When Marketplace reporter Amy Scott first heard about a new initiative to transform a failing elementary school in a run-down building into a “community learning center,” she was intrigued. Can a stable institution help a struggling community turn itself around?
“I visited [Oyler School] for a two-part series and was really taken with it and convinced Marketplace that we should do a series and follow it for a year,” she said.
From August 2012 through August 2013, Scott reported on Oyler School, a K-12 community learning center in Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill, a high poverty neighborhood in the city’s West side.
Many residents of Lower Price Hill rely on food stamps and other government subsidies; the sound of gunshots are too familiar in this community.
Scott’s stories focus on the center’s progress in helping accelerate the neighborhood’s development by bringing social services - such as an eye care clinic, health care, food and dental care - to the school.
Oyler is one of seven centers sponsored by The Community Learning Center Institute, a Cincinnati-based organization. The organization summarizes its mission on its website as follows:
“The Community Learning Center Institute is a national leader in leveraging public school facilities to become hubs of educational, recreational, cultural, health and civic partnerships, which optimize the conditions for learning and catalyze the revitalization of the community.”
CLCI’s holistic approach stems from a growing belief that education should be viewed as helping students from “the cradle to the career.” Oyler now provides much-needed services and a safe environment within a chaotic neighborhood.
Through her series, Scott’s aim was to evaluate the merits of this new community learning center model in providing the resources to help students do well in school.
“So they’re surviving at school, they can get health care, monitoring, glasses, are they more likely to succeed?”
Scott admits her reporting was “not very data-centered…it wasn’t a scientific study, but we wanted to show how this is working through stories.”
Instead of statistics and metrics, her radio reports are filled with dialogue, description of scenes and sounds of the school day.
In one story, for instance, Oyler’s school principal, Craig Huckleberry, is heard instructing the children on the first day of school. Huckleberry is a constant presence throughout Scott’s series, and Scott says she gained great insight from him. She emphasized the importance of getting to know people on the inside.
“Find a relationship with an administrator or principal who knows you have a good story to tell and is open about all the flaws. I think he was very open about the challenges they were up against. Trying to get that kind of access is incredibly valuable,” she said.
Scott also spent a great deal of time working with Raven Gibbons, an Oyler senior attempting to become the first member of her family to graduate and go to college.
Both of Gibbons’ parents “had struggled with addiction, and been in and out of jail.” Gibbons herself had been a troublemaker in school prior to her senior year after her mother had been incarcerated. Two of Scott’s radio pieces focus specifically on Gibbons’ inspiring story of applying to college.
“Her dad was very supportive of her participating in the story, and I think that helped. I tried to be present and to work with her overtime for her to be become comfortable with me. I think she trusts me, but I don’t know if she ever got completely comfortable, it’s awkward having people follow you with a camera and microphone,” Scott said.
Since the series aired, listeners have made donations to both the school and to Raven Gibbons- something Scott feels is the biggest impact of her efforts. Scott is now following and reporting on Gibbons’ freshman year at Penn State Allegheny College for Marketplace’s radio show.
So, back to the central question that inspired the series: Scott says she didn’t come to a concrete “conclusion” about the community learning center model in terms of its ability to strengthen the neighborhood economically. Her coverage did, however, convince her that providing social services in school helps children and families.
“I think this is a very compelling model for helping low income kids working in school- the school stills struggles academically, one interesting nuance of the story is that test scores went down. This is a really hard thing to do and you can make big progress with their health and well being and still have lagging academic success, it's a very complicated story that’s why [I don't think as a solution to poverty], but it’s clear this school is making a huge differences in kids life, going to college, getting healthcare. It’s hard to argue with the value,” Scott said.