FEATURE STORIES

Oyler School -
Stopping the Cycle of Poverty


by Christine Grote
March 2008

 

After 19-year-old student Dan Bruening wrote him a letter, Craig Hockenberry, the principal of Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio, went to visit him in jail.  According to Hockenberry, Bruening had never been in trouble before.  Now he was in jail for breaking into an abandoned building in an attempt to steal the copper out of it.  The building’s owner claimed he had lived there at the time so the crime became a home invasion which carried a steeper penalty.

In a recent conversation at Oyler School, Hockenberry said that when he talked to Bruening in jail, he told him that he didn’t condone what he had done, but at the same time he knew for a fact that the building’s owner did not live there.  “What Dan did was bad.  It was wrong, but not necessarily something that should ruin the rest of his life,” Hockenberry said.  “He was looking at 5 to 10 years in state prison.”

By working with Bruening’s lawyer and the judge at his trial, Hockenberry was able to get him out under the agreement that he would attend Oyler School again in the fall and get his high school diploma.   Since September when he got out of jail, Bruening “hasn’t missed a single day of school and has been working pretty much around the clock,” Hockenberry said.  “His family is real grateful for what I’ve done.  And of course they’re real grateful that there’s actually a high school option for him.”

Graduating students from high school is Hockenberry’s big goal.    

Oyler School is located in an older community on the west side of Cincinnati called Lower Price Hill.  The community is nestled in a valley where the streets rise at a fairly steep incline up Price Hill on one side and lead to the Ohio River on the other. Oyler School is bordered on three sides by narrow streets lined with brick buildings, many containing boarded up windows.

For some years, Lower Price Hill has been a rough and tumble area.  A main intersection at Eighth and State streets, two blocks from Oyler School, was considered by many Cincinnati west-siders as one of the most dangerous intersections in town back in the 1970s.  Things haven’t changed much. When asked to characterize Oyler’s neighborhood, Hockenberry said, “About 100% of our families are living at the poverty level or below poverty level.”  The school is composed of about 70% poor white and about 30% poor black families. 

Although parental involvement in activities at the school, like conferences night and family fun nights, is pretty high, and volunteers are plentiful when needed,   Hockenberry said that parental involvement is low when it comes to academics or helping their kids with homework and doing the basic things to prepare them for school.  Many parents aren’t “capable of helping their kids academically to the point where we need them to,” he said, estimating that between 90 to 100% of Oyler parents have dropped out of school themselves.  “Many of them struggle with a lot of the basic academic skills that they need to push their kids,” he said.  “That’s a challenge for us.” 

Another challenge, according to Hockenberry is simply the poverty.  “Poverty has a lot of tendencies,” he said.  “No funds is no fun.”  When people don’t have any money they “do horrible things to get it and to get the resources to enable them to survive.” That leads to drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction, he explained.  “You have people who will do anything, any means necessary, including crime and burglary, to fill that addiction.”

Hockenberry is well acquainted with the judicial and penal system.  He estimates that about 50% of the families that go to Oyler have somebody in their immediate family who is, or has been, incarcerated, whether it is a mom, dad, brother, sister, uncle or whatever.  Hockenberry added, “Each year, depending on the year, we probably have anywhere from 20 to 30 students who are incarcerated.”  They could be anywhere from in the 4th grade to the 12th.  Hockenberry has visited young adults in jail, and he has taken kids to visit their dads there.

Many of the parents that are incarcerated write to the school and to Hockenberry personally, asking about how their kids are doing.   The staff at the school puts together information: photographs and reports, for the parents and mails it to the jail.

Hockenberry keeps in close contact with “a very influential father from the neighborhood” who’s been locked up with a sentence of 5 years but is getting out in 3.  This father has 5 boys and a girl at Oyler.  “Although he’s had a lot of run-ins with the law, he’s always a father who was involved in Oyler:  helped out, volunteered, attended all the parent conferences, and made sure his kids behaved right,” Hockenberry said.  If Hockenberry has a problem with anybody in the neighborhood, this father usually supports him and the school and uses his influence to make sure they settle down.  “I think he was the guy the people in the neighborhood would go to if they needed something.  He was the guy who would help solve disputes.  He was the kind of guy that if you needed something done at the school, he’d be one of the first ones here to help out,” Hockenberry said.  This father used to check on his kids at school all the time.  Now that he’s locked up they rely on letters and photographs.

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Craig Hockenberry

Craig Hockenberry, Oyler School Principal

 


Oyler School - Cincinnati, Ohio

Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio

 

Oyler neighborhood

Oyler school's neighborhood