By Jennifer Wohlleb
School officials in Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties get nervous when you ask them about the services provided to their students through the Promise Neighborhood grant administered by Berea College – nervous that they’re leaving something out when they try to name them all.
“It’s a pipeline continuum from cradle to career; they do preschool services, they work with lots of different community agencies, they have so many different things,” said Elizabeth Norris, Jackson County Schools’ instructional supervisor. “I’m so afraid I’m going to forget one and it’s going to look like we’re emphasizing one over another.”
PHOTO: A student from Tyner Elementary in Jackson County records a journal entry during a trip to Cumberland Falls. Fourth-graders traveled to historic sites across Kentucky, thanks in part to the Promise Neighborhood grant through Berea College. The students took photos during their travels (with cameras provided through the grant), wrote pieces and drew pictures that they put together in a book. Photo provided by Jackson County Schools
That was a common refrain from everyone involved in the $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education aimed at improving education for students in some of the country’s poorest areas. The grant, one of five nationally and the only one geared toward rural areas, provides Berea College with $6 million a year over five years to serve Clay, Jackson and Owsley schools. It is in its second year.
Each school in the Neighborhood, as it’s commonly called, now has an academic specialist on staff – the high schools each have two. Professional development is a big part of the program, as is improving attendance, getting parents involved, finding best practices, providing students with experiences outside the classroom, funding transportation for after-school programs and other activities, and improving safety, health and wellness, just to name the biggest initiatives.
“It is a cradle to career initiative that works to help young people have success from the time they’re born until they’re in a career,” said Ginny Blackson, director of the Berea College Promise Neighborhood Initiative. “Services and activities follow students all along that pipeline, as we call it … and with something so large, we’ve brought in a lot of partners to help us. So we’re delivering solutions all across that pipeline, hopefully touching kids as they move through life, hopefully helping them to move into a career.”
In the districts
Clay County Schools Superintendent Reecia Samples said the grant couldn’t have come along at a better time.
“There are a lot of services and activities that we would not be able to offer our kids if we were not involved in this project,” she said. “It has come at a time when money is so tight and budgets are so tight as well, that it really gives us some relief to be able to do some extra things for our students, especially with our goals of college and career readiness. It has absolutely been a godsend in that respect to help us reach those goals.”
She said one area in which the district saw an immediate impact from the grant was College Application Day, which allowed Clay County to transport its students to the local Eastern Kentucky University campus, where students filled out several applications.
“Until you get in there and do those kinds of things with the kids, it may not be a reality to them” Samples said.
She said the number of students saying they plan to go to college increased by the end of the day, once they were presented with the possibly in such a tangible way.
The grant enabled Owsley County Schools to launch a program in October called Success for All.
“The timing was perfect because this was just after all the test scores came out and of course a lot of elementary schools were shocked with where they were at,” said Superintendent Tim Bobrowski. “Success for All, coming in, has given us a leg to stand on in terms of what do we need to focus on.
“It has been a school culture change … it has been an academic change of focus for the elementary staff. It has been very student friendly in the sense that we’re allowing ourselves to (academically) move students who traditionally we haven’t been able to move.”
Changes big and small
While the scope of the program is huge, its smallest cogs are having big effects, such as money for transportation. With rural, isolated homes and families with no reliable vehicles, having transportation to and from an after-school program, summer program, tutoring, or extracurricular activity, gives students the extra academic help they may need or a sense of belonging and ownership they may not have had before.
“It allows us to offer things to our kids we wouldn’t be able to offer otherwise,” said Jackson County Schools Superintendent Mike Smith.
The after-school program at Tyner Elementary in Jackson County, which focuses on math, science, and arts and humanities, provides both enrichment and assistance, said Angie Carroll, teacher and program coordinator.
“We have kids who range from special education to gifted and talented, so we’re either working in very small groups to reinforce skills or to reteach in a different way the classroom skills those struggling students may not be getting,” she said. “Promise Neighborhood has really afforded that small group setting, where in this day and time, classroom sizes are really huge because of funding. And those small group, hands-on activities have really been successful … I had no fifth-graders in my Promise Neighborhood group who showed below average growth – they were average or above average.”
She said 95 percent of the students would not be able to stay after school without the transportation provided through the grant.
Lauren Bingham, Tyner’s academic specialist, said one of her daily responsibilities is checking daily attendance in the Infinite Campus database.
“One of the things I look for is every kindergarten student who is absent,” she said. “I make a call to that home just to see why that student is absent and tell them we’re concerned about them.”
She also looks at the Persistence to Graduation reports to see how each student ranks and the reasons for those scores.
“Once I do that, I have conversations with the teachers about the students who are ranking high on that list and what we can do to help them,” Bingham said.
A Promise Neighborhood representative at Jackson County Middle School said she is already seeing some positive changes in the college and career readiness of students, one of her main areas of focus.
“One thing that has been really exciting for me, having been here for a little over a year, is that students now come up to me and they have questions about college instead of me trying to go into a classroom and talk about it,” said Grace McKenzie. “When they’re in the library they ask, ‘What do you have to do to be a neonatal nurse,’ and questions that I wasn’t getting when I was first here.”
She said some of her students would be first-generation college students. “When you don’t have someone at home to ask those questions to, it can be challenging,” McKenzie said. “It’s exciting to have someone to talk to. Even though their teachers went to college, it’s not something they talk about every day.”