Voices from Oyler:

A Year of Radio Reporting


Listen to the sounds of Oyler. It's full of stories. Pre-school, grade school, high school. Teachers, administrators, parents and mentors. In the past year, they all have had stories to tell. The Principal, who has seen the school through 15 years of changes. The English teacher who finally has a shiny new classroom. The service coordinator who sends students home with food for the weekend. The eighth grader who worries that he won't look cool in his new glasses. The prom couple and their frantic final dash to get ready. And the senior, as she steps onto a college campus, for the first time. Here are their stories and more as heard on Marketplace radio:

  • Lead

    Leading the change at Oyler School

    Just after dawn, Principal Craig Hockenberry stands outside Oyler School like a beacon in his lime green shirt and sky blue tie, greeting students as they line up to go inside. It's the first day back at the old school after two years away. Oyler had moved up the hill a mile or so during a $21 million renovation.

    “Today’s going to be crazy getting used to the new building, but we’ll get it,” he tells students. “Each day will get better and better, okay?”

    The first day of school marks the end of a tough summer in a tough neighborhood. Just before the break, a fifth-grade student and her mother were stabbed to death. Then an Oyler parent was murdered right across the street from the school. White styrofoam cups still spell out his name -- Brian -- in the chain link fence. Hockenberry says during the two years the school was closed for renovation, the drugs and violence in Lower Price Hill got worse.

    “I could walk you outside the door, not even 15 steps away, and I could probably get just about any drug that I want,” he says. “I could walk you another 15 feet down and there are our parents that are prostituting and are hooked on heroine and crack cocaine -- parents that used to be on my PTA.”

    Lower Price Hill is a small neighborhood of brick row houses overlooking the Ohio River. The culture is known as Urban Appalachian. When coal mining jobs in Kentucky and West Virginia dried up after World War II, many families came here for factory jobs. But those are mostly gone, too. Many get by on welfare and food stamps.

    Donna Jones has lived here, off and on, her whole life. “Families that have been here a long time have married other families,” she says. Brian Thompson, the Oyler parent who was shot during the summer, was her son-in-law’s brother. “I consider us a close-knit community,” she says.

    Oyler School -- with its long history and imposing brick and terra cotta architecture -- looms large in that community. Jones went there. So did her kids, and now grandkids. “It’s more than a school,” she says. “It’s like the hub of activity.”

    That is no accident. Oyler is what's known as a community learning center. It’s part of a growing movement in education that says if you’re going help poor kids succeed in school, you have to fight the effects of poverty. Oyler’s teamed up with nonprofits and government agencies to put in a health center and a vision clinic on campus. The school is open from early morning until late at night. Kids can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there and take home food on weekends.

    The rehab created more space for all these services, and added air conditioning and real lab equipment and whiteboards*. With a new daycare and preschool, Hockenberry says Oyler now serves kids from age six weeks to 22. “In theory there should be no kid, no child or anybody in our community not getting full services here,” he says.

    Academically, he says, all the services are making a difference. Test scores are slowly improving, but the school has a long way to go. This year Hockenberry has another goal. “I want to start working on the neighborhood,” he says. He wants the boards to start coming down off the houses, and the drug dealers to leave. “I want people to come and see this as a great school in a great neighborhood,” he says.

    So, after school, he walks the streets. Still wearing his suit and tie, Hockenberry greets parents smoking on their front stoops, and hassles kids he didn’t see in the halls that day. Hockenberry is a baby-faced 40-year-old. The former teacher stumbled into a job at Oyler in his mid-20s and got hooked on the challenge of turning it around. He lives nearby in Price Hill and knows pretty much everybody around here by name.

    He spots a lanky young man in a glittery red tee shirt across the street. “Roy, what’s up with it? Are you staying out of trouble?” Roy Lee has not been staying out of trouble. He’s picked up a drug charge. Lee is 24 years old and dropped out years ago. Hockenberry pushes him to come back and finish at Oyler’s online high school. “Your grandma would be so proud of you, man,” he says. “You did her wrong for so long.”

    Lee promises to stop by the next morning at nine o’clock. Hockenberry finishes his rounds. “I really want Roy to go back to school,” he says. “I’ll find out if he’s good for his word tomorrow.” With that, he walks off to kick some older kids off the preschool playground. An ice cream truck rolls by -- a reminder of the waning summer.

    The next day, Roy Lee doesn't show. But a few days later, he does.

    Oyler School at dawn.
    High school students gather on the rooftop on the first day back at school.
    After a two-year, $21 million renovation, Oyler school reopened August 22.
    After school, Hockenberry walks the neighborhood, looking for kids who didn't show up that day.


