smart kids, we’re building faith-filled kids. As such, the biggest added benefit that we have is the sense of community, the sense of faith, the sense of purpose over and above school. Many schools go from 8 (a.m.) to 2 (p.m.), or 8 (a.m.) to 3 (p.m.). We go from 8 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.) because we have so many activities after school that are part of the educational process. Our schools don’t end on Friday; they go all weekend long. There’s just so many things that we do that add to the overall benefit of that which they would expect from a normal school.

– You’ve got quite an interesting background, which we will get into shortly. What brought you to Wheeling in your current position?

Schmidt: An incredible opportunity. The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is in a unique position to really go places that people wouldn’t think a small diocese with only 30 or so schools could go. We have the ability to make some pretty catastrophic changes to the same old, same old of Catholic education. We are moving ahead in an incredible way with the management of our school program, be it through the financial side, be it through the student record side. We are also doing that with a math program that is the first of any diocese in the country to use, which is helping the achievement of our students in math, from second grade through Algebra, and also pushing a new curriculum which takes some of the incredible standards that are now out there for everyone and fuse it with our Catholic faith, and do it in a Catholic way which will push our achievement to levels that other diocese across the country wish they could get.

– What do you see as the challenges Catholic education faces today?

Schmidt: In West Virginia it’s a challenge because of the numbers. We have 80,000 or 85,000 registered in the state. There are some cities in the Midwest that are very Catholic that have more than that in their city. … So there are challenges to just the sheer number of students we don’t have to draw from. That’s always going to be an issue. Costs associated with education – be it books, salaries and benefits – are all going up at a rate much greater than the ability for parents to pay tuition to offset that. So there’s becoming a widening gap between what we charge and what we pay out. So third-party volunteers come in in a much bigger way, development efforts come in in a much bigger way. The diocesan tuition assistance program becomes much more important, to more people. And the public schools are very good, in Ohio County in particular they are very good. But we offer a different kind of product. If people are trying to balance what to do with their children, and all the (schools) are equal in their eyes, what we offer has to … push them over the edge so they say ‘Yes, I’m going to commit … to that faith-based school community.’

I’m not saying we offer a better product … we offer a different product. … What do we do over and above that makes our school special? That’s what we really have to be clear about defining for people.

– Some of the most recent data from the ACT indicates West Virginia’s Catholic schools are doing very well compared to their public-school peers in standardized testing, with Catholic school students scoring, in some cases, five points higher on the ACT. What are you doing differently?

Schmidt: The biggest thing there that I would love for people to hear, because it’s significant, is that Ohio County’s doing a great job, Marshall County’s doing a great job with their schools in getting their kids who take the ACT and the SAT to do well.

We are achieving at a little higher rate than them, and that’s great, but they’re public schools and they’re doing well also.

However, the fact of the matter is our numbers would be even higher if we only tested a portion of our best kids. We don’t, we test all our kids. About 100 percent of our students go on to college, so 100 percent of our kids take that test. Some of the county schools up here, down in the southern part of the state, test only their college-bound students. So by comparison, our numbers versus the numbers of the public schools are, dare I say, a little bit higher. Not to throw a rock at them, they’re doing a great job in Ohio County Schools, Marshall, Hancock, Brooke as well, but our students are achieving very well.

I think it becomes an issue of how many hands are on deck. We have dedicated students; we have dedicated parents who are making an investment of some kind … to the school and to the students; we have teachers who are incredibly dedicated to their mission of teaching these students; we have school structures that are in place, with a community network in place … It’s not so much that we’re doing anything differently, because public schools have many of those same pieces in place, and in some ways they have more resources as far as structure and buildings than we have, but because we integrate that network of support into a common goal, without any loose ends, I think that’s the real difference maker.

– Parental involvement in education – in your opinion, how important a factor is it to student development? And is parental involvement more of an impact in Catholic schools, where parents also have a financial commitment?

