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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Julia Harris

Schoenbaum Family Center poised to make big difference

It’s almost 5 p.m. on a cold Thursday evening, and Martin Weston is walking at a brisk clip toward the daycare center where his daughter waits to be picked up. As he reaches the brightly lit building where parents tussle children into coats and hats, two Columbus police cars scream past.

Weston, an out-of-work journalist who drives a cab to make ends meet, assumes they’re heading toward what is likely an armed dispute at a nearby park.

“Happens all the time,” he says. Then, quickly, he adds, “But not as much as it used to.”

And that, he says, is one of the reasons he considers himself — and his 16-month-old daughter Cayla — fortunate to be part of the Schoenbaum Family Center, which opened its doors in August.

Attached to the newly renovated Weinland Park Elementary School on 7th Avenue, the center houses the A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School run by Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology. At full capacity, the center will house 88 students ranging from 6 weeks to preschool age.

The fruit of a unique partnership between Battelle, Ohio State and Columbus Public Schools, among others, the Schoenbaum Family Center welcomes students from the surrounding neighborhood, as well as from Ohio State faculty and staff. The idea is that by investing in a community that has been neglected, Ohio State and its partners can help stimulate revival and growth.

From Weston’s view, the plan seems to be working.

“I wouldn’t describe this as a bad neighborhood, but as a recovering neighborhood,” he says. “It has enormous potential, and there’s no doubt this building has infused a real sense of optimism into the community.”

It wasn’t long ago that optimism was in short supply there, says William O’Bannon, a single father of a preschooler in the center. O’Bannon, who works as a painter, remembers the complexion of the southeastern University District neighborhood not even a decade ago.

“I moved here in ’99 and it was really bad, dope-infested, you know, guys just hanging on the corner. But now you don’t really see that too much anymore,” he says.

His daughter, 3-year-old Sara, wraps her arms around his paint-speckled knees as he rubs his knuckles over her hair.

“I really got my hands full with my daughter, but they’re doing a really good job with her schooling and I appreciate how they’ve been working with her.”

That kind of praise is music to the ears of David Andrews, the departing dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology and the 2008 recipient of the Champion of Children Award in part because of his role in creating the center.

The early childhood education center — and the adjacent Weinland Park Elementary School — represents Ohio State’s firm commitment to the neighborhood, Andrews said, and the investment is already starting to pay dividends.

Corporate partners such as Elmer’s Products have donated funds for art studios where kids make vibrant windows covered with feathers. Lowe’s paid for an open-air deck where students can play safely amid potted vegetables that will be used in the center’s kitchen. And JP Morgan Chase donated $1 million toward the creation of a school library.

The combined Weinland Park effort received the 2007 North Central Region award for community engagement and was a finalist for the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Award.

There’s a more grass-roots element to the center as well, as the staff tries to involve residents of the area. Many of its employees live in the surrounding community, for example.

Also, funding is in place for family nutrition classes, in which parents will learn to cook healthy meals in the center’s kitchen and will be sent home with meals to last for several days. Community story hours and literacy skills training will be held at the center’s library.

“You can have the best schools, teachers and curriculum, but if you don’t stabilize the neighborhood, the quality of the housing, you’re going to have 200 percent turnaround,” said Andrews, who is stepping down as dean to pursue his own research interests.

For Weston, who grew up in the crime-blighted streets of Philadelphia, the notion of a big university like Ohio State investing in a forgotten neighborhood is something like a miracle. People in poverty, he says, often feel intimidated by universities because of their own struggles with education, so the fact that Ohio State is reaching out to the community goes a long way toward breaking down those barriers.

To illustrate his point, he talks about an aunt in Philly who started a community gardening program that brought flowers, greenery — and a bit of light — to a place he describes as “rubble.”

“So I know how even one spark in the midst of dilapidation and squalor can make flowers grow,” he says. “And that’s what I see happening here.”

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