DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've been exploring two portraits on this program. They are portraits of two cities in Ohio. One, Springfield, has been struggling economically. The other, Columbus, has been a model of prosperity - rising wages, low unemployment. And we've been asking the question this week, how can that model be repeated? What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?
Many people feel that is not happening quickly enough, and that's a backdrop in this presidential election. This is all part of a project with member stations we're calling A Nation Engaged. And this morning, we travel with NPR's Chris Arnold to a new school in Springfield that's trying to turn the tide in that struggling community.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: When you drive into the heart of Springfield, you see a majestic hundred-year-old high school. It was modeled after the Library of Congress, actually, and it has a big dome on top of it. It's a monument to a more prosperous time for the city. But as nearby factories shut down, household incomes plummeted and people with more resources moved away from the downtown, this beautiful old high school was closed and boarded up.
DEBBIE KELLY: My mom graduated from here years ago and then other relatives. And you just have a lot of history here.
ARNOLD: Debbie Kelly is a longtime public school art teacher in Springfield.
KELLY: To see it in decline and not used and boarded up, it - you drive by it, and it sort of becomes a metaphor for the town. It becomes like, oh, are we just - is this where we are? Everything's just dying, and nothing good is happening. There's nothing new.
ARNOLD: But a few years ago, local officials proposed reopening this school to put in a new STEM academy. That is a public school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. This could create a new higher-skilled workforce for local businesses, and it might attract new businesses. Some people who live outside the downtown, though, said, whoa, wait a minute. That area is blighted. It's the wrong side of the tracks. Kids won't go. Let's do this someplace else. But the naysayers lost. And today, the boards are off the windows.
JOSHUA JENNINGS: This is one of our math classes. We have two teachers in one classroom, the biggest class that we have at the school.
ARNOLD: Joshua Jennings is the founding director of the school. It's called the Global Impact STEM Academy. And it's drawing so many kids now that he's expanding it and having to turn students away.
JENNINGS: And we've seen our school grow exponentially. And the demand for it here locally has grown incredibly, as well.
ARNOLD: Inside the redesigned modern glass entryway, on the wall, there are painted faces of famous people. And when you touch them, you hear quotes that are read by the students.
OK, I'm going to Albert Einstein's tongue.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: You can't use the same thinking to solve a problem that was created by that thinking.
ARNOLD: And at its heart, that's what this school is trying to do. The shift in thinking here is that kids shouldn't just trudge off to math or science class when the bell rings. Instead, they're creating more of a workplace environment here, from the way that the kids dress - business casual - to the kinds of projects that they work on. The school, right now, needs a new parking lot, so in math class, that's what they're working on.
LOGAN REXROTH: Yeah, let's build a parking lot.
ARNOLD: Students Logan Rexroth and Addison Keener are figuring out how to fit in more cars and still leave enough green space.
ADDISON KEENER: Have we decided how we're going to angle the parking spaces?
LOGAN: I think we settled on 60-degree angle. Wouldn't it be a whole lot more simple if they would just hire someone to do this for us?
ARNOLD: Addison Keener says it's her first year at the school.
ADDISON: Last year, I was kind of miserable at my school. And I would be so, like, not really depressed, but upset all the time and super stressed. And here, I don't even feel like I'm coming to school every day. I feel like I'm coming to see my friends and have fun and learn some stuff.
ARNOLD: But there is a big question hanging in the air here. Will these students stay local after college or move across the country or move to just nearby Columbus, which has higher paying jobs, on average? And being high school students, they, of course, want to do all kinds of things.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I want to go into the agriculture field. I'm not exactly sure where.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Being, like, a family doctor.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I want to go into the Marine Corps.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: I'm looking into, like, psychology.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I think I want to go in the cosmetic chemistry.
ARNOLD: Over at nearby Clark State Community College, a precision agriculture tractor pulls into a lab building. This is where the students at the STEM school come to take free college classes. Clark State President Jo Alice Blondin says not all of the students will stay local, but a major mission of the STEM school is to get a good number to stay.
JO ALICE BLONDIN: It is critical, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing. We have, frankly, a landslide of retirements coming in the next five years. And we are very concerned that the economy doesn't continue to shrink and that it actually goes in the very positive direction we need it to.
ARNOLD: So at the STEM school, there's a lot of focus on the biggest industry in the area, agriculture. Students study plants and animal biotech, food science. They do internships, also, at local businesses to make connections. Back over at the high school, Debbie Kelly, the art teacher who was so sad when the school was boarded up - she's now teaching art classes at the STEM academy.
KELLY: To take this and revive it - I think now when you drive by, it's a very exciting, happy place. I mean, I think it's just magical.
ARNOLD: And it may prove to be a good omen for Springfield. Household income plunged an alarming 27 percent here between 1999 and 2014. But the latest census data shows that incomes rose at least a bit last year. And local officials say that they're excited that some new employers are moving into the area. And together with local companies, they're announcing hundreds of new jobs.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Springfield, Ohio.
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