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Center of Attention

23 February 2009 No Comment

If truth be told, Warren Copeland is on cloud nine these days following the opening of the university’s first-ever Center for Civic & Urban Engagement in September. As Springfield’s mayor for nearly 15 years, a professor of religion for three decades and director of urban studies at Wittenberg, Copeland knows firsthand the power of collaboration in achieving collective dreams, and he knows that the Center – as those close to the organization regularly refer to it – serves as a distinctive model for ensuring collaborative success.

“This is a dream come true for me,” said Copeland, who will serve as the Center’s faculty director alongside Stephanie McCuistion, administrative director, and Matt Lynch ’08, assistant to the administrative director.

Designed to bring together Wittenberg faculty, staff and students with community members to build upon the opportunities and address the challenges facing the Greater Springfield region, the Center supports Wittenberg’s strategic plan objective related to fostering beneficial community partnerships to improve the quality of life in the area. Thanks to Lin Erickson, director of corporate, foundation and government relations, who developed the concept and whose leadership and vision turned the concept into reality, the Center also capitalizes on Wittenberg’s unique urban setting, strong community service program and equally strong career services network, giving Wittenberg yet another competitive edge among liberal arts schools.

Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher
Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher

“What the Center promises for students is the opportunity for a four-year pattern of community engagement at ever deeper levels,” Copeland explained. “We intend to create a group of students who have done their required community service, one or more classes that also include community service, one or more classes that include research about the community, an internship, and perhaps a senior research project in this community. In the process, we believe they will develop a much deeper understanding of how a city works. We also hope to hook a portion of these students on Springfield as the place to put this experience to work.

“What the Center promises for Springfield is to expand and to focus the University’s resources on opportunities key to the future of this community,” Copeland continued.

To assist in fulfilling both promises, Copeland, McCuistion and Lynch turned to the Springfield community for expertise and advice, which resulted in the establishment of a 20-member Community Advisory Board during the planning process for the Center. With the board’s perspective and insight, four initiatives critical to Springfield’s future were determined: 1) Renewing the Core and the Creek, (2) Strengthening After-School Programs, (3) Preparing for Future Jobs and (4) Improving Housing Quality.

Renewing the Core and the Creek

Convinced that Wittenberg can play a substantial role in the remaking of downtown Springfield through research projects, service opportunities and internships, the Center will work directly with leaders in the city, which is currently in the midst of the most significant downtown development in more than a century. One immediate opportunity the Center will coordinate relates to science studies through the Buck Creek Corridor Project. By monitoring water flow, water quality, and animal and plant life, the project provides a live laboratory for both Wittenberg and local K-12 science course study. In addition, market research and promotion will be needed for the anticipated recreational use of Buck Creek to reach its full potential.

Strengthening After-School Programs

At the same time, the Center will study after-school programs in Springfield. Research consistently shows that quality after-school programs not only help to increase academic success, but also reduce juvenile delinquency in a community. Using Wittenberg’s recently awarded federal grant aimed at improving after-school programs, the Center will first examine how such programs are serving the needs of at-risk youth in Springfield. The Center will then establish a collaborative of providers of after-school programs in the Springfield area in order to better serve area at-risk youth. Further, the Center will develop an understanding of effective practices for serving middle and high school at-risk youth and share successful practices among the various programs in order to increase their overall effectiveness.

Preparing for Future Jobs

Through the Center, Wittenberg will also participate in current attempts by the State of Ohio to partner with colleges and universities to address the education and training of Ohio’s workforce in the areas of greatest demand, particularly math and science, to meet the transition from manufacturing to high-tech manufacturing and knowledge-intensive sector work. Research conducted by Wittenberg can help Springfield identify particular areas of opportunity for targeted improvement, and university faculty and students can be especially valuable resources in working with local educators to address specific areas of weakness.

Improving Housing Quality

Recognizing the importance of quality housing in a community, the Center will also play a significant role in gathering information that will help policy makers address the issue. Presently, Springfield features architecturally interesting structures as well as some significantly deteriorated ones, many of which line the corridors leading into the city. Current trends in the housing market have slowed attempts to build new housing or rehabilitate older housing and have also dramatically exacerbated the already major issue of foreclosures in Clark County. With that in mind, the Center will begin its involvement in this area by coordinating a geographic study to indicate neighborhoods that are particularly under stress. Future research opportunities could include property ownership and code enforcement. Significant opportunities for volunteer work have already begun.

“All four initiatives reflect The Center for Civic & Urban Engagement’s mission: To promote responsible, productive, and thoughtful scholarship, service and collaboration between Wittenberg University and the Greater Springfield area to create a more vibrant, cohesive community,” McCuistion said. “This is a dream for me, too, and it is my hope that we will be a part of making Springfield the kind of city that anyone would be proud to call home. We’re ready to get to work.”

by Karen Gerboth ‘93

photos by Robbie Gantt

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