Witnessing Ashley Martin and Marque Majors together, one can't help but smile. During an early October interview at The Market in Italian Village, the upbeat women frequently laughed together and finished each other's sentences. At a photo shoot later that month, it was more of the same when the ladies showed up in Weinland Park Elementary School (WPES) shirts, their kids in tow. Martin gushed over Majors' five boys, one of whom swept Martin's toddler-age daughter into his arms.

Witnessing Ashley Martin and Marque Majors together, one can't help but smile.

During an early October interview at The Market in Italian Village, the upbeat women frequently laughed together and finished each other's sentences. At a photo shoot later that month, it was more of the same when the ladies showed up in Weinland Park Elementary School (WPES) shirts, their kids in tow. Martin gushed over Majors' five boys, one of whom swept Martin's toddler-age daughter into his arms.

About eight years ago, Martin and her husband, Matt, moved to Weinland Park, a convenient location between her nursing job Downtown and his job at OSU. Four years ago, after a period of homelessness, Majors and her husband were granted low-income housing in the neighborhood. Different economic circumstances and ethnicities - Martin is white, Majors is African-American - did not prevent the women from forming a friendship last year when their sons were in the same pre-kindergarten class. As co-leaders of the WPES parent consultant program, they think it's important that community members see people with differences working toward a common goal.

"I think our neighborhood is changing in a lot of ways, racially and economically, and we're starting to see some of those changes reflected in our students," said Martin, who works with Majors to plan "family nights" and take parent ideas and concerns to Principal Rhonda Peeples. "It's a really great symbol to have the people in charge of engaging our parents … be racially diverse. … We want in every way we can to make all of our parents and families feel like they're valued."

Residents insist Weinland Park's progression as a revitalized, diverse, mixed-income community is the new, relevant story - not the infamous Short North Posse, a gang they say is no longer active in the area. In its 30 square blocks, the urban neighborhood - situated between High Street and the railroad tracks east of Grant Avenue, with Chittenden and Fifth avenues as its northern and southern borders - encompasses student, market-rate and project-based Section 8 housing. Millions of public and philanthropic dollars have been invested in public safety, health and employment for residents, who are mostly African-American and white, along with a growing Hispanic population.

And yet some residents say this is the "darkest period" for community relations, according to Weinland Park historian and resident Rory Krupp. As new residents move in, groups are becoming separated according to where they live.

"My entire street is all white [and] middle-class," said Josh Mull, who bought a house across the street from the now-abandoned four-unit apartment building where he grew up. "There are no homeowners [on my street] of any ethnic background at all, which is very sad. It just doesn't represent what the neighborhood was. So I don't really feel like the neighborhood has been improved as much as it's been replaced."

But Weinland Park Elementary School has the potential to unite the diverse populations in the neighborhood.

"There aren't very many platforms, places [or] venues in this country where people who are different and come from different socioeconomic backgrounds can have just basic, normal life interactions upon which to build a relationship," said Matt Martin, who works at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "The neighborhood school plays an important role in the life of any neighborhood in terms of its identity."

WPES has long been a community-building pillar in Weinland Park. Through the neighborhood's bleak past of disinvestment, drugs and gang violence, the school was often a safe haven and beacon of hope. As demographics shifted throughout the years, the school frequently served as a guide for inclusion, and it is positioned to foster engagement across race and class as more families move to the area.

Well over 100 years ago, in the 1890s, the Weinland Park area was a streetcar suburb. Residents worked at the nearby Columbus Coated Factory and Jeffrey Manufacturing Company. While the physical park, still located behind WPES, was named for City Councilman Edgar L. Weinland in the 1920s, it's not known when the title was first applied to the neighborhood as a whole.

Also in the '20s, the Great Migration from the rural South brought a large number of African-Americans to Weinland Park, which was informally segregated by race. White residents were concentrated west of North Fourth Street, while black residents lived on the east side. Post World War II, white middle-class families moved to the suburbs, where discriminatory real estate practices made it difficult for African-Americans to own homes.

But there was one place where different races came together: school. Weinland Park Elementary School opened on Seventh Avenue in 1952, two years before the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The school, which served students in kindergarten to fifth grade, was integrated, though most of the students were white.

Still, Bob Miller, who was an African-American student at the elementary from the late '50s to the mid-'60s, repeatedly described his experience as "magical."

"We're in class with white children, and I remember being invited to white people's homes for parties," Miller said. "As kids, you weren't aware of racial injustice. I felt equal there."

