Designing Minds

The Cincinnati Arts and Technology Studios helps high school students graduate. They’re also planting the seeds for life-long success. But will those seeds take root?

Rose moved out on her own when she was 17. She’d had a plan almost her whole life: get out of farm country and into the city for college. She didn’t waver when her grades slipped because she was doing odd jobs to help her mom make ends meet, or when her mom fell and needed to stay in the hospital long-term, scattering Rose and her five older brothers into foster homes. She didn’t even waver when her mom died two years later.

Bianca (with teacher Derek Toebbe)

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Rose takes a look at some recent work

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

D’Andre, who’s 19, grew up with his mom and six sisters in Winton Hills and realized pretty fast that school wasn’t his favorite place to be. He hated math, but worse than that was the bullying. By the end of what should have been his senior year, he’d spent more time out of high school than in. He was watching his friends graduate, knowing he still had another year of credits to complete. He felt “like a failure,” he says. “Like I didn’t know where to go. Like I didn’t go anywhere.”

D’Andre considers an idea

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Two entirely different people. Two entirely different stories. Yet they both found a plan for the future at a place called CATS.

Housed in a sleek loft-like space with glass walls, exposed brick, and glistening hardwood floors, the Cincinnati Arts and Technology Studios looks more like a hip design firm than a school. That’s part of the plan. CATS is no ordinary school. It’s an art school that works specifically with kids like Rose and D’Andre—those at risk of not graduating from high school due to missed elective credits. Art may seem like a strange focus, but studies have shown that arts instruction can have a strong positive effect on at-risk kids that reaches beyond the classroom.

In a city school district that regularly earns failing grades for low graduation rates, CATS is a creative solution to a stubborn problem, one that’s had some success. Here’s how it works: bus kids in from any Cincinnati Public School high school and help them get the elective credits they’re missing, courtesy of an art class taught by professional artists. While they’re there, nudge them toward working on plans for the future—college, career, or vocational training. Stick with them, support them, and keep in close contact with them for as long as possible, at least 18 months, to make sure they stay focused.

CATS is a network of support and a place of safe harbor. It’s juice boxes and bags of Grippo’s chips lined up by the front door every day like clockwork during afternoon announcements. It’s kids getting their hands dirty with clay, experimenting with paint colors on an art project, and mixing grout by hand for a tile mosaic. The hope is that these kids can use the tools they learn at CATS to boost themselves into stability. But life is messier than splattered paint or crumbling clay—and far more difficult to clean up.

Scanning headlines, it’s easy to think that things look pretty good for high school kids today. U.S. News & World Report says graduation rates are “at an all-time high” (the nationwide average is 84 percent, which actually ties 2016). Cincinnati Public Schools’ four year high school graduation rates have climbed from 60.2 percent to 74.7 percent over the past seven years. Still, it’s hard to look past the fact that fully 25 percent of CPS seniors didn’t graduate from high school last year. That earns a failing grade from the state of Ohio and translates, in raw numbers, to about 558 kids. It’s not just a Cincinnati problem: Cleveland and Columbus public schools have equally dismal graduation numbers, and Ohio overall is behind most neighboring states.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

In districts as large as Cincinnati’s—35,544 students and rising—educators need all the help they can get keeping kids on track. CPS and other southwest Ohio districts work extensively with the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative (CYC), a college and career mentoring program that served 5,700 kids in the past year and boasts 95 percent high school graduation rates for its participants. But with more than 500 kids not graduating from CPS last year, there’s still room for more help. Enter CATS, a nontraditional solution that serves roughly 400 kids each year and graduates 93 percent of its seniors.

CATS came to Cincinnati in 2003, an affiliate of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation—itself the brainchild of a man named Bill Strickland who, based on his own personal experiences, realized early in life that art classes plus career training equaled a successful road away from the path of cyclical poverty.

Today Manchester Bidwell’s youth art program serves nearly 4,000 kids each year and its career training program offers accredited associate’s degrees in fields ranging from culinary arts to chemical laboratory technology. The program also boasts impressive results. In a 2012 TEDx talk, Strickland says “95 percent of our kids graduated high school and 90 percent went to college for the last 20 years in a row.” And the training center, he says, has “had classes where 100 percent of the graduates went into the industry for which they were trained in 12 months or less.”

