All Children Everywhere

Last Updated: December 17, 2013

This article appeared in the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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Joey seemed to be doing fairly well in fifth grade, but his school’s academic specialist, Ms. Smith, noticed he had a high score on a state assessment tool to predict risk of dropping out. She dug deeper and discovered that Joey had done poorly on several classroom math tests and that he’d been absent before each test. So Ms. Smith suggested that Joey spend his in-school study time with a computer-based math tutorial targeting the specific skills he needed. The classroom teacher was thrilled because it helped Joey quickly catch up.

Joey’s parents were involved in the school’s Families and Schools Together program. They agreed that Joey might enjoy a new club that pairs students with adult mentors for fun activities, career exploration, academics, and character education. Everyone noticed Joey trying harder at school.

Things got even better when Joey’s grandmother, who was taking care of his cousins Jayce and Aubry, joined a program just for grandparents raising children. She found a lot of support from others in similar situations—and she learned how to navigate Facebook. That summer, the kids took a canning class with their grandmother and when they finished, they were able to keep all the equipment. Now Joey’s entire family is enjoying more vegetables along with pride in their accomplishment.

Joey, Jayce, and Aubry are fictional students. But the initiatives described in their story are very real components of the Berea Promise Neighborhood. Berea College is the lead agency in the initiative, which includes schools in Clay, Jackson, and Owsley counties in Kentucky. It is one of twelve Promise Neighborhoods in implementation stage nationally, and the first located in a rural area.

The federal Promise Neighborhood grant program, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, envisions that all children and youth in the neighborhood have “access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and a career.” The program aims to build a complete continuum of cradle-to-career solutions by increasing capacity of partner organizations, developing local infrastructure and resources, and integrating programs and support in distressed communities.

Investing in place: Integrated child and family supports, cradle to career

“The heart and soul of Promise Neighborhood—and what attracted us to it—is its holistic approach,” says Ginny Ann Blackson, Director of the Promise Neighborhood initiative at Berea College. “Promise Neighborhood is explicit that what happens outside the 8:00­–3:00 school day impacts students’ ability to learn.”

The long-standing commitment of Berea College to the region is a deep resource. The liberal arts college was founded by abolitionists and incorporated in 1855. It serves high-achieving students with financial need, most of whom live in the region. Students receive the equivalent of a full scholarship and participate in the College work program. You can read more about Berea College and its mission here.

President Lyle Roelofs says the College is very pleased to be involved as a Promise Neighborhood. “We have Eight Great Commitments that guide the College, one of which is to serve the Appalachian region primarily through education. The ethical value of that commitment is unique and it strengthens our enterprise. It’s good for the region and its economy and makes it more likely that young people will go to college. Federal grants give us more leverage in the work.”

Berea College actualizes its commitment to the region through their Partners in Education. Dreama Gentry serves as Executive Director since the program was formed. “The program reflects the College’s commitment to serving Appalachia. We design programs focused on increasing educational outcomes in an eighteen county region in eastern Kentucky. We seek federal and private dollars to support these programs.”

Many of Berea’s prior grants have been focused on college access and readiness. “The Promise Neighborhood work has allowed us to expand the work into new areas—like early childhood and health and nutrition. We are learning lessons in this work that inform practice and have impact in other communities and initiatives as well,” says Gentry.

As the lead agency, Berea partners with child services programs, local public libraries, county extension offices, Somerset Community College, the Jackson County Family Court, Eastern Kentucky Asset Building Coalition, Grow Appalachia, the Governor’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, Kentucky Arts Council, the Owsley County Action Team, and other organizations. The three school systems are primary partners. “In our rural communities, schools are the primary institutions, they have the facilities and the staff to do these programs.” says Gentry.

Family and community engagement + Health, wellness, and safety + Academics

“So many previous efforts have focused on grade levels, specific activities or subjects, or particular challenges,” Blackson observes. “For example, dropout prevention or getting elementary schools to grade level. We need to make sure that we are addressing dropout risks for elementary students and getting children to kindergarten ready to learn. It all needs to happen within the context of all other issues that impact children.”

Promise Neighborhood’s emphasis on place reflects a new direction in federal policy, one that addresses specific local challenges and creates more opportunity to build on the strengths and assets of a place and its culture. Rural Trust has developed and advocated for place-based strategies as part of its mission since its inception.

Family and community engagement

A core strategy of all Promise Neighborhood Initiatives is family and community engagement. “Research is clear that when families, parents, caring adults are involved with their student’s education and school, it’s a win-win situation,” says Rochelle Garrett, Director of Family Partnerships for Partners for Education.

