Penn Undergraduate Re-envisions Chicago Study of Urban Schools’ Built Environment

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460June 27, 2014

University of Pennsylvania student Ashlin Oglesby-Neal knows that reforming education policy and improving the internal dynamics of schools can be difficult, but that’s not stopping her from trying.

This summer, with the assistance of the University Scholars program at Penn, the rising junior has begun a two-year research project on the environmental factors that can affect public schools and how community organizations can improve the quality of education in public schools and make them safer for students. The University Scholars program provides her with funding, mentoring and support for her independent research.

Oglesby-Neal’s study using a process of “systemic social observation,” currently involves eight Philadelphia public high schools and builds upon her examination of the work of Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson. His study of Chicago schools stresses the impact of social environment on social inequality, criminology and civic engagement in the city.

Ogelesby-Neal, a political science and criminology major in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn, says, “My criminology classes sparked my interest in how neighborhoods and communities can affect crime. I combined these two interests to develop my research project.”

She is looking to correlate the built environment of buildings and green spaces with “community collective efficacy,” a term Sampson uses to describe “people's shared belief in their collective power to produce specific changes.”

Studying Philadelphia, neighborhood by neighborhood, her street-level observations include “physical disorders” in the built environment. “The main ones are litter, excessive trash, dilapidated buildings. The type of trash is important, whether it’s food garbage or cigarettes,” she says.

“Besides the physical disorder, I look at signs of ‘social order,’ whether there’s green space, trees, trash cans on corners, people cleaning the streets.”

She is also compiling administrative data on crime, poverty, educational attainment and other factors from the schools and communities in her study.

Oglesby-Neal says that an unexpected benefit of the project has been getting to see more parts of the city beyond University City . So far, the Italian Market and Old City are her favorites.

A native of Santa Rosa, Calif., Oglesby-Neal is a first-generation college student. She says though she knew no one on this side of the country, she always wanted to study on the East Coast and received a lot of support from her parents during the college application process.

She is the oldest of two children but today says she is able to claim a host of “sisters” at Penn as a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority.

Oglesby-Neal believes in local engagement as a way to empower others to succeed in life as outlined in the Penn Compact 2020. During her freshman year, she became active in the Penn Reading Initiative. Twice a week she tutors children at Huey Elementary School in West Philadelphia. Her desire to improve the quality of education for the students she tutors has grown and led her to do more service work.

“Seeing how passionate many people are about helping reform Philadelphia schools, I joined the board of the Penn Education Society.”

In her work-study position at the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and academic pursuits as a University Scholar, she says she has seen how Penn encourages students to apply for competitive fellowships and conduct research. She plans to apply for a Thouron Award to continue her studies and research in the United Kingdom after she graduates from Penn or seek a government position in D.C.

Before she graduates in May 2016, Oglesby-Neal hopes to participate in the Penn in Washington program then expand her research by replicating her study in another city afterwards.