Above photo courtesy of The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Documentary in the Making

"One School, One Year” is a documentary about a Cincinnati school trying to build a culture of high school graduates and break the cycle of poverty in its Urban Appalachian neighborhood. Part of the growing community schools movement, Oyler is a one-stop-shop for its students and their families. It provides resources like health care, counseling, nutrition and early childhood education alongside instruction.

The film follows Oyler's dynamic principal, Craig Hockenberry, and three seniors through a year of school. It explores how a community approach to education helps kids overcome the obstacles of poverty to graduate and go on to college. We follow students as they get medical treatment right at school, rather than waiting hours at the local clinic, and as they get glasses at the school's own vision center. We're there as they learn how to dress for interviews and eat at a nice restaurant downtown; as they start looking at colleges and vocational schools, and learn how to fill out complicated financial aid forms; and as they make their way to become, in most cases, the first in their families to graduate and go to college.

These are children who've grown up surrounded by crime, drugs, and violence. Their parents work low-wage jobs or rely on welfare. Education could be these kids' only way out.

The documentary explores this question: if education is the great equalizer, what does it take to get disadvantaged kids to succeed in school and on the path out of poverty? Could Oyler School be a model for a national solution?

The Beginnings

When I first visited Oyler in February 2012, the old neighborhood school on Hatmaker Street was being renovated. The teachers and students had moved up the hill to a temporary space a mile or so away. It was that school where I reported my first story about Oyler, which aired on Marketplace as part of a series about poverty and education. The temporary space was a typical mid-20th century school – a squat brick building with cinder block walls and fluorescent lighting. Nothing to write home about.

Before I left that day, someone encouraged me to drive by the old school in Lower Price Hill. It would be re-opening in August, they told me, with a brand new vision clinic and a daycare and preschool serving kids as young as six weeks old.

So, on my way back to the hotel, I drove down the winding roads into the Lower Price Hill historic district. It was the golden hour, just before dusk. And there it was. Amidst the empty lots and rundown row houses, a massive 1930 brick-and-terra-cotta school practically glowed in the waning sunlight.

An idea started to take shape. This was more than a five-minute radio story. This had to be a documentary film.