    Keeping an eye on students' eyes

    Walk into Oyler, take a right past the office, go through a set of double doors, and you'll find what basically looks like a LensCrafters. There's a waiting room with a front desk and big pictures on the walls of smiling kids wearing glasses. In a small room in the back Timothy Drifmeyer -- 13 years old, with a mop of blond hair -- settles into a big doctor's chair for his first-ever eye exam.

    Optometrist Beth Munzel starts with some questions. "First I want to talk to you a little bit about how you think your eyes are working," she says. "Do you feel like you see pretty well?" Timothy sees fine. He passed the initial testing with no problems. But Munzel digs deeper. When he reads, she asks, does he have to close one eye, or follow along with his finger? He uses his finger, Tim says.

    That's not a good sign. At this age, Tim's eyes should be able to track across the page and jump from focusing at a distance -- say, on the chalkboard – to the book on his desk. In 7th and 8th grade, the text gets a little smaller and kids read longer passages. Tim has noticed in his English class. His teacher gave the class a novel to read. "She told us to read two to three chapters a night," he says. "I can barely read it."

    Some testing explains why. It turns out Timothy's eyes are working too hard to focus when he reads. "Is it hard to remember sometimes what you're reading?" Munzel asks. He nods. Munzel explains that using so much energy just getting the words into his brain makes it harder to retain those words. And that's going to make it a lot harder to learn.

    This is why an eye clinic belongs at a school, says Oyler's principal Craig Hockenberry. The eye clinic, which officially opened Oct. 12, is the latest in its arsenal of services. When kids can't see the board or read well, "it damages them all the way through," Hockenberry says. "It has a huge impact on student achievement."

    It's not that kids at Oyler weren't getting their vision tested. In Ohio, as in most states, school nurses give basic eye screenings every few years. You remember – can you read the eye chart, and tell green from red? Hockenberry says every year, around 140 Oyler kids fail that screening. In the past, they got maybe one chance to ride the bus to a clinic for glasses. Kids that didn't make it that day were often out of luck.

    Families at Oyler don't have a lot of money. Marilyn Crumpton with the Cincinnati Health Department says even parents with Medicaid can't always get their kids to the eye doctor. "Sometimes it's a choice between going to the grocery or taking that bus trip," she says. "Poverty interferes with children getting health care."

    Now, those children can walk down the hall during lunch or gym class and take home free glasses within a week or two. The clinic is a partnership between the city and several nonprofits. One of them is a charity called OneSight. It's funded by the company that owns LensCrafters and Pearl Vision and Sunglass Hut.

    OneSight's Jason Singh says within the first year, the clinic should pay for itself by billing Medicaid. "It's the first what we would call self-sustaining school-based vision center," he says. "We really hope to replicate this model nationwide." Oyler's clinic won't just treat Oyler kids. Singh says 2,000 to 3,000 students from Cincinnati public schools will come here for exams.

    Now the fun part. Tim Drifmeyer gets to pick out his glasses. Technician Courthney Calvin slides open a glass case and pulls out several frames. Tim tries on pair after pair and frowns at the mirror. "These look sort of girly," he says.

    At this point, I can't help but weigh in. Remember, Tim is in 8th grade – arguably the most awkward year ever. He just looks so unhappy with his choices. I point out a pair of more boyish black frames. "What about these ones that are a little more square?" I ask.

    "Well, he has to get those," Calvin says, pointing to another case. "That's the case that they kind of make him choose from." Like most of the kids at Oyler, Timothy is covered by Medicaid. And Medicaid only pays for certain frames. I feel like a jerk for butting in, but Tim seems emboldened. He points to another pair.

    "You see one in here?" Calvin says. "Yeah, the black and gray ones in the third row." Timothy slides on the chunky frames. "Smooth," Calvin says. "Yeah, these are the best," Tim says.

    Happy, Tim heads back to class with a note from the doctor. He has permission to skip his homework thanks to the powerful eye drops he had to take. The next morning I find him back at the clinic trying on frames again. Turns out the glasses he liked he could only get in purple. "I liked them, but it just wouldn't be right for a boy," he says.

    He finds a new pair – very masculine, with wire rims – he says he likes even better.

    If you can't see the board, it's hard to do your work. The school's on-site vision center does eye exams and sets kids up with free glasses.
    It takes a community to see clearly. The equipment for the clinic was donated by OneSight, a foundation created by the parent company of LensCrafters and Pearle Vision.
    Eighth-grader Timothy Drifmeyer test drives several pairs of glasses before making a choice.
    Optometrist Beth Munzel examines Timothy Drifmeyer's eyes. Munzel left private practice to work at Ohio's first school-based vision clinic.
  • Makeover

    Oyler School gets a makeover

    Let's start with the brown, grimy carpet on the third floor. You could smell it as you walked up the stairs. "Didn't matter how many times we cleaned it," says principal Craig Hockenberry. "It stunk."