Schmidt: It’s flat out the most critical element to success of students. In fact, in our mission statements in all of our schools, it say ‘The Catholic Schools provide a service to the student as a supplemental educator to the parent.’ In our mission statement we say we our No. 2, on purpose. The parent involvement, the parent commitment … is the most critical component of success of any school, be it public or Catholic. … Perhaps they’re more invested … because of the financial commitment, but I don’t know. I like to think that I am with my children, but I can’t speak for every parent. But either way, parental involvement remains the most important aspect for student success.

– Now let’s get into your true passion, tennis. We’ve recently learned that you are a former tennis professional who coached arguably the most colorful doubles tandem in the history of professional tennis, the Jensen brothers. Can you explain that relationship?

Schmidt: I did play professional tennis, for about a cup of coffee long. That’s about all they could stand of me. I was oft injured and not very good, so needless to say I’m sitting in Wheeling today and not at the U.S. Open in New York City. … I gave it a pretty strong shot for as little ability that I had.

However, I did form a relationship while I was trying to play with some pretty colorful characters, the Jensens among them. They had won the French Open in ’93, and as a result of that – we had a similar sponsor at the time – and they needed some help because of the time commitments that were suddenly forced upon them by various corporate people. I had known the Jensens for many years prior to that from having been at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida, where they trained a bit and I trained a bit, off and on. When our mutual sponsor asked for help, I was the logical character to be able to do that, because I wasn’t playing. So we formed a relationship that anytime they were in the Midwest, I would be the liaison for them, and that was the spark for a much further relationship over what is now 20 years. … What really galvanized the relationship wasn’t the years of knowing each other and seeing each other in different parts of the world, it was the birth of my son Jonas, who was born with Down Syndrome. When that happened, they contacted me about wanting to help somehow. We thought about different opportunities, be it a tournament in St. Louis, which is where we’re from, or a celebrity pro-am event or something to raise money, that’s what they thought would help me. Well, my son wasn’t going to benefit from a transplant, or a transfusion, it was a genetic issue, so it was much different than that. So we ended up putting it on ice until we could figure out what we really wanted to do.

I was down in Atlanta (one year) at Thanksgiving because I have a sister there, and met up with Luke (Jensen) and spent some time with him, doing some training. We were at a tennis academy there … and Luke was training there. I thought, I was a pretty good player, I could have trained there. My oldest son, who at the time was 4 or 5, if he wanted to play tennis at a high level and he was good enough, he could have trained there. Jonas could have never, walked in the building, and I said this is what we need to do, we need to make a venue for kids like Jonas to be able to play the sport which I love. And (the Jensens) were like, awesome, that’s a great idea, we’re in, what do we need to do. So I called every federation I could around the world, called my friend and coach Nick Bollettieri, and asked him to send me everything you’ve got, or can you help me, and he was like Vince, I’ve coached 10 world champions, I’ve coached the best of the best, but I don’t have a clue how to coach anybody that can’t hit a forehand already pretty well, or can learn like everybody else. That, coupled with the faxes I got from the federations, basically it was everything you would teach a normal kid, just slower and softer. That was not the answer I wanted to hear.

So we went outside the box and we completely changed our thinking on how to coach kids with disabilities, we developed our own curriculum … that took the basis from physical activity, coupled it with things from tennis that we needed to have, that we needed to do, ran it through a biomechanical guy who could say yes, that will work, no, that won’t work, these kids can’t do this because I didn’t know anything about Down Syndrome at that point, and we came up with a curriculum … that was different. We do hit balls on a tennis court, but we do a ton of stuff different from that to help them, because there’s three (things) that kids with Down Syndrome have: they usually have poor muscle tone, they have poor coordination and their balance is terrible.

