CFA member Eric Smith’s work with the Promise Neighborhood in Springfield, OH is highlighted in this article written by Karen Gerboth of Wittenberg University.
Surrounded by a sea of art-covered walls, fifth-grade students at Springfield’s Lincoln Elementary take a moment to listen to a young man named Sage Hazarika ’14.
A Brooklyn, N.Y.-native and Wittenberg sophomore, Hazarika sits near the center of the classroom in a school that has special meaning for Wittenberg students, for the community it serves and for the families who have entrusted their children to it.
“This is really an important time for you,” Hazarika says. “You are an important part of this school, and all the other grades are looking up to you.”
And in those few words, perhaps even unknown to Hazarika, a bigger vision is revealed as the city of Springfield and the State of Ohio “look up” to Lincoln Elementary as the centerpiece of an innovative initiative defined by one word: promise.
Called the Springfield Promise Neighborhood, the comprehensive, collaborative commitment to ensuring that children succeed academically was inspired by New York-based social activist and educator Geoffrey Canada, who created the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York City.
“The reality is that we would not have accomplished what we’ve been able to achieve without the support of Wittenberg and its students. I deeply appreciate the legion of Wittenberg efforts on behalf of the children and youth in the Promise Neighborhood.”
Eric Smith Neighborhood Organizer Springfield Promise Neighborhood
Bob Welker, Wittenberg professor emeritus of education and Hagen Center for Civic & Urban Engagement Fellow, visited HCZ two years ago, after meeting with Canada during a special luncheon in Springfield. Canada has led a coordinated effort with hundreds of individuals to establish “a new method to end the cycle of generational poverty” in Harlem, wherein the entire community works with the child from the “cradle to college.”
Featured on the heart-breaking documentary Waiting for Superman, Canada’s work and those of others, caused a “light-bulb” moment for Welker, who along with colleagues in the Springfield community, saw a need for this type of full-scale transformative educational intervention to help the children most at-risk in Wittenberg’s hometown.
Neighborhood meetings, conversations with the Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop, and discussions with parents, social service agencies, community change agents, foundations and Wittenberg quickly followed, and soon thereafter the vision with the power to change young lives was revealed:
“Children lie at the center of all that we do. We understand that our truest vocation as parents and caretakers, as educators and neighbors is to nurture the growth and development of our children – to help them discover and share their greatness with the world. And so we make this solemn promise: We will all come together as partners and citizens in the unwavering commitment to ensure that all our children succeed and attain their highest potential.”
A Call to Action
With the coordinated effort now underway, Welker officially became the project director shortly after his retirement wherein he worked with Principal Mike Wilson and the Lincoln staff to oversee the school design efforts.
“The local school is one of the most important, and often underutilized, institutions in the lives of our children,” Welker wrote in his project outline. “For this reason, every effort must be made to create and support a thriving school, one that meets the needs of all its students and one that serves the neighborhood by becoming a community center. Effective, restorative schools create environments in which staff, administrators, faculty and students can do their best.”
|First-Year Signs of Success
Just as a thriving school leads to thriving students, so does a thriving neighborhood, which “provides the stability, nurturance and out-of-school opportunities needed for the growth of children and youth,” Welker continued.
“With community organizer Eric Smith, a group of residents and parents formed a Neighborhood Association,” Welker said. “It guides efforts to form a stable, out-of-school environment for community youth.”
Among the many opportunities Welker sees with the Promise Neighborhood are (1) the alliance of internal and external resources to install pride in a community that will actually create a new community, which provides social, cultural and economic opportunities for youth and families, (2) the creation of a model school that will stay open longer each day and each year as it develops effective approaches for working with disadvantaged youth, and (3) the establishment of a culture of achievement where all students are expected to succeed.
“This is an aspirational environment, and in this place, students are expected to ‘Be the Promise’,” Welker says.
Motivated by the promise itself, Wittenberg students quickly joined Welker in the effort, immersing themselves in various projects through the Hagen Center for Civic & Urban Engagement, through their classes, or though community service with each participant actively reflecting the Wittenberg mission “…to lead personal, professional, and civic lives of creativity, service, compassion, and integrity.”
“Being a part of the Springfield Promise Neighborhood during my time at Wittenberg has been the most inspiring experience,” said Kali Lawrence ’12. “It has helped me develop a particular slant as a future music educator in urban schools, along with skills to become a community leader.“
Lawrence, who has been exploring funding opportunities for Promise’s long-term vision as well as arts education opportunities for Lincoln students, has now decided to remain in Springfield after graduation to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the initiative. Fellow graduate Lacey Davidson will do the same.
“This effort [seeks to] revitalize the area and foster a culture of success and care so that the children in this neighborhood may thrive,” Lawrence said. “I am consistently amazed at how the community in the Springfield Promise Neighborhood comes together and how Wittenberg supports this project by the involvement of Witt students, faculty and staff.”
Bracelets and Bonds
Wittenberg’s commitment to the Springfield Promise Neighborhood has since led to a bond, literally and figuratively, with many of the students at Lincoln as an April event affirmed.
On that day, April 20, just days before the state’s required assessment tests for grades 3-8, students at Lincoln viewed a video produced by Clark Goodman ’12, which featured him and fellow Wittenberg students encouraging the Lincoln students to study hard and do their best.
“The goal we were hoping to achieve from this event was to allow for a transformation on both sides,” said Kimberly Lykens ’14, a biology major and education minor who joined the initiative because of her passion and interest in helping educational equality and empowerment.
“We wanted the students of Lincoln to know that Wittenberg students believe they can achieve,” Lawrence said. “But, we also wanted Wittenberg students to realize how much the kids need their support in order to believe in themselves.”
Following the video, which ran in each classroom at the newly renovated school, Hazarika and 20 other Wittenberg students fanned out throughout the school with each one entering a classroom to deliver a special message of support in their own words and something else – a bracelet with a personalized note.
“The bracelets are a reminder to students that someone on the track to success believes they can one day be successful, too,” Lykens said. “I never received a letter of encouragement in elementary school, but writing one made me realize that even a simple statement of motivation means the world to these kids.”
Wittenberg students penned notes – one for each student – and shared the meaning of the bracelet with the students.
“The bead bracelets have the acronym PRIDE on them which stands for Prepared, Respect, Integrity, Determined and Effort,” Lykens said. “This is the motto of Lincoln school.”
And it was that pride that filled the halls as the Lincoln students then paraded through the corridors to cheers from classmates and teachers, and numerous signs of support. One first-grade class proudly held a banner that read: “You can do it kids!”
For Principal Wilson, who works directly with the Springfield Promise Neighborhood team as he oversees the current plans for school improvement under the Ohio Improvement Process, the day was both meaningful and heartwarming.
“The contributions made by Wittenberg students and faculty here at Lincoln are immeasurable,” Wilson said. “Their efforts to expose the students of Lincoln to the college environment has opened the eyes of many of our students. These personal experiences have made these children aware of the realistic opportunity that they too can attend college and earn a degree.
“But the most exciting part of this partnership has been watching the individual relationships between the Lincoln students and the Wittenberg students as they grow and develop into meaningful life experiences for all. I would like to personally thank Wittenberg for all of the time and effort it has put into enhancing the lives of the children that need us the most.”
Reposted from Wittenberg Magazine, Spring 2012. Click here to see original post.
Written By: Karen Gerboth ’93 Photos By: Erin Pence ’04