Good neighbors

How USC Upstate is making generational change possible in its hometown.

By Elizabeth Anderson

The Franklin School on the city of Spartanburg’s Northside doesn’t look a research laboratory.

Its glass-paneled front, natural landscaping, and bright classrooms with age-appropriate furniture and play areas are what you might expect to find at a new school for very young children.

But the school, a collaborative effort launched in 2019 that includes the Northside Development Group, Spartanburg Academic Movement, USC Upstate, Spartanburg County First Steps, and Spartanburg District 7, was founded as a learning laboratory. Its students, many from underserved communities, benefit from the latest methods of early education while also providing teachers with data about how young minds develop.

“The concept is very new to South Carolina – a school for 0 to 4,” says Nur Tanyel, distinguished professor emerita who remains active with USC Upstate and the Franklin School. “Northside was selected because of area children being at risk. The other benefit for Northside is that now parents see and understand what a quality education looks like.”

USC Upstate’s involvement in the Franklin School is just one way the university is helping to invest in Spartanburg communities that have been overlooked in the past. Through partnerships in the Northside and Highland, another high-poverty neighborhood in Spartanburg, USC Upstate faculty and students are supporting and developing programs in education, business, public safety, and community health that can improve quality of life. These contributions transform the lives of not only residents, but of future generations as well, according to USC Upstate Chancellor Bennie L. Harris.

“Community engagement and generational investments are critical, and align exceptionally well with our mission,” Harris says. “From the very beginning, when we started as a nursing program, we were investing in the health and wellness of the community. Higher education has been a critical part of the region moving from textiles to other industries like manufacturing, life sciences and health care, and USC Upstate has participated in that.”

Early start

One area affected by that major shift is Spartanburg’s Northside neighborhood. During the city’s textile heyday, the Northside was a thriving mill community. The collapse of the industry gradually led to the neighborhood’s decline and rising crime rates. More than 50 percent of children in the area live in poverty, according to census data.

But in 2013, residents, city officials, and nonprofits came together to create a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood and restore its vibrancy. The coalition became the Northside Development Group, and it continues to collaborate with Spartanburg colleges and universities, including USC Upstate, Wofford College, and the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Franklin School was born of such a partnership. The early childhood education programs housed at the school share the goal of increasing kindergarten readiness for children, but particularly for those zoned for the Cleveland Academy of Leadership on the Northside, one of the city’s highest poverty elementary schools. By giving children a solid educational grounding from birth, education leaders hope students will continue to perform well as they progress through school.

But it isn’t just children who benefit from the Franklin School. Shawna Bynum ‘18, director of the school, says teachers get plenty of feedback and support throughout the year so they can see what works well and what can be improved. Every class at the school is recorded for future research purposes, and each week Tanyel meets with a different teacher to review footage of a particular day and reflect together on what they’re seeing.

“It really helps with the training we do,” Bynum says. “I want the teachers to look at it not as something punitive, but as an opportunity for growth.”

The school was also built with observation rooms, where USC Upstate students majoring in early childhood education can watch what’s going on without distracting the children. Tanyel says it’s an invaluable resource for her students, who get to see the developmental trajectory of children at their most critical period. “This opportunity is cutting-edge research learning for our students,” Tanyel says.

The commitment of teachers and administrators to the school has carried over to parents, too. “Our family engagement here is phenomenal,” Bynum says. Staff and parents work as a team, sharing observations from home and school that encourage a child’s growth. “If we want to be able to make changes, we have to be intentional about developing relationships with the parent,” Bynum says.

Growing business

Another goal of the Northside Initiative is increasing economic opportunity for residents. Over 80 percent of Northside residents are African American, and nearly 42% of households are below the poverty level. The Start:ME program, a partnership between USC Upstate and the Northside Development Group modeled on a program at Emory University, provides 14 weeks of free training to budding entrepreneurs with ties to the Northside.

Elise Harvey, director of Start:ME and assistant professor of marketing at the George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, says the program aims to empower people to create their own businesses. Rather than recruit a large outside employer to come into the neighborhood, “We’re going at it from the ground up, instead of the top down,” Harvey says.

Fifteen applicants are selected every year, and receive intensive instruction on all aspects of running a business, from creating a business plan and applying for loans to marketing their services and building networks. Mentors from the community volunteer their time to provide advice and guidance, and at the end of the program participants pitch their businesses for a chance to receive grant money.

Since the program’s first session in 2017, 108 Spartanburg residents have taken part, 80 percent of them women and 94 percent of them minority business owners. That’s not only good for the community, Harvey says, but for the university as well.