    Oyler was built in 1930, a palace of brick and terra cotta in its day. But for years it had been showing its age: dark and dreary hallways, peeling paint, flickering fluorescent lights. And the bathrooms?

    "I mean I wouldn't even go to the bathroom in it," says Hockenberry. "And the water fountains? I wouldn't even take a sip out of them."

    In the fall and late spring, it was also hot. Nancy Wyenandt has taught at Oyler for 27 years. She says there were days the temperature reached 104 degrees in the third floor classrooms.

    "It was very hard to – even for the kids to stay awake," she says. "We'd have kids leave the classroom to throw up."

    It would be tough for anyone to learn in that kind of environment. And these kids already have it tougher than most. They walk to school past boarded up buildings and drug deals, and often go home at night to hunger and violence. "Their lives, in a lot of cases, are really a web of a tangled mess sometimes," Hockenberry says. "When they come to school, they're so easily distracted."

    Those distractions – the noise, the heat, the grime – send a message. "A poor building imparts a poor attitude, and it has an effect on learning," says David Thompson, chair of educational leadership at Kansas State University.

    Decades of research have made a pretty strong case that lighting, noise, air quality and basic aesthetics all affect how well students learn. "It doesn't take a Cadillac in order to do the job," Thompson says. "It takes a school building where children feel valued, where teachers feel valued, and where the environment and the surroundings don't get in the way."

    The new Oyler, it's fair to say, is a Cadillac. After two years and a $21 million makeover, the public school, which goes from preschool to 12th grade, reopened in its original building in late August. The walls are creamy white and pale green, the floors spotless linoleum. Large windows look out to a colorful playground with a fountain and freshly paved basketball court.

    Jami Luggen, says she can see the difference on the children's faces. As the school's resource coordinator, she helps connect students with services like counseling and hands out packages of food for weekends. "Just knowing that they're going to have all the advantages that are offered in this school building, a beautiful building, I mean, how can you not come in here with a positive attitude?" she says.

    Senior Crystal Kornegay has been at Oyler since second grade. "Normally people leave Oyler because they say it's in Lower Price Hill, a bad neighborhood," she says. "But now since it's rebuilt everybody wants to attend this school now."

    Do they ever. Enrollment has jumped so much Oyler's had to bring in several new teachers. It wasn't hard to recruit them. The school doesn't just look better. The science department has real lab equipment and every classroom is wired with internet access and a built-in projector*. "It's just unbelievable for me," Wyenandt says. "I just never thought in my career, which is now 32 years, that I would be in a building so impressive."

    Kids are more engaged and have a better attitude, she says. At the old school students wrote on the walls and trashed the restrooms. "But you know people aren't writing on the walls, the kids are enjoying the fresh air," she says. "They're more motivated."

    And those 104-degree classrooms? The new Oyler has central air, so the school can shut the windows to what goes on outside.

    Oyler is ready for its close-up after two years and a $21 million makeover.
    BEFORE: A whole lotta purple and no air conditioning.
    AFTER: Bright, shiny and cool in lots of ways.
    BEFORE: Check out the ancient PC on the teacher's desk.
    AFTER: Classrooms get a tech upgrade and the school gets wi-fi.
  • Christmas

    A merry Oyler Christmas

    It's the week before Christmas break at Oyler School. Volunteers from the Cincinnati Bar Association sing carols in the hallways. Santa Cop pays a visit. And every class, from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has a party and presents. They've all been "adopted" by local businesses. First grader Josiline Ellis unwraps a pair of Bratz dolls from a volunteer.

    "I don't know her name yet, but she's very nice to give it to me," Josiline says.

    Her name is Michele Heintz. She works at Paycor, a payroll processing company. "This is one of the big things we like to do at Christmas time, just kind of giving back to the community," Heintz says. "And the kids enjoy it. You see it on their faces."

    Josiline, it appears, is also getting her two front teeth for Christmas. They're just poking through. But she has her eye on a more exciting present.

    "I also wanted a doggie," she says. She talked it over with Santa. "He said he might," Josiline says. "But sometimes he says that the dogs get pretty cold on the sleigh in the North Pole."

