News: A Path Through the Weeds

How an inner-city school principal offers direction for students, community

May 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Emily Maxwell

Oyler Elementary School is an oasis (in more ways than one) in its tough Lower Price Hill neighborhood.

As he leads the way down the alley, Craig Hockenberry explains in a quiet voice that the place we're going is where he frequently finds kids hiding after the bus or a parent drops them off at Oyler Elementary School.

"See how worn the path is?" the principal asks, moving into the overgrown back yard of a vacant house across from the school in Lower Price Hill.

He picks though the trash at the bottom of stairs leading to the basement — a trashed TV, leaves and who knows what else — looking for new places where the kids hide "their stash of marijuana."

This street tour was part of the "Principal for the Day" program hosted by the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative May 15 as a way for people in the community to learn about Cincinnati Public Schools.

The "sweep" of the neighborhood continues with Hockenberry holding a brief conversation with two young men he calls "some of my youngsters I just can't talk into being in school." One of these he saved from a prison term by going to the judge and working with a social worker to get him back into school.

"He made it through all of last year," Hockenberry says as the emaciated teen wanders back across the street. "But he's not in now, and I can tell he's losing weight, so that means he's doing drugs again."

Hockenberry's eyes constantly sweep the spaces between buildings and around fences as he waves at parents and talks to people. He says, "Eighth and State are the toughest streets in Cincinnati."

After talking to one man, Hockenberry says this is one of the ways he keeps kids in school and away from the drug dealers — they know that at some point during the day, maybe even twice, he'll be making his rounds.

"That man's the biggest drug dealer in the city," Hockenberry says once we're out of earshot. "The kids know it, I know it, but I'll let the cops figure it out on their own."

That willingness to keep confidences and being seen as trustworthy is why so many of the kids and parents work well with Hockenberry.

He's a constant presence around and in the school. His day consists of walking the halls of the three-story building (four if you count the gym on the top floor) on Hatmaker Street that houses pre-kindergarten through high school-aged students. He tries to see the 650 kids and 120 staff members at least once a day.

As the high schoolers swarm the third floor changing classes, blue-shirted security guards mixing in and watching, he says it's essential that he's visible.

"I have been here 10 years," Hockenberry explains. "Some of these 10th-graders I've known since first grade. I can say things to these kids that nobody else can because I'm the only father figure they've ever known."

Sound depressing? Hockenberry says Oyler has some bad days, really bad days, but it also has great days. He beams when talking about the introduction of the high school grades to the school two years ago. He hasn't had a single kid drop out and credits an online learning program with saving a lot of those who are at-risk.

The program allows teachers to tailor an educational program to the needs of the teens who might have been incarcerated, gotten pregnant or dropped out to get a job. Kids can work at home or come and go through their own door until late into the evening. Housed in the old machine shop of the school that was built in 1929, the wide-open classroom has row after row of computers where students sit and work on their own learning programs.

Right next door is the Mac computer lab where kids of all ages attend classes or work on assignments from teachers in various subjects. The reading lab for the pre-K students, which also has computers, is just down the hall. Kids wearing bulky headsets use different programs; the screens are filled with bright pictures and colorful words.

"Our pre-K kids come to us very behind," Hockenberry says. "Some of them can't even hold a freakin' pencil. We're constantly playing catch-up. They come to us as 3- or 4-year olds significantly behind kids in middle America. When my daughter goes to school, she'll be able to pronounce her name, name all of her colors and recognize some simple words. Not these kids."

One way Oyler is helping the kids catch up, and hopefully get ahead, is through a nationally recognized mentoring program that currently targets third and fourth graders. Spreading his arms wide in the mentoring room, which displays dozens of photos of mentors and their kids, Hockenberry brags about the kids, the mentors and their successes.

"We have the largest mentoring program in the United States," he says, "We're getting national recognition, and we had a visit from the First Lady, Laura Bush, to prove it."

The kids focus primarily on reading and math and meet with students three to four times a week.

"We have over 85 mentors who have been with us five years or more," Hockenberry says.

He says relationships are the key. Having relationships with the mentors and their employers, the kids, the parents, the staff and anyone from the community who walks into the school is how to make an urban school successful.

And the mentoring seems to be working. Preliminary estimates for Oyler's performance on the fourth grade Ohio Achievement Test show the number of students who passed the math section is 60 percent (up from 30.5 percent last year), writing is 70 percent (up from 27.1 percent) and reading is 70 percent (up from 28.8 percent). Final numbers will be reported in August.

Oyler Elementary — the school's official name hasn't been changed yet to reflect the expanded grade range — is slated for dramatic renovation at the end of the 2008-09 school year. The school already provides free breakfast and lunch (about 650 meals served each day) in addition to offering medical, dental, counseling and a host of services, but the upgraded facility will allow social service agencies housed in the building to more adequately address the needs of the neighborhood's entire urban Appalachian population.

As a Community Learning Center (see "More Than a School," issue of Jan. 22, 2006), Oyler opens at 7:30 a.m. and doesn't close until 10:30 p.m. A five-page schedule shows college visit field-trips, pajama day, after-school programs, graduation and everything in between.

Hockenberry admits to feeling stressed out and discouraged at times but has enough energy to sneer at the characterization of his school's state rating of "academic emergency."

"This school's 80 years old," he says. "It's suffering from generations of neglect. We aren't going to turn things around, we aren't going to turn these kids around, in a couple of years. They're good even though they have almost no direction out there. What direction they have at home they learn here. ...

"Oftentimes there isn't even an adult at home. Unfortunately, their pictures aren't on anyone's dresser." ©