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Principal spends 15 years revitalizing the education system in a poor Cincinnati neighborhood

By Grace Wakim

CINCINNATI – The 2015 candid documentary film Oyler: One School, One Year follows the lives of Principal Craig Hockenberry and Oyler High School students in the climatic 2008 year. A statement from the Ohio Department of Education includes five models for improving academic achievement, and only one model wouldn’t replace Hockenberry.

Craig Hockenberry didn’t anticipate landing a career in education with a 1.9 GPA that left him six students shy from the lowest class ranking his senior year of high school.

A Mount St. Joseph University football coach visited Hockenberry during senior year. The coach offered him a spot on the team but emphasized the possibility of being denied acceptance to the university if his grades don’t improve. Hockenberry works hard in school and joins the football team.

Early childhood life in rural northeastern Ohio looks shockingly different than that of his current students; care-free parenting and long afternoons playing in the neighborhood without supervision.

1994 School Year

Hockenberry arrives at Oyler School and quickly finds a poverty-stricken neighborhood submerged in rape, drug addiction and murder.

“It was a very gloomy place,” he says.

Children living within the district attend Oyler from Kindergarten through sixth grade. They expand the program to provide education for seventh to ninth graders and eventually create a wholly equipped high school.

Around 15% of kids never make it past their sophomore year. Soaring drop-out rates only perpetuate a community trapped in its deathly cycle of addiction with uneducated citizens.

Hockenberry pitches a revolutionary vision that includes a one-stop shop service within a new high school.

2008 School Year

Oyler starts its eighth consecutive year operating as a full-service high school with higher graduation rates and attendance records.

Hockenberry now spends most days walking the streets of Lower Price Hill hunting down absent students one morning of the 2009 school year.

“It’s kind of become an economic desert,” says Hockenberry.

The State of Ohio recognizes Oyler as a priority school because it sits in the bottom 5% of schools based on academic achievement.

Despite low test scores and ongoing poverty, Hockenberry never judges his students. He treats the kids with grace and respect if they need help, whether it is a mental, familial, financial, or physical issue.

“I scrubbed her hair, I hit him with an Epi-Pen,” he says.

Hockenberry considers the kids at Oyler High an extension of his own family. He shows up when family members can’t and instills students with confidence, desperately hoping they achieve more than those before them.

January 17

A mother of three is murdered. Hockenberry visits the memorial site, without hesitation, and admires the personal notes and objects her children left behind. Drug violence and addiction frequently kill many parents in this poor Appalachian community. Family drama and death wreaks havoc on these hopeless kids.

The complete absence of college at Oyler inspires Hockenberry to implement a school-wide college preparation day which encourages younger children they can succeed and attend college despite ugly family history or their expectations.

Hockenberry unconsciously reaches for trash tucked within a patch of dying shrubbery while approaching a street fight during school hours.

A fight breaks out between members on the boys’ basketball team. He communicates with local police officers and agrees to address the team himself. Impulsive behavior threatens his chances of staying at Oyler so he won’t let them get in trouble.

May 15

Families of 50 graduating students gather at Oyler for a highly anticipated afternoon. First-generation high-school graduates merrily accept their diplomas and celebrate this monumental accomplishment. Smiles appear on every face in the crowd.

“My favorite day of the year,” says Hockenberry.

Intelligent and motivated students reflect on their time at Oyler after the graduation ceremony. Family members embrace the education staff members and thank them.

Hockenberry receives a call on his Blackberry, and he learns of his return to Oyler for the next academic year.

July 28

Although graduation rates steadily increased during his years working for the Oyler School District, it wasn’t enough. The Ohio Department of Education announces their decision to replace Hockenberry after reading and math test scores slipped.

Hockenberry spends 15 years transforming his community and changing lives.

His time in Lower Price Hill ends. He leaves Oyler behind and accepts another job before the district could appeal.

July 2

He resigns the night of July 1 and visits his office one last time on July 2.

This shocking news saddens the community, but they eagerly wait for his success as the new Superintendent in Manchester, Ohio.

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