In an effort to combat the “cancer of the soul” he says has stricken the nation’s youth, and feeling strongly that “we can change this country in our lifetime,” Strickland helped establish 14 affiliate programs in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. The Cincinnati Arts and Technology Studios is one. It was founded by local philanthropist Lee Carter, Reds owner Bob Castellini, and former grocery magnate Pierre Wevers in 2003—a time when CPS’s high school graduation rates were hovering in the 50–60 percent range. The group commissioned a feasibility study, found a spot in Longworth Hall, and placed Carter at the helm as board chair.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

True to Manchester Bidwell’s original format, CATS started out as a youth program plus an adult workforce training program. Because Carter was chairman of the board at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center at the same time, CATS struck an informal agreement with the hospital, where administrators would hand-pick and groom two seniors for entry-level jobs at the hospital post-graduation. Within a few years, Children’s asked for eight CATS grads instead of two; around that same time, CATS administrators—among them current CEO Clara Martin, who joined the organization in 2008—noticed that only about half of its high school grads were going on to college (a number that remains close to 45 percent even today). They also realized that there were a lot of adult programs in Cincinnati, “and we really felt like our sweet spot was with our kids,” says Martin, so they decided to close the adult workforce program and create one for CATS students instead, “something that ensures kids are self-sufficient when they get out [of high school].” In 2010, Leadership Cincinnati Class 33, which included current CATS board member William Lecher and board chair Karen Bowman, focused its class project on expanding that fledgling student program; in 2011, Bridging the Gap (BTG) was officially born. Thanks to a federal social innovation fund grant, the program expanded so students could train for jobs in areas other than healthcare, like banking, IT, and manufacturing. It also includes a formal mentorship program.

BTG, says Martin, is a win-win for students and employers alike. The kids, whether they’re going to college or not, get first-class training that leads to career-worthy jobs. The employers (companies like Jostin Construction and PNC Bank) get “this pipeline of employees who have been groomed based on what they said their needs were.” Since 2011, 94 BTG students have been hired either full- or part-time straight out of the program and 87 percent of them have stayed in those jobs for at least one continuous year.

Not all CATS seniors are funneled into BTG; they apply to get in. Since 2011, 261 kids have participated in BTG, an average of 37 per year; Martin hopes to increase the annual number to 60. To be clear, though, not everyone wants to be in BTG; many come to CATS just to fulfill their art credits. Either way, Martin and her staff have the same goal for every kid: fostering “close relationships with caring adults,” she says. “Because as the kids move through this process, they move from school-age into the adult world. It’s a rough world out there for some of our teenagers. Sometimes our kids can come in the door pretty unlovable and pretty beat up. So to bring them in here and help them feel accepted, valued—even those who don’t seem receptive—is really important.”

That support was one of the biggest takeaways for Ellen, a 2013 alum of the program. “They’re not just telling you about art,” she says. “They’re asking you how your day is. They’re asking how your parents are. They’re asking about your siblings. They were like second moms to all of us. You couldn’t stay mad if you walked in mad. You couldn’t. If it wasn’t the people, it was the Grippo’s and juice.”

Through a complicated chain of events, Rose—a Scorpio, she’ll tell you, who also happens to have insomnia and ADHD and who loves to bake—returned to the foster-care system, but this time in Cincinnati. For a while, she changed homes every year. One of the few constants through it all was writing poetry.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

When she was younger, Rose would secretly stick her poems on a teacher’s desk, hoping for feedback. As she got older, Rose kept the poems to herself. She loves nature, so she wrote about things like birds, stars, and apple trees. Once she wrote about the kitchen in one of her foster homes—a place where she was forced awake at night to re-wash dishes she’d already washed, because she hadn’t done it “right.”

What is on the walls of this kitchen… / on the sugar is a blue butterfly / [o]n the other is always ice cream or pie…. / I still can’t decide what’s on these walls / but I know what happens in the halls…

Today, though, she’s not thinking about that. On a random Thursday in April, she’s in one of the CATS studios, glazing her latest clay piece. It’s about a foot tall, adorned with carved hearts on the side and sculpted skulls, abstract shapes, and a flower with long, oval-shaped petals on top.

“It was supposed to be a heart,” she says as she dabs thoughtfully at the piece with a paintbrush, clad in her usual T-shirt, jeans, and black-rimmed glasses, her brownish-blonde hair tied back in a knot. “It wasn’t turning out, so I changed it into a vase.”

She and two younger girls, Sunshine and Nidia—all students at CPS’s Virtual High School when they’re not at CATS—sit at a stainless-steel-topped table strewn with paintbrushes, open jars of glaze, juice boxes, and other clay pieces in varying degrees of doneness. Jamie Rahe, the ceramics teacher, periodically bustles in to check their work. Charlene Smith, college and career program manager, comes in to offer bus passes and information on college scholarships.


Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Sunshine and Nidia devolve into giggling, speaking in British accents and painting each other with glaze. Rose chats and laughs along with them, but stays focused. She pauses only when D’Andre, wearing his trademark jeans and a hoodie, wanders over from teacher Derek Toebbe’s 2D studio down the hall, looking for inspiration; the annual CATS art show is just days away and he wants to make one more piece. He already has one in the gallery down the hall, a pastel-hued drawing titled “Everything.”

Everyone comes to CATS for a different reason. D’Andre, also a student at Virtual, needed credits to graduate, but Rose didn’t; she actually completed her high school credits in December and began studying last spring at Cincinnati State. She enrolled at CATS because she thought it “would be a nice reward that would motivate me even more,” she says.

Funded largely by in-kind donations from CPS, foundation grants, and private donations, the program runs Monday through Thursday, September through May, and students are required to attend at least one day a week for two hours. CATS is staffed by five full-time employees (two of whom, the office manager and Rahe, the ceramics teacher, are actually CPS staff members assigned to the CATS program) and eight artists/instructors. (A social worker from CPS is also periodically onsite.) Current studio offerings include 2D (drawing and painting), sculpting, stained glass, ceramics, and digital multimedia.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Another unique element of the program is that the art teachers are carefully screened and trained practicing artists—“master craftsmen,” per the CATS website—the thought being that having kids work side-by-side with professionals is the best way for them to observe and hopefully imitate what professional behavior looks like. Case in point: 2D instructor Toebbe, an independent artist, project manager on multiple ArtWorks murals, and CATS teacher since 2014.

In Toebbe’s class, students start the school year with a roughly six-week “crash course in concepts and materials,” he says. After that, the focus shifts as students begin to prepare artwork for the annual student art show—a spring exhibition at Longworth Hall with the 2018 theme of “Picture Freedom.” “It’s primarily to get the kids to understand that what they do is important, and to give them an avenue to speak out if they want,” says Toebbe. They can also sell their art, if they wish. Rose says she deposited the $14 she made on a piece of pottery last year right into her college savings account.

“Let them mess something up,” says Derek Toebbe. “Either you get real pissed off, or you can reflect and try something different next time.”

In February, while students are prepping for the show, BTG starts up. The program includes an additional 10-week life skills class, financial literacy training, and help with everything from conducting a job search to résumé-building and mock interviews. BTG grads also receive a lifetime membership to Cincinnati Works, the nonprofit focused on moving people out of poverty through economic self-sufficiency, including help with things like budgeting and retirement planning.


Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Both CATS and BTG kids have access to other core services as well: making sure transcripts are in order for graduation, career programming, mental health services, assistance with college applications, and finding scholarships (courtesy of a CYC College Career Manager, who is “onsite daily,” says Martin). Both programs wrap up in early May—CATS with field trips to art galleries and college visits for seniors, BTG with a completion ceremony in Longworth Hall. BTG continues supporting its grads for a full 18 months after graduation, says Martin, and many start job-specific training programs right away or work with Smith to find part-time jobs.

The glue that holds everything together is art. According to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, among others, “the right kind of arts programming can reach at-risk kids even more so than kids with settled home lives,” says CATS public relations consultant Gail Silver. Art also, she notes, helps kids learn a handful of crucial life concepts: “How to start with nothing, like a lump of clay, and make it something, how to not quit when things get hard, and how to make [those challenges] your own.”

“That’s the whole idea,” Toebbe adds. “Let them get dirty. Let them mess something up. You’re gonna have successes and failures and build off both, that’s who you become, that litany of experiences. Either you get real pissed off that your painting didn’t work out, or you can reflect and analyze and try something different next time.”

In 15 years, CATS and BTG have seen major success stories. Last year, one of Toebbe’s students worked on ArtWorks’s Edie Harper mural downtown and is now studying at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Countless others have gone on to pursue long-term careers in the fields they studied while at CATS.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

The program’s poster child, though, could easily be Ellen, that 2013 alum who’s now a confident, gainfully-employed teacher. She entered CATS as a senior in high school, but her story started about a decade before, the day her mother dropped her off at her grandma’s house in Evanston and never really came back. Ellen’s grandmother, then in her 60s, suffered from an enlarged heart and renal failure; she’d been on dialysis for years. Still, she took her granddaughter in and placed an extraordinary emphasis on getting her the best education possible, securing her spots at Sands and then Clark Montessori schools. Still, life for Ellen was challenging at best. Weekend visits with her mother, an addict, involved random locations and random men. Once, when her mother hit her, Ellen asked her for $1.75 bus fare so she could go home. Her mother gave her $2 and Ellen, then 8, walked by herself “in the pitch black” down Linn Street to wait for a bus back to Evanston. “I remember that day like it was yesterday,” she says. “The corner hang-out people—three big brawny dudes—walked me to the bus stop halfway down Linn and stood there until the bus came.”