For this reason, engaging and responding to families is prioritized throughout the Partners for Education work. In addition, a variety of initiatives reach out in support of families and to welcome their involvement with school.

Garrett explains: “Our work is focused at the macro level on the things all families need; at the micro level we do specific programming responsive to the unique circumstances and interests of local communities.”

At the macro level, for example, Partners for Education collaborates with the Eastern Kentucky Asset Building Coalition, which helps families build financial assets with savings plans, college planning, tax preparation, and other financial tools. Partners for Education also works with schools to implement the FAST—Families and Schools Together, an evidence-based program to support and strengthen families and help kids succeed in school and in life.

At the micro level, programming occurs in collaboration with the local parent engagement coordinator. “Each community is very different, so these programs reflect what those communities want,” says Garrett. For example, Jackson County has a canning program for families in partnership with the County Cooperative Extension Service. Owsley County set up a group to support grandparents raising their grandchildren.

“It’s all about relationship building, connecting families to other families, building bonds, and breaking barriers that may be creating problems for families,” Garrett emphasizes. “It goes back to the idea that it takes a village.”

You can read more about the extensive family and community engagement activities in Family Engagement: Lasting Positive Impact in this edition of RPM.

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Health, wellness, and safety

Children cannot thrive in school or life without necessary conditions to support overall well being.

Promise Neighborhood bears a mandate to provide those conditions for all children. But that can be challenging. Blackson notes that physical education teachers, and even recess, have been cut from many schools. “There aren’t gyms or formal sports activities in communities. Kids have long sedentary bus rides, so they can’t stop by the park on their walk home from school. In some schools more than half the students are obese.”

Berea Promise Neighborhood has focused its health and wellness work on nutrition, exercise and safety. Jeanelle Sears is Associate Director of Health and Safety and coordinates that work, some of which builds on initiatives already underway. “Several schools work with a chef to develop healthier meals that appeal to kids. They do surveys and get student feedback,” she says. Owsley County has a strong program of buying local produce, and Jackson developed its canning project. “Promise also supports and strengthens the work of partners such as Grow Appalachia in expanding school and community gardening, farm-to-cafeteria programs, and agriculture-related entrepreneurial opportunities,” Sears adds.

In order to expand opportunities for student exercise, Promise Neighborhood has purchased materials and supplies promoting physical activity and offered professional development in schools without physical education teachers. This includes the internet-based Brain Breaks program that gets kids moving within classroom settings. It also created JumpStart for kids whose buses arrive early. “The goal is to get kids moving during a time when they might otherwise just be sitting in the gum,” says Sears. “Teachers in many of our elementary schools are paid to coordinate and lead these activities, which vary by school.”

Promise Neighborhood sites received funding through the Department of Justice to address climate, crime, and in- and out-of-school safety issues. “This program provides evidence-based programming and curricula related to dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence prevention and response,” says Sears. “Students have been involved in defining topics and choosing curricular responses.

The program has also reached out to families. “A lot of parents are stressed about how to monitor their student’s social media activity and phone, or what signs to look for that their student might be experiencing some kind of violence,” says Sears. “We’ve been able to partner with family engagement efforts and to bring families and schools together on some of these issues.”

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The ultimate goal of Promise Neighborhood is to ensure that all children and youth have supports to succeed in school and life. And that circles back to academics.

“Berea’s strength in the Promise Neighborhood initiative was our experience around college access,” says Gentry. “We had the relationships with schools, and experience placing staff in schools that has made it easier to do the academic work.”

At the elementary level, in–school staff include an Academic Specialist responsible for coordinating data, student services, and Promise Neighborhood activities within the school. Promise also partners with Save the Children on early childhood programs including home visits and Parent Child groups.

At the middle and high school levels, academic supports include a ninth grade career exploration class, Advanced Placement programs, and partnerships with public libraries. The Berea College Improving Rural Middle Schools with College Coaches program, supported by a grant from the Rural Trust, has placed staff in Promise Neighborhood middle schools to help families understand their middle school student's college readiness level, emphasize the importance of rigorous course taking in high school, and engage parents in the college planning process.

Post-secondary specialists in middle and high schools focus on students’ success after graduation. Blackson describes some of their work: “Post-secondary specialists help students explore their career interests and successfully navigate the college transition. They each spend a day each week at Somerset Community College, where 70% of our students start college. They meet with students to help them make the transition successfully. We also take students on college trips and to Washington DC. That experience has proven very important and motivating to students.”

In addition, Promise Neighborhood has established after-school programs and coordinates professional development. Specialists in math, language arts, early childhood, and arts and humanities work directly with schools.


In its first year of implementation, Berea Promise Neighborