Oyler School struggles to make a community model work
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On a spring morning at Oyler Community Learning Center, in Cincinnati, Ohio, an announcement comes over the PA system: “Would the following students please report to the cafeteria…” It sounds like someone’s in trouble.
But, it’s just the opposite. They’re being summoned for a donut breakfast — a reward for making the honor roll, or missing no more than two days of school during the quarter.
Step one in turning around a school like Oyler: getting kids to show up. Children living in poverty get sick more often. They have to take care of brothers and sisters. Families move a lot, or don’t have reliable transportation, and sometimes a little nudge helps.
“Come on up,” principal Amy Randolph tells the students gathered at tables in front of her. “You can have as many donuts as your stomach will allow.”
The state of Ohio has a minimum attendance requirement, and last year Oyler didn’t meet it. So out came incentives like the donuts, and raffles for gift cards to places like Chipotle and H&M.
“School wide, we have increased about 5 percent just in this past school year, so I think that that is an indicator that there’s a little more motivation,” Randolph says.
But it’s going to take a lot more than donuts and gift cards to transform Oyler, which is ranked among the lowest-performing schools in the state. It’s going to take higher scores on state tests. After several years of progress, Oyler has backslid in the last two years. And this year Ohio switched over to new, and by all accounts harder, tests aligned with the Common Core standards.
“Oh, it was a lot harder,” says eighth-grader Justin Justice.
Justin and his classmates spent this spring prepping for the second round of the new math tests. Justin says he did pretty well on the first round back in February.
Still, Rachel Tapp, his teacher, says test scores can’t capture everything Oyler has achieved.
“I agree that we need accountability, but I do wish we had a better way of showing the work that actually gets done around here, because it is amazing,” she says. “It does feel bad to fail over and over and over in the eyes of the state.”
A lot of the work Tapp is talking about happens outside the classroom. Oyler, which serves children from preschool through 12th grade, is built on the idea that before kids can learn, you have to meet their basic needs. In the last 10 years the school has brought in a health clinic and vision center. It has a tutoring program with hundreds of volunteers. Recent additions include a free clothing store and a dental clinic.
Tucked away in a former storage space, 11th grade student Bradley Daniels reclines in an exam chair, mouth wide open, getting his first teeth cleaning in years. His mom, Tabitha Gribbins, sits by his side.
“It’s exciting to watch him grow,” she says. “College is next, and I don’t know — moving out and moving on up in the world.”
Not enough kids are taking that step. Today Oyler’s high school graduates 40 to 50 kids every year, but Principal Randolph says only about half of students who start as ninth-graders finish in four years.
“We should be graduating 95 to 100 percent of the kids that start,” she says. “It’s a small high school. It’s designed for these students. So we’re working on figuring out, what can we do better to make sure we’re doing that?”
Randolph took over last year after the school’s long-time principal resigned. With all the services in place, she can focus more on the academics. This year the school got a three-year, $1 million federal School Improvement Grant. Randolph hired instructional coaches to help teachers and launched a literacy program for the elementary grades.
“There is a direct correlation with third-grade reading levels and high school dropout rates,” she says.
In the high school, kids are taking their first Advanced Placement classes, using new laptops they can bring home. With Oyler, the job doesn’t stop inside the school. Part of its mission is to help revive a neighborhood plagued by drugs, prostitution and poverty.
After school, Randolph takes a walk through streets full of kids and neighbors enjoying a warm spring day. It was a on a day like this last summer when a young man was shot here. In front of a small park, a tree is decorated with stuffed animals and flowers in his memory.
“It was real tragic because it was in the middle of a community cookout,” she says. A toddler witnessed the shooting. “It was pretty horrific.”
Still, there are signs of progress. There’s a new pizza place and a community and art space run by a nonprofit ministry. One of the school’s latest partnerships brought free WiFi to the neighborhood. Oyler has started a new project, working with the city and local landlords and developers to create stable, affordable housing for its families.
That’s a lot for a school to take on. But it’s going to take a lot to create the kind of community where kids have little more to worry about than doing well in school.
“Until we build and we have what we need, we’re just going to keep working, keep chipping away,” Randolph says.
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