    The holidays can be a bleak time for families without a lot of money to spend on toys and gifts. That's where schools often step in, with help from donations. Businesses and charities donate thousands of dollars worth of goods to Oyler families this time of year – parkas for the Ohio winter, baskets of food to take home for the holidays, and the festivities are nonstop.

    "We've done a lot to try to make it…fun for kids, to kind of take their mind off some of the holiday season things that they won't be involved in," says Craig Hockenberry, the school's principal.

    The students also give back. This year Oyler high schoolers raised money to help two families in need celebrate Christmas.

    Santa makes an Oyler house call during the holidays.
    Oyler kids take turns telling the big guy what they'd like for Christmas. The local community delivers on the presents.
  • Manners

    Students learn to mind their manners

    Every Wednesday the seniors at Oyler meet for a lesson in life skills. Today's guest, Quiera Levy-Smith, is smartly dressed in a suit and artsy glasses. She goes by the name Q.

    "I'm here to talk a little bit about etiquette – specifically business etiquette," she starts out. "Can anybody tell me what they think etiquette means?"

    The following week the students will go out for lunch at a nice restaurant downtown. So today they go over what to wear. No jeans. Low heels. Hats off, boys. They talk about what to order. Nothing too messy or expensive. For some of these seniors, it'll be the first time they've ordered from a menu or confronted a salad fork.

    Q lays out a place setting on the teacher's desk. "I did not, you know, come out of the womb knowing how to eat at a business lunch," she tells the students. "If you make a mistake, stuff happens."

    To illustrate, she lets a knife clatter to the floor. "Do not panic. You're at a restaurant. They have lots of knives."

    The class is called Steps for Success. It matches seniors with mentors from the professional world to help them make it to graduation and prepare for life after school. Mentors help students apply for college and financial aid, write resumes and interview for jobs.

    A lot of students at Oyler don't get this kind of support at home, says mentor director Jim Stilgenbauer. "We had one student last year that nobody came to her graduation," he says. "The only person that was there was her mentor from the program. So having that adult influence to say ‘Okay, I'm involved, I care about you, I'm paying attention to you,' is huge for these kids to stay focused."

    The business lunch is meant to help them navigate the kinds of grownup encounters lots of people take for granted. At the lunch last year, one student thought his mentor must know the waitress because they had such a friendly conversation. "It's not that they don't want to do right," says co-founder Michele Phelps. "It's just that they haven't necessarily seen it or experienced it."

    "We still did have a student that just stuck a whole chicken with a fork and ate if off the fork," Stilgenbauer says. "But you know, baby steps,"

    On a chilly Wednesday just before Christmas, the latest crop of seniors heads downtown. Fountain Square is just a short drive from the rundown rowhouses and empty lots of Lower Price Hill. But it's a world away.

    Raven Gribbins – 17 years old and dressed up in new jeans and high-heeled boots – totters past ice skaters and a Salvation Army bell ringer to the Rock Bottom Brewery. The chain restaurant and pub is decked out for the holidays and buzzing with the lunch crowd.

    Raven's mentor is Holly Gundrum, a real estate investor and physical therapist. They share a table with another senior, Crystal Kornegay, and her mentor. As they study the menu, Raven considers the chicken quesadilla. She likes the ones at Taco Bell, she says. Holly tells her the vegetables will be fresher here. "I don't eat vegetables," Raven says. By the time the waiter comes, she's settled on the steak.

    While they wait, they talk about sports and college. Both girls have applied to several schools. Raven will be the first in her family to finish high school. Then the food arrives and the girls face their first etiquette dilemma – whether to use a fork for their fries.

    Crystal's mentor shakes her head – fingers are fine. So they dig in. The lunch goes well. Nobody drops a knife. And before long it's time to get back to school.

    On the drive, Crystal and Raven debrief. "I thought everybody was going to be real, real dressed up," says Crystal. "So when I came with pants I was like .‘I'm going to be the only one with pants on.'"

    "I thought that, too," Raven says.

    As they get farther from downtown, the conversation drifts closer to home.

    "Raven, did you hear about that boy who died by my street?" Crystal asks.

    "Yep," Raven says. "Did you hear about the shooting that happened up at West High Friday night?"

    Holly pulls her SUV into the parking lot at Oyler and the girls go inside. Holly says Raven did pretty well at the lunch. "I guess I would tell her not to the order the steak," she says. "That was one of the more expensive items on the menu."

    But Holly knows the finer points of restaurant dining are the least of Raven's worries. The harder part will be getting her to a place where she can use those skills.

    "I think she's done well, looking at all the challenges she's faced," she says. "I think moving forward into college she's going to have to work extremely hard. I worry a little bit about that – that she could give up."