Life with her grandmother was full of encouragement but no less difficult. Because dialysis lasts for four to six hours straight, Ellen would often wake up alone and have to get herself ready for school. Then there were days when “I couldn’t go to school because she was sick,” Ellen says.

By high school she was one of the top testers statewide, she says, but she was still failing at Clark because she never did her homework. “I was working at Arthur’s Café [in Hyde Park] at the time, so I would leave school, walk there, and work until 11, stand in front of Graeter’s and get on the bus [to Evanston]. The bus stopped on Madison and Woodburn so I had to walk all the way to almost Dana at midnight. By the time I’d get home I’d still have two, three, four hours of homework. And then I’d have to be at school at 7:45 [the next day]. It was like I was living a double life.”

Instead of kicking her out, the Clark counselor took her to Virtual High School, which allowed Ellen, who had a computer, to take online classes at home. “I literally homeschooled myself for a semester,” she says. She earned her spot back at Clark in fall of her senior year. She started CATS around the same time, because to graduate she needed an art credit she’d missed during homeschooling.

When she first got to CATS, Ellen says she “started with this mindset like, ‘I’m just gonna be drawing and painting. This is so elementary.’” But she studied in the ceramics and 2D studios and learned how to express herself through art. And, maybe most important, “the longer I stayed, the more the network opened, the wider my path became, and the more hands reached down to help me,” she says.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Ellen applied to BTG and got in. Knowing she’d eventually want to study psychology, she pursued the State Tested Nursing Assistant training program. She landed a job at Children’s, where she stayed for four years while earning a bachelor’s degree at UC. Now she co-teaches at St. Aloysius in Bond Hill, working with fifth and sixth graders who have trauma-based behavior and psychological issues. She hopes to one day earn a master’s degree so she can work in a mental health policy-related field.

Ellen’s road was bumpy at best and, though it turned out well, her journey was filled with the kinds of obstacles nearly every kid at CATS faces. When her grandmother died, Ellen was still tackling work, overwhelming bus commutes, and her first year of college, but “people like Miss Laura and Miss Clara were still calling regularly and checking in,” she says. “Their encouragement is what kept my drive alive and kept the flame in me alive.”

It also helped, says Ellen, to “see people like Miss Clara, because she looks like me. To see how successful and happy she was in what she did. She wasn’t out here having to bust her butt at four or five or six jobs to pay her bills because she went down a different pathway than my mom did.” That’s why Ellen likes to go back to CATS and talk to the kids in the program. “I’m like, ‘Look, ain’t no excuse,’” she says. “‘If I can do it, you can do it. You can be just as big, if not bigger.’ Everything [at CATS] screams, ‘You got this!’ So if you don’t make it, it’s almost like it’s your fault, because they’re giving you every key possible to unlock these doors.”

One of the most challenging parts of working with teenagers, says Toebbe, is the fact that so many of them don’t seem to take advantage of, or even understand, the opportunities being offered. CYC’s Chief Development, Marketing, and Strategy Officer David Plogmann says the program “absolutely” sees similar responses from teens they work with. Both organizations have great success stories post high school, but not nearly as many as they’d like.

“There’s this whole team of people just falling all over themselves to help them in any way and they’re kind of like, ‘Hmmm,’” Toebbe says, noting he senses an over-abundance of caution and fear—of both failure and success—in a lot of the kids he teaches. That fear, every CATS staff member knows, is the symptom of a much larger issue. “The culture of poverty is some deep stuff,” cautions Ellen. “If you were born into it, it’s so hard to get out of it. You just keep going because it keeps going.”

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

The strength and perseverance it takes to break the cycle can, at times, be overwhelming. For many, it’s insurmountable.

“I’m really excited and I’m nervous out of my mind,” D’Andre says, just weeks before he graduates from Virtual. “Maybe I’ll fall, because I doubt myself sometimes. Maybe I’ll be afraid again like I was in high school. A lot of these bad thoughts come in my mind but I try to push them away as I slowly climb this mountain.” Then again, he adds, “I don’t want to feel glued to the floor anymore.”