African-American author Wil Haygood, who attended WPES with Miller and went on to write the Washington Post story that inspired the movie "The Butler," also has fond memories of the school. He spoke of his "wonderful" teachers and activities like the science fair that took students out into the neighborhood. Additionally, every October, a traveling carnival would set up on school grounds.

"Weinland Park was just this big, spiritual force in my life," Haygood said. "From learning about art, learning about books, knowing that I had to be a good kid or I would certainly get in trouble, and just having a sense of the effort it took to get a good grade."

Both Haygood and Miller recall being moved down the street to the predominantly African-American Sixth Avenue Elementary School - which today houses the Godman Guild neighborhood association - in 1963.

"Sixth and Sixth," as the students called the school, had opened two years prior for students in kindergarten to third grade, presumably in response to a growing population of neighborhood children. However, due to its attendance boundaries, which applied to African-Americans living east of Fourth Street, the school was cited in Penick v. Columbus Board of Education, a 1977 federal court case that ruled the board had created school boundaries that knowingly kept African-American and white students separate.

"Some students living in the area east of Fourth Avenue … were compelled to walk to Sixth even though Weinland Park was closer to their homes," court documents stated. "Racial integration would have been better served … by drawing the attendance zones east and west between High Street and the railroad tracks, rather than north and south along Fourth Street."

Haygood recalled feeling a sense of pride from having his first-ever African-American teachers at Sixth and Sixth. However, the building was smaller than WPES and lacked a cafeteria. "We went home for lunch. Mothers would have tables set for us kids," Haygood said. In 1964, he and Miller returned to WPES to complete their elementary school careers.

When Sixth and Sixth closed in 1973, the African-American population of WPES rose from 30.5 percent to 46.7 percent, according to Penick v. Columbus Board of Education. As a result of the court case, school busing was also used to further integrate Columbus schools.

By the late 1980s, WPES was a predominantly African-American school, said Rudy Frias, who was from one of few Latino families - if not the only - living in the neighborhood at that time. "[My father] never taught us how to speak Spanish or engaged with us in Spanish because he didn't anticipate the Latino population in Weinland Park to go up," Frias said.

Like Haygood, Frias remembered the school being firmly rooted in the community. The Godman Guild hosted softball games in the field connected to the school, and parents and students would go Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. There was also a Halloween parade.

"They would get all the kids dressed up in their costumes that they wore to school, and they would walk them up Hamlet to 11th [Avenue] and then back," Frias said. "It was a nice little parade for everyone to see. … And then, you know, it kinda stopped being like that."

[break]

According to Krupp, the deterioration of the neighborhood is sometimes attributed to the conversion of numerous apartment buildings to Section 8 housing in the 1970s. Others blame the crack epidemic, which began in the 1980s. Pretty soon the apartments and homes left behind by middle-class families were neglected by absentee landlords. Crack houses sprang up, and the Short North Posse formed and began selling drugs in the area.

"As the neighborhood started to change, the recess rules started to change," said Frias, who remembered being free to run through the massive field behind the school from kindergarten to third grade. "And then … it was like, no one's allowed to play on the grass; everybody has to stay on the blacktop."

Some of his former classmates, like Jermonte Fletcher, got involved in the gang. Frias was "floored" when he read that Fletcher, a suspected ringleader, was killed by police in 2015.

"It was insane to imagine that he had gone from one of the smartest kids that I'd known at that time … to what they were saying about him," Frias said. "He fell through the cracks."

A federal investigation into the Short North Posse resulted in 46 members being charged in 1995. The following February, Attorney General Janet Reno visited WPES to promote "Weed & Seed," an anti-gang violence program developed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Having claimed to weed out the drug problem, the government then started the seed portion by funding programs to rebuild the neighborhood. In addition to "Weed & Seed," former Principal Pat Brown, who worked at WPES from 1990 to 2000, said she tried hard to form partnerships between the school and community, never turning down any organization's offer to help. She was especially grateful to Riverside Hospital, which provided school supplies and hosted a graduation luncheon for the students.

"The idea is to make the inside of the school a whole different culture, a whole different atmosphere, and that's what we tried to do," said Brown, who considered the school the "best-kept secret in the city."

Indeed, Brown's students have a positive opinion of WPES. "I never felt … like I didn't have the opportunities that other kids at other schools had," Frias said. "The neighborhood probably wasn't the best, but the school was good."