    Raven is determined. She wants to study criminal justice in college and come back and improve the neighborhood. "I want to make something of my life," she says. Raven says her parents have both been in and out of jail and struggled with drug addiction. "I want to make a better life than what they had," she says.

    The kind of life with business lunches.

    VIDEO: Oyler School Minds its Manners.
    Raven Gribbins, left, gets a lesson in doing lunch from mentor Holly Gundrum at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • College

    College rules the day at Oyler

    There's a parade of cute coming down the hallway – a gaggle of first graders, walking single file, each one wearing a construction paper crown with a Penn State or University of Delaware logo.

    The procession passes a classroom door decked out with the Seton Hall mascot. "Pirates!" the kids shout.

    Today, every door at Oyler has been decorated to represent a college or university. The kids walk past the University of Georgia, Auburn and Cincinnati State. These 6- and 7-year-olds are still learning to read. So they practice.

    "Start here, and go down," teacher Michelle Reiring instructs them, pointing to a sign for the University of Missouri.

    Then they come to another door, with letters cut out from magazines, like a ransom note. Seven-year-old Mark Tobin slowly sounds out the words.

    "Did you know college graduates make almost twice as much money as people who don't have a degree?" he manages.

    "How cool is that?" Reiring says.

    And that's pretty much the point of this day – to get kids from preschool to 12th grade talking and thinking about college. "When I came to Oyler, there was, like, this complete absence of college," says Oyler's principal Craig Hockenberry. "Nobody even knew what a college was."

    When Hockenberry took the job 12 years ago, Oyler only went through eighth grade. After Oyler added the upper grades, Hockenberry set about building a college-going culture at the school – almost from scratch.

    Most Oyler parents never finished high school, let alone went to college, Hockenberry says. "It's not a dinner table topic," he says. "There's a lot of absence of conversation with parents about that."

    Once a year, Oyler devotes a day to having that conversation. Teachers and staff wear college gear. There's a recruiting fair in the gym. And every class spends an hour talking about college.

    Teacher Joe Saylor shows his class of fifth graders the website for Hocking College, a small public school in Ohio. A recent Oyler graduate goes there.

    "This is direct evidence that if you graduate high school from Oyler, you can go to college," he tells them. "You can succeed."

    Saylor says that's a message kids from Oyler need to hear long before sophomore or junior year. "You have to plant that seed early," he says. "The sad truth is, not only are they not hearing it at home, they may be hearing the opposite at home: ‘You're not going to go to college. You're no better than me.'"

    Saylor knows. He grew up a block away from the school. He also knows college isn't for everyone. This year Oyler's added trades into the mix, like plumbing and auto detailing.

    At the recruiting fair in the gym, senior Richard Carter checks out an apprentice program in construction. He could start making around $15 an hour right out of school, while taking some classes.

    "I wanted to actually do something hands on, where they pay me so I don't have to pay them that much," he says.

    The real mission of this day is to encourage kids to set their sights beyond high school. Joe Saylor's fifth graders seem to be getting the message. Their guest speaker, Chip Murdock arrives. He's an admissions rep from Wilmington College.

    "How many of you guys want to go to college some day?" he asks.

    All of them raise their hands.

    Senior Richard Carter talks to Larry Thompson with the Greater Cincinnati Apprenticeship Council about doing a construction apprenticeship after high school.
    College is the theme of the day once a year at Oyler. This artwork touts the financial benefits of a degree.
    A wall promotes the University of Texas – and an upcoming basketball game against Oyler's big rival, Riverview East.
  • Bubble

    Principal Hockenberry on the bubble

    Craig Hockenberry is in his office, interviewing a potential science teacher for next year, when a letter arrives.

    "'Dear Mr. Hockenberry, thanks for your service,'" he reads. "'This is to inform you that your administrative contract expires, and your services will no longer be needed, effective July 31, 2013.'"

    He knew it was coming. Cincinnati Public Schools is facing at least a $46 million hole in its budget next year. The district is laying off every administrator whose contract expires this summer – more than 70 people.

    Getting a pink slip when you're trying to hire someone could be a little awkward, but he goes right back into the sales pitch. "We're moving forward as if we're all coming back," he tells the job candidate."Whatever happens, one dead monkey don't stop the circus down here at Oyler, and it's a good school."

    This happened once before in Hockenberry's career – he was brought back the next day – and it is likely most of the principals will keep their jobs this time, possibly with less pay.

    "We're kind of heartsick about it, actually," says CPS spokesperson Janet Walsh.

    The district may not know exactly how much state funding it will get until July, she says. Officials don't want to get locked into a new contract with principals until that's sorted out.