Those three things we really isolated on as we developed the program. Eleven years later and 11 cities later … and about 3,000 kids later, we have the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Down Syndrome that goes all over the country on summer breaks, and Christmas breaks, and Thanksgiving breaks, long weekends, we go to different cities and set this program up. … We train kids with Down Syndrome on how to be tennis players, how to be athletic and how to socialized with other kids who want to be good athletes. It’s the true academy model, where they can come with nothing and leave with everything. We give them all the equipment they need, they can take it home and use it, we train parents, coaches with the ultimate goal of having kids not sitting on couches, out playing tennis and having the opportunity to do something that until my son was born, I didn’t realize they didn’t have the opportunity to do.

– What other sports can your program work with?

Schmidt: We’ve had the opportunity to develop this into other sports. The way we designed the program – the balance, coordination and muscle tone issues are universal to sport, not just tennis – so we designed it in such a way that we … can make it sport specific. … We actually have a dance and gymnastics school in Atlanta, it’s called Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy for Down Syndrome. … The Miracle League has talked to us about doing tennis here, which we would love to do, be honored to do. … The big difference between us and say Special Olympics or Miracle League is they are performance-based venues, they play games, they do stuff. We don’t run tournaments, we train, we’re about getting kids fit.

– Your path has taken you from being a professional tennis hopeful to working with some of the top players in the world to now advocating strongly for Down Syndrome. What drives you each day?

Schmidt: My son. Plain and simple, my son. I was actually doing an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and they said something to the effect of Vince, you must be thrilled with how big Los Angeles has got (for the program). … I said I am, but there are two things that strike me as odd: how many people are in Southern California?

He gave me a number of like 8 million. I said you mean to tell me there are only 120 kids with Down Syndrome? I’m not buying that. So we’re still not doing enough to get every kid, there are kids out there we haven’t reached yet. Ambitious? Sure. Overreaching? Absolutely. But it’s our method, we started a program that no one thought could or needed to happen, and we’ve proved otherwise. If we have 80 kids, why don’t we have 800. If we have 800, why don’t we have 8,000. … We know they’re there and they need to have the opportunity.

The other thing is how silly is it that a knucklehead like me from St. Louis can go to New York or Los Angeles or Washington or any of these (large) cities and show them something that is right in front of them. How silly is it that a knucklehead like me has to be the one to say get off your butt and come play tennis with me. … I’m shamed in so much that I’ve played with some of the greatest players in the world, ever, I’m friends with many of the greatest players in the world, ever, and none of them, myself included, had any clue that kids with disabilities didn’t have the opportunity to play this sport. … It is my shame that we didn’t know this existed. I was 32 before I realized it, a light went on when my son was born.

How many kids could I have helped before that, how many kids could I have worked with and benefited from their friendship toward me. How much better of a person could I have been, because I know I’m a better person now from having worked in this field. … That goes back to our school issue. How do we get service, true service, into our Catholic schools. Not volunteerism … how do we get the notion of what service means, to actually be involved in service learning to our kids. That’s going to be a difference maker. We’re not going to have volunteerism, because anybody can do that, we want to have service, which is a changing of the heart, and if we can do that, our schools will be filled because parents will want that for their kids.

– You remain an active tennis coach, correct? Didn’t you return last week from New York where you had been working with professional tennis players at the U.S. Open?

Schmidt: I’m lucky enough to consider many of (today’s professionals) my friends, and lucky enough that my contacts in the support world, the sponsors, the manufacturers of shoes, rackets, clothing, consider me a friend and a resource for them. A company such as Adidas could call for me to help with product distribution, making sure the players get the products they really need. … All of the flocking that the athletes have on their shirts, their sponsorships and so forth, if they’re an Adidas athlete, I’ve done all that. Andy Murray, on his shoulder, that’s my shirt. I work with the players to make sure their equipment is right, proper and correct, I work with racket manufacturers to make sure their rackets are what players want. … It’s a pretty unglorious, undignified, quiet in the corner work I do, but it seems to be very helpful to them.

If people come up and ask me – they’re some players who still will say hey, I’m having some issues with this part of my game, if it’s a certain part I can help them with, of course I will. I’m very fortunate to work with a lot players in that regard for short times, as a stop-gap type coach. … It keeps me present.