After Brown left, the Short North Posse - then comprised of younger family members of the original gang members - experienced a resurgence. In 2006, 10 people were charged with drug crimes and gun offenses. In 2010, an 18-month investigation led to the arrest of 19 members, while a 2013 federal indictment led to 21 people being charged with 78 counts of gang-related activity. Additionally, 20 people were charged with gang-related crimes - including murder - in 2014. Of those, only one case remains unresolved: Jonathan Holt, 23, refused a plea deal and is scheduled to begin trial on Nov. 28, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

While new captures and trials keep the Short North Posse in the news, residents say the gang is no longer concentrated in Weinland Park.

Back in the late '90s and the early 2000s, crime was still a major issue. As a WPES student during that time, Josh Mull lived with the constant fear of getting jumped. And the neighborhood was still rundown; it was common to see roaches in residents' homes, Mull said.

However, the elementary was a positive escape. "I remember getting a lot of second chances and the teachers being really awesome there," he said.

Mull was one of the few white students at the elementary, but like Haygood and Miller, he didn't notice any racial tension. Youth and innocence were likely factors, but economics also played a role.

"We were all part of the same poor neighborhood," Mull said. "Poverty … really takes away some of those stereotypes."

Since the mid-2000s, the city of Columbus, Ohio State University and myriad other organizations in the Weinland Park Collaborative (WPC) have invested millions in the creation and revitalization of residential and commercial spaces in the neighborhood. The South Campus Gateway was constructed, and renovations have been made to single-family homes and hundreds of project-based Section 8 units. In 2017, Wagenbrenner Development will add nearly 400 market-rate apartments and townhomes to its current collection of new single-family homes as part of the Grant Park development.

Residents are seeing both positive and negative effects of the new interest in the neighborhood. Frias said his grandparents have benefitted; the property value of their home - purchased well over 60 years ago - has risen. "But … kids are getting displaced," said Frias, who now works at Godman Guild's summer camp. One of his students had to move when the landlord sold the apartment. "I'm happy to see the neighborhood grow … [but] it's definitely not ideal to lose people who are currently in the neighborhood because they can't afford it."

Others say that the commitment to restoring the Section 8 housing has kept many kids in Weinland Park.

"One of the reasons for catching control of the housing was to bring greater stability to the neighborhood, which … we felt would bring enrollment stability in the elementary school," said Steve Sterrett, a WPC consultant.

In 2015, WPC reported that attendance at WPES, which got a makeover with a new building in 2007, had increased. Principal Peeples also said the school's mobility rate decreased from 14 percent in 2012-13 to 6 percent during the following school year when she arrived, "meaning when students come to Weinland Park, they stay at Weinland Park for the duration of their elementary school career." And there is currently a waiting list for the school's pre-k program.

Improving WPES' academic performance has been a bit more challenging. According to the school's 2014-15 state report card, only about 60 percent of students passed the state proficiency test. However, Principal Peeples noted it is difficult to prepare students when the tests keep changing.

"We've had to be very creative in preparing our students to successfully meet a target that's been moving for the past three years, especially considering the non-academic barriers we have to overcome," said Peeples, citing poverty-related issues faced by some students even as the neighborhood improves.

But the school did receive an "A" value-added rating on the report card, "which means that we're closing the achievement gap by two years for every one year," Peeples said.

She has continued the school's tradition of partnering with others in the community, such as the WPC, Godman Guild, OSU student mentors, Rock City Church and African-American fraternal organization the Boulé. Additionally, the Mid-Ohio Food Bank provides students' families with fresh produce, and WPES plans to start a "walking school bus" to build community while providing a safe route to school.

Instilling that sense of community and neighborhood pride in students has already proven successful, as WPES alumni are giving back to current students. Like Frias, former student LaWon Sellers has worked at the summer camp. Sellers also coaches the Weinland Park Wildcats youth football team. And Mull, a current OSU student, said his "dream job" would be to teach at the elementary school.

Through their education and extra-curricular activities, WPES kids are helping to bridge the gap between families of different ethnic and economic backgrounds. "There's definitely interaction between those communities through their children," Frias said, but also noted, "I'm not sure about the interaction for adults."

And that's why the parent consultant program is so important to Martin and Majors, who hope to attract more parent participation in the coming months.

"It's been fun to build this friendship and use [it] as a springboard for how we want to see relationships change everywhere," Martin said. "People see, 'Oh yeah, you're actually a lot like me, and we want the same thing for our kids.'"

"We are on the same page," Majors chimed in.

"And the same team," Martin said.