    "We've been in a budget crisis, really, for several years," Walsh says. "So we need to preserve all of the options to close that really huge gap."

    To a lot of people Hockenberry is Oyler. He's been there almost 15 years. He's led its transformation – from a failing elementary school in a rundown building to a gleaming, preschool-12 community learning center. Slowly Hockenberry and his staff have pulled Oyler up from the bottom of the state's ranking system.

    "We're here because we want to work with Craig and we believe in his mission and the way he wants to run the school," says teacher Beth Dorfman. Now teachers are wondering if they should stick around next year, she says.

    "You just question what the place would be like if he wasn't here," she says.

    Someday, Hockenberry will leave. It's a lot of job for one guy – school during the day, meetings and fundraisers at night. He's about to put his house on the market. Too many people from the neighborhood found out where he lives and started showing up at his front door.

    He also has ambitions to become superintendent one day. "I would love to be in that role," he says. "Obviously the non-renewal is going to make my search even more diligent right now."

    For now, though, he's got work to do. As school lets out, Hockenberry slips on a white windbreaker with the word "principal" spelled out in big black letters. There's been a lot of fighting on Hatmaker Street, right in front of the school. Bullets were flying over the weekend. So Hockenberry and his staff fan out to block the street and keep kids from walking into trouble.

    "Anybody that doesn't listen to our treaty line here – they go home," he tells his colleagues. Before long a group of students starts heading down the block his way.

    "Let them know, when they get to me, they're going home for three days," he says over the radio.

    Whatever happens, Hockenberry says Oyler will carry on without him.

    "It will run well if they find somebody that has the passion and the sense of urgency, too," he says. "If that day comes – it may never come. I may spend the rest of my career at Oyler and I would not be unhappy."

    But just in case, he's been sending his resume around.

    Oyler Principal Craig Hockenberry on the streets of Lower Price Hill.
    Hockenberry keeps his eye on things from above.
  • Path

    One student's path from Oyler to college

    It's recruit day at Penn State Greater Allegheny. Promising high school athletes have been invited to check out the small campus just outside Pittsburgh. A few dozen students and parents file into a classroom for a Q&A with professors.

    "We're not part of the glossy brochure thing," a professor reassures them. "So we'll give you the true answer."

    From the sea of expectant faces, a hand pops up from a pretty, brown-haired girl in a hot pink blazer and artfully torn jeans.

    "How good is your math program here?" she asks.

    The question is from Raven Gribbins, an 18-year-old senior at Oyler. She wants to be a math teacher. It would be hard to overstate how far Raven has come to get here. I don't just mean the six-hour drive from Cincinnati with her dad and basketball coach – or that the school principal had to dip into some funds from donors to pay for the gas and hotel.

    Just a few years ago, Raven going to Penn State would have seemed unlikely. That's when a video of her in a street fight with another girl popped up on YouTube. Raven's temper flared up at school, too. She's worked hard to rein it in.

    "I knew I wasn't going to graduate if I kept up with my smart mouth," she says. "It wasn't going to get me nowhere."

    And she wants to go somewhere. Raven grew up in Lower Price Hill, or 8th and State as the locals call it. A lot of the families have roots in the coal-mining towns of Kentucky and West Virginia. Over the years, poverty and drugs have eroded what had been a close-knit working class neighborhood. Both of Raven's parents have struggled with addiction, and been in and out of jail – especially her mom. Every time her mom went to jail, Raven would act up in school and wind up suspended.

    "Now I realize that I can't live her life for her," Raven says. "She's going to make her own choices, so I can't worry about her no more."

    "She's the epitome of what our young ladies go through down here," says Joe Saylor, Raven's basketball coach at Oyler. He grew up in the neighborhood. "One day she might have her drug-addicted aunt's kids – taking care of them," he says. "The next day she'll be here playing basketball just like a normal high school student in Anytown, USA."

    Just the fact that there is a high school is a big part of Raven's story. When her dad and Joe Saylor were at Oyler, it only went to sixth grade. Most kids didn't want to leave the neighborhood for high school, so they dropped out. Then seven years ago, Oyler added a high school and eventually team sports and prom – the things that keep kids interested in school. Seniors are paired up with mentors to help them graduate. Next month, Raven will be the first in her family to finish high school.

    "Someone has to be the one to break that cycle of not being educated and living in poverty," Saylor says. "Our students here at Oyler are doing that. We have first generation college students coming out our high school every year."

    For Raven, a change of scenery helped. This year she moved out of the neighborhood, where she'd been living with her grandmother since she was 9.

    "People were getting shot down here and every time you go outside there's a drug deal going on," she says.