“As a university, we have the privilege of being able to impact communities,” she says. “We have all this expertise, and as much as we love giving it to our students, we can use it in other ways beyond just publishing papers and standing in a classroom.”

Shana Soberanis, owner of The Man Cave in Spartanburg, is one of the beneficiaries of that knowledge. Soberanis had opened her nail salon for men in 2021, but was looking for ways to market it. She says Start:ME helped her with that and much more.

“There were a lot of networking opportunities that I got from the program,” Soberanis says. “And the financial piece was critical. Just understanding the importance of cash flow statements and other financial statements for operating and expanding the business was crucial to continued success.”

Like many small business owners, Soberanis says she did everything on her own when she started out. “I was the CPA, I was the attorney, I was everything,” she says. The program “made me realize that it’s OK to spend money to earn money.”

Harvey notes that one of the most important outcomes of Start:ME is giving people a chance to build something for their families. “We’re not looking at people who are making millions of dollars, but people who are setting themselves up to be able to pass the business down or pass on some of that generational wealth to their children.”

Work in progress

The investment in Spartanburg’s Northside is already showing results, with new housing, retail, a farmers market and parks transforming formerly blighted properties. But on the city’s southern side, change has been slower to come.

Like Northside, the Highland neighborhood was once a thriving African American community. Most homes were single family, and church was a central part of resident life. During the 1950s, however, public housing was concentrated in the area under the guise of urban renewal, and crime and blight rose.

Concerned residents came together with city agencies in 2016 to develop a renewal plan for the neighborhood. The Highland Neighborhood Plan, approved in 2020, laid out recommendations that included removing some of the most decrepit public housing and replacing it with a mix of rentals and single-family homes.

Since that time, one public housing complex has been demolished and a second is scheduled to be razed by the end of the year. New townhomes also have been constructed. While the change has helped, and crime is down overall, the Spartanburg Police Department’s crime report for 2022 shows most violent crime in the city remains concentrated in Highland, particularly around the public housing that remains.

It’s a problem Michele Covington, associate professor of criminal justice and executive director of Greenville programs, is helping Highland residents address. In 2021, Spartanburg received a $1 million grant from the Department of Justice to fund community-based crime reduction efforts in Highland. Covington, who is acting as a research partner on the grant, is analyzing the types of crimes in the neighborhood and how they can be prevented. But resident feedback is driving the process.

“More importantly for this program is what the community wants to see and how the community feels about it,” Covington says. Crime reports tell part of the story, but they don’t take residents’ daily experiences into account. “We talk to the residents to find out what they see and what they’re worried about,” Covington explains. “We want to make sure we’re covering all our bases.”

Violent crime is a concern for many of the people she’s talked to, Covington says, particularly related to drugs or weapons but also domestic abuse. Her work includes identifying areas where changes to the physical environment can help – cutting back brush, adding lighting, or installing security cameras, for example.

Jarvis Harris, community engagement services coordinator at the Bethlehem Center, Highland’s community center, didn’t grow up in Highland, but spent time there with friends when he was younger. Harris says he’s noticed a lot less drug and gang violence than there used to be, and he’s glad the grant is opening up opportunities for the community.

“It’s very family oriented here, and there’s a lot of culture,” Harris says. Investing in Highland is “giving this community a better quality of life, giving them resources that other parts of the city of Spartanburg have access to.”

Covington is sensitive to residents’ desire to improve safety without being under constant surveillance. Distrust of law enforcement is high, and adding security cameras raises privacy concerns for many residents. To mitigate some of those fears, the university’s Upstate Crime Analysis Center, which Covington directs, will house any data collected and limit law enforcement access to emergency situations.

“We’ve done a lot of assessing of what people are comfortable with, to try to strike that balance,” Covington says. “This is their neighborhood. It really is mostly about what makes them comfortable and safe.”

Healthy communities

Another focus of the Highland Neighborhood Plan is improving residents’ health. Nearly 70% of adult residents are living in poverty, and the median income in the neighborhood is around $12,000. Poverty rates for children under 18 are even higher, at 92%.

Access to fresh produce and healthy foods remains a challenge. Highland and surrounding neighborhoods went for three years without a nearby grocery store before a new Piggly Wiggly opened last year. Now it, too, is closing.  Many residents rely on public transportation, and getting around town by bus can often take several hours. Access to bike and walking trails is also limited.

These kinds of neighborhood inequities that affect resident wellness are among the things that USC Upstate’s community health program set out to address, says Kara Davis, assistant professor of community health at USC Upstate’s College of Education, Human Performance, and Health. “The foundation of the program is the understanding that only about 20% of our health is determined by medical care,” she says. “The other 80% is determined by what we call social determinants of health.”