For her part, Rose gets bogged down sometimes by the details of managing daily life on her own—working at two different Subways one day, McDonald’s or LaRosa’s the next, never making more than $8.30 an hour and sometimes traveling 90 minutes by bus and on foot to get to work. She feels like the foster care system holds kids to an impossible standard. “A lot of my friends still live with their parents,” she says. “It’s hard for me, because I know if they mess up, they’re going back to their family. They don’t have a caseworker every month saying, ‘What are you doing with your life?’”

By 9 p.m. on an overcast day in May, Rose and D’Andre are standing outside the Cintas Center at Xavier University, clad in the remnants of their graduation garb. Rose’s hair is down, and her arms overflow with flowers and a diploma. She’s still wearing her gown—crimson with a white collar—and a dress underneath it. D’Andre has shed his gown and is wearing just the cap, along with a button down and jeans.

He’s holding his diploma and a single white rose—offering it, almost, to the camera as they pose for a photo before heading back to their respective people—he: mom, dad, and some other adults; she: two mentors who make up part of her support network. In the picture, Rose’s head rests on D’Andre’s shoulder as they stare into the lens, smiling cautiously—a little uncertain, maybe, of what the future holds, but excited nonetheless. And proud. And both in possession of a plan. Rose will begin training soon with PNC Bank and start studying at Cincinnati State’s culinary school this fall. D’Andre is on track to join the hospital training program for Children’s and take classes at UC Blue Ash, aiming for a degree related to graphic design. It’s a picture of two kids on the verge of growing up.

What you can’t see in the photo, of course, is the future. By the end of July, D’Andre will still be planning to attend UC Blue Ash, but—with “Miss Charlene” Smith’s blessing—he’ll scrap the hospital training program because setting up his college schedule will prove a little overwhelming. But he’ll also have been invited to attend a summer DAAPCamp at UC—a “prestigious honor,” says Silver—and he’ll be preparing to travel with Martin and a handful of CATS students to Yellowstone, his first airplane trip. He’ll walk nearly eight miles to CATS the night before because he can’t find a ride. But he will come to life out west, Martin will report, most especially when he’s holding a camera, which he will do much of the time.

Rose, meanwhile, will find out she’s been awarded a $10,000 scholarship from Fifth Third Foundation ($2,500 a year for four years so long as she maintains a 2.0 GPA). The bank gives Martin funds each year to disseminate among her students, and Rose, she says, is a “rock star.” Rose will quit her Subway jobs and start job shadowing at PNC Bank, where she’s been told she’ll get paid between $10 and $15 an hour once she’s assigned to a branch. When she has a little extra money and a little extra time, Rose says, she’ll buy a lump of clay and make mugs for her friends, just like she used to do at CATS.

Just a few weeks later, though, Rose will alter her plans. She’ll get in touch with one of her brothers for pretty much the first time in six years—he’s a night-shift factory worker who makes car parts and lives in their mom’s old house in Middletown. Rather than keep paying her own rent, she’ll say, she’s moving up there with him. She knows the move will throw a wrench into her college plans—Cincinnati State’s Middletown campus does not have a culinary arts program—but she’ll press forward anyway, saying maybe she’ll get all of her “gen eds” (basic non-major-related courses like English and math) out of the way up there and then move back down to the main campus in a year or so.

Instead of working at PNC, she’ll apply for a job in the factory where her brother works, and end up on the night shift just like him. She’ll have him teach her how to drive, too, because he has a car; in return, she’ll wash the dishes, go grocery shopping, and do the bulk of the cooking. But factory life isn’t for her, so she’ll switch to working third shift at UDF instead, and she’ll reconsider culinary arts in favor of education and Spanish translation.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

All of this would make any experienced adult nervous. Nonetheless, Charlene Smith will stay in regular contact with Rose and work with her on a modified plan to attend Cincinnati State, but in January instead of August.

“Every day we are on the verge of a disaster and the edge of a miracle,” Martin is fond of saying after a decade working at CATS. When you think about it, she, Smith, and the rest of the CATS staffers aren’t just second parents to these kids, they’re also sowers of seeds. Which is important, because without seeds nothing will ever change. But the thing about seeds is this: You can’t always tell what they’re going to be when you plant them, or when or how they’ll grow. Sometimes, you just have to wait.


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