    She's back with her dad, Mike Gribbins, in a quieter part of town. He's been sober now for more than five years. He goes to Raven's games and gets on her about her homework. Under his watch, she's brought her grades up from mostly Cs to mostly As.

    "This is probably the only year that I'm going to have, you know, to spend it with my daughter," Gribbins says. "So I kind of feel lucky, you know, that I got this opportunity."

    "Hearing him say this stuff, it means a lot because now I know he actually does care," Raven says. "And a daughter needs a father in her life." So last weekend, father and daughter and coach piled into a car and drove 300 miles to McKeesport, Penn.

    Raven plays volleyball, too. The coach at Penn State Greater Allegheny spotted her on a recruiting website and emailed her out of the blue. Raven got to stay in a dorm and tour the campus – and show off her volleyball skills in the gym. As they get ready to head back to Cincinnati, Coach Saylor asks Raven how she liked it.

    "To me, this place fits you," he says. "I think it would be good for me," Raven says. "It's a small campus, there's really nice people, the coach is nice. I fit in with them."

    It's by no means a done deal. Raven hasn't actually been accepted yet. She just took the ACT for the third time, hoping to raise her score.

    Then there's the question of how to pay for it – whether she'll get enough financial aid. And even then, Saylor says, can she make the break?

    "What scares me is that, if she gets an opportunity to go away to college, will she take it?" he says. "Because you always feel like you're being pulled back into your family's drama."

    For now, Raven's just worn out from her adventure. She grabs her pillow out of the trunk and settles in for the long the ride home.

    Raven Gribbins sits in on a classroom discussion at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
    Mike Gribbins with daughter Raven, the family's first high school graduate.
  • Prom

    At Oyler, prom is more than a party

    Darrick Wilson has decided he wants to go to prom. Only problem? It starts in about six hours, and he has nothing to wear.

    As soon as school's out, staffer Jami Luggen drives Darrick and his date to Sears. On the way, they order their $20 tickets on the phone.

    "I will pay for them either tonight or when I get back," Luggen tells Darrick.

    When they get to the store, they make a bee-line for the men's section. Darrick spots a purple dress shirt. Luggen finds a pair of brown slacks on sale.

    "Ah, perfect," Luggen says as they head to the dressing room.

    Luggen is the resource coordinator at Oyler School. Most of the kids come from low-income families. She's in charge of wrangling pretty much anything they need – food, health care, size 17 dress shirt.

    "Anything it takes to get the job done," she says. "You want to do the same thing for them that you do for your own kids."

    Passion, who's 16, steps out of the dressing room with a beige and white strapless dress, revealing a pregnant belly. She and Darrick are good friends. To match her dress, he trades in the purple shirt for a cream-colored one with a brown tie.

    "I think you guys will look great together," Luggen says.

    She covers the $150 for the whole ensemble. They'll work it off helping her with the after-school program.

    Oyler hasn't been doing prom all that long. It added the upper grades seven years ago to try to stop a dropout epidemic in the neighborhood. Building a culture of graduates meant adding all the trappings of high school. The first prom was in the gym with a borrowed boom box. The students requested a prom, says principal Craig Hockenberry.

    "They asked for it, but I don't think they knew exactly what it was," he says. "They just heard other high schools had it."

    Many of the kids' parents and grandparents never went to high school, he says, "so prom wasn't really part of their vocabulary."

    Now they've got it down. The school shuttles the girls to a local charity that outfits them with gowns, shoes and jewelry. The event is in a banquet hall with a dance floor and buffet. As the couples arrive, they get the red carpet treatment.

    "It's like they've been transformed into this environment of, you know, you're just like everybody else," says assistant principal Amy Woods.

    Inside, it's just like any prom. A couple makes out in a corner. Someone tries to sneak in a flask. And there's line dance after line dance – the Wobble, the Cha Cha Slide. You'd never guess Darrick Wilson, living it up in his brand new shirt and pants, almost didn't come.

    "I'm really not a party person," he says, catching his breath in the lobby, "but I'm really having a lot of fun here today."

    Darrick got kicked out of Oyler in 9th grade for behavior problems. Hockenberry and the basketball coach talked him into coming back. Next year he's going to the University of Cincinnati's Clermont College on a full basketball scholarship.

    "It feels so good," he says. "I'm going to graduate on my birthday, so there's nothing more I could want on that day, just to graduate and be able to get my diploma."

    As the dance winds down, Hockenberry takes the stage. "I want to remind you all about being safe when you leave here tonight," he tells the kids over the PA system. "Make sure you make the right decisions and I will be at the after party. I heard where it is."