– How would you rate today’s tennis versus that of say 25-30 years ago, when you had players such as Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl?

Schmidt: There is no doubt in my mind that some of the greatest tennis players in history have come around in the last 15 years. That’s a discussion that’s always had, that you can’t compare because of racket technology, or this or that, and that’s true, you can’t. When you’ve got people who have the physical tools they have now, and the training that they do now, constant training, versus that which I know John McEnroe did or didn’t do, as the case may be, Bjorn Borg did or didn’t do, as the case may be, there’s just no comparison. Take a sport that’s similar over decades, say basketball. LeBron James would have destroyed Bob Cousy, Bob Cousy couldn’t defend that guy. He’s bigger, faster, stronger, jumps higher, shoots better. Tennis has made an amazing evolution in terms of player ability, and that’s great.

However, there are a couple things that have happened that have hurt tennis, in America specifically. One is the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has opened the door to a lot of tennis players who, if that wall were still up, would be good tennis players but wouldn’t have the notoriety that they have now. There’s a lot more foreign influence, which I don’t have a problem with but it’s hard for people in America who are the occasional tennis watcher to get their arms around the guy. They can’t pronounce their name, they don’t seem funny or personable. Ilie Nastase was from a Communist country, but he was still funny, someone you could joke around with. (Novak) Djokovic was from a Communist country, not so funny. And the rivalries really were the key. Borg had McEnroe. Connors had everybody. Those were great, great rivalries and you had it somewhat with (Andre) Agassi-(Pete) Sampras. (Roger) Federer-(Rafael) Nadal kinda-sorta. Djokovic, no. The rivalries really made it, and the fact that when they played on television, it was an event. Now, with the advent of Tennis channel, you can catch a tennis match any time of year, and a lot of them are tournaments you really don’t care about. … U.S. Open in the finals, and you’ve got Lendl versus McEnroe. Somebody’s going to get yelled at.

– Last question: Who is your favorite player of all time?

Schmidt: I’m a really big fan of John McEnroe, when I was growing up he and Borg were two amazing characters to watch of TV. … But it’s really odd, because now, when I’m in New York, I’ll see John at an event and he’ll say ‘Hey Schmidtty, what’s going on in West Virginia, right? Isn’t that where you moved to?’ So the guys I (looked up to) as a kid are now guys I’m friendly with, dare I say friends with. … It’s kind of surreal.

I love Ilie Nastase, he’s hilarious. … Obviously the Jensens are two of my best friends. Martina Navratilova is one of my very best friends, I love her. She’s wonderful. It’s funny, I got into an argument with Bud Collins, the sportswriter, on a radio show about her in St. Louis. I was the go-to tennis guy in St. Louis when the grand slams would come up, I would do live reporting from Roland Garros or London. They had Bud Collins on, he was promoting a book, and they had me waiting in the wings. And they asked Bud the question of who he thought was the greatest tennis player of all time, it was when Federer was coming up on the (grand slam) record. He said … Bill Tilden and Tony Trabert and all these guys from the turn of the century. The sportscaster who was interviewing said Vince, what do you think about that. I said with all due respect to Bud Collins, who is a wonderful man, and a brilliant historian, much more so than I, he could not be more wrong. Bud was like excuse me Vince, what did you say? I said Bud, I’m going to give you a player who not only played singles, but played doubles. Not only played doubles but played mixed. This athlete played wood, metal, graphite, oversized, midsized, wide bodied, changed the way we train, and changed the way we play. Did so with class and dignity and represented the country in international events. He said you’re just talking about McEnroe, you always talk about McEnroe. I said no, I’m not talking about McEnroe. He said who are you talking about? I said the greatest player of all time, who’s won more tournaments, held the No. 1 ranking longer than anybody, is Martina Navratilova. She is the greatest tennis player of all time. … She is truly one of the great ambassadors of our game, just a wonderful woman. I’m very fond of Martina, she’s always been very, very good to me.