Those include availability and affordability of housing, access to transportation, and educational opportunities, Davis explains. “So we’re wanting to educate and provide career opportunities for students to really work in these areas to have some meaningful impacts on those social determinants that affect health overall.”

One of those students is Carmen Blake, a senior community health major. Blake, who did her required internship as an AmeriCorps volunteer, spent most of her time at the Bethlehem Center in Highland. Among her duties was assessing the needs of low-income families, and helping those who qualified for food assistance to pick out healthy choices from a list of available groceries.

Blake would also track every client served, and then follow up to see if they were interested in additional services, such as career or resume workshops. The client interaction was her favorite part of the experience.

“Everybody needs help nowadays,” she says. “You can’t help everybody, but the ones we can help, seeing how grateful they are to get service, I enjoy that.”

Shared mission

In Highland, as in the Northside, Upstate has invested in improving educational outcomes for children. But while Upstate’s involvement in the Franklin School on the Northside focuses on early learners, the university’s unique collaboration with Wofford College in Highland assists children in first through sixth grades.

Last year Inaya Thompson ’22, a community health student, was doing an internship with the Spartanburg Housing Authority, and assisting with an after-school homework club started by Wofford at the Prince Hall public housing complex. She decided to create a supplemental program one day a week that focused on enrichment activities for the children after they’d completed their schoolwork.

Her professor, Marilyn Izzard, community outreach coordinator with the College of Education, loved the idea and wanted to ensure it continued after Thompson graduated. She approached Alysa Handelsman, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Wofford, about expanding the homework club to include the activities program. Now every day that the students come for homework, they also get to work on a fun project that includes an educational component.

“Getting to brainstorm with people who have that experience training students to be teachers has been a really great benefit to the program,” Handelsman says. “All of the students become our students. We’re all this team where we want everyone to grow and to thrive.”

Handelsman’s students come from a variety of majors, while the Upstate students are education majors. Sinéad Brien, assistant professor of middle level/secondary science education at USC Upstate, says the different backgrounds are one reason the collaboration is so fruitful.

“They get to learn from each other, because they have different strengths,” Brien says. Izzard notes the Wofford students used their grant-writing skills to get additional funds for the program, while the Upstate students shared teaching techniques they learned in class.

Izzard says for many of the Upstate students, it’s the first time they’ve interacted with children from completely different backgrounds than their own. She sees the experience as important for understanding cultural differences. Behaviors that some teachers might interpret as disrespectful, for example, may be considered normal by the children. A teacher who’s aware of that can address the situation without immediately resorting to discipline, Izzard says.

“There are very few persons of color in schools teaching,” she notes. “So the best you can do is get all of the students or professors to be familiar with the cultures we’re training our students to work with. And sometimes we have to get out in the community to do that.”

Sidney Keene, a senior early childhood education major, says she was a little nervous at first if the children would accept her when she began volunteering. Izzard had told her the children were very close to the students who they saw regularly, and might be wary of a stranger.

But Keene quickly bonded with the children she worked with, and ended up going to Prince Hall every week, both with her class and solo. She grew especially close to one of the older girls, who loved to braid Keene’s hair and talk to her about what was going on at school or with her family.

“It was very insightful for me as an educator to experience firsthand what children do and where they go after school,” Keene says. “It will help me be able to relate to them better, to know where I can help them personally, and in the classroom, to be able to meet their needs in all ways.”

Leading by example

Javez Henderson, director of resident services and community engagement at the Spartanburg Housing Authority (SHA), says he’s proud of the program, which led to SHA being named to the 2023 Public Housing Communities Honor Roll by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. SHA was the only housing authority in South Carolina to receive the honor, which recognized 31 agencies nationwide for their efforts to address learning loss from COVID-19.

“This has been a great positive for our community,” Henderson says. “It means the world to the students to be able to see the volunteers as students and model their behavior and see how they interact with others.” And, he adds, the college students get real-world experience working with children and learning their group dynamics and behaviors.

Beyond helping young children succeed in school, the program also makes college seem more approachable and familiar to students, Brien and Izzard say. “None of the kids had heard of Upstate before our students started coming here,” Brien says. “So now they have the idea there’s Wofford, there’s Upstate, there might be other universities around here. It becomes more on their radar to think about university.”

And one day, Upstate’s chancellor hopes, they may be arriving on campus as new students. Getting young people to not just think about college, but get a degree and pursue other dreams is what USC Upstate means when it talks about generational change made possible, Harris says.

“My personal mission is to inspire young people to change the world,” Harris says. “Higher education is the place where I see that taking place pretty profoundly. At USC Upstate, our faculty and staff are invested in individuals so they can change not just their families, but they can change and impact other communities and families.”