    The kids howl in protest. With graduation in a few weeks, Hockenberry knows he doesn't have much longer to watch over these kids.

    Crystal Kornegay, Prom Queen 2013, checks out her royal hairdo.
    Prom starts in a few hours, and senior Darrick Wilson is still looking for the right look.
  • Graduation

    At Oyler, graduation is a neighborhood affair

    It's just a few hours till graduation, and principal Craig Hockenberry steps out for one of his last walks around the neighborhood before the school year ends.

    "What's up, Nate?" he says to the postman, making his rounds. "Graduation tonight," Hockenberry says. "Big party on State Street."

    The neighborhood is looking good. Crews of volunteers have been clearing out trash and old tires. Hockenberry spots a row of brick houses being painted.

    "We need every house done like this," he says.

    Along the way, neighbors and former students try to score tickets to the ceremony. "I'll get you in, if you want to watch it," he tells a young man on a bike.

    Oyler is gearing up for a crowd. This is only the fourth official class to graduate from the high school.

    "People come, whether they have kids here or not," says Jami Luggen, Oyler's resource coordinator. "They just come to see the success of the kids of the neighborhood."

    "It makes me a little uncomfortable because I always think of these as very solemn," says Hockenberry. "But I've also got to remember that this is more than the child graduating." It's a day that eluded that child's parents and grandparents, he says. "So have fun, Lower Price Hill."

    And Lower Price Hill does not disappoint. At five o'clock, the seniors file into Oyler's packed art deco auditorium – the young men in black caps and gowns, the women in silver. A mom in shorts and a tank top crouches in front to snap pictures.

    Principal Hockenberry takes the podium. "It is my pleasure and my honor to welcome you all to Oyler School, the pride of Cincinnati Public."

    The pride of Cincinnati Public. It's how he answers the phone, signs his emails. It's all part of Hockenberry's campaign to turn things around at Oyler – the reality and the perception.

    "There was a lot of lack of pride in this community and this neighborhood," he says. "I personally believe if you say something enough, that you slowly start to believe it."

    As students have made steady progress on test scores, he says people don’t laugh anymore. But he knows Oyler has a long way to go. It’s ranked in the bottom five percent of schools in the state. That’s partly because its official graduation rate -- the percentage of kids who start in 9th grade and finish in four years -- is so low. Less than 36 percent last year.

    But of those who make it to senior year, most cross the finish line. Forty-one students this year. One by one they walk across the stage to collect their diplomas. In a back corner, the Gribbins family erupts as Raven’s name is called. Her father, grandfather and grandmother all went to Oyler. None of them finished school.

    A week before graduation, Raven was accepted at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny campus. She wants to study math and education. There’s still the very real question of how to pay for it. Even after grants and government loans, she still needs to come up with $11,000 for next year. Which probably means more debt. She sees it as the price of a better life.

    “If you don’t have a college degree you’re always living paycheck to paycheck, struggling, and then you always end up doing something you don’t want to do,” she says. “So when you go get your degree, then you could do what you’d like to do.”

    Most of Raven’s classmates plan to attend at least some college. A few are headed for apprenticeships or trade school. About a third will go straight into the workforce. But a lot can happen over the summer. Just before the ceremony, Hockenberry ran into one of his most promising seniors from last year. College didn’t work out.

    “I see kids that graduated from Oyler that just -- they didn’t make it,” he says. “So now instead of being a dropout…they’re walking the streets and doing drugs with a diploma.”

    After the ceremony, everyone pours out onto Hatmaker Street. A few families fire up some barbecues for a cookout in the parking lot. The celebration is tinged with sadness. The night before an Oyler parent -- with kids in preschool and kindergarten -- was shot and killed in front of his house.

    Hockenberry says there’s less violent crime in the neighborhood since the school reopened this year after its renovation -- but it’s never far away.

    “Even though we make a lot of progress here, we take steps back often,” he says. “That’s the challenge here in the inner city.”

    He’ll be back next year to take up the challenge again. After the budget uncertainty a few months ago, the district renewed his contract -- with a paycut. He’s already cooking up plans for next year: a dental clinic inside the school and a barber shop.

    And as we talk for the last time this school year, another idea takes shape.

    “It’s almost like we need an office of postsecondary, you know what I mean, to follow the kids -- especially now that we’re in the hundreds.”

    Kids that a decade ago may never have finished high school.

    Crystal Kornegay at Oyler's graduation.
    Raven Gribbins collects her diploma from Oyler principal Craig Hockenberry.
    On May 15, Oyler held the first graduation in its newly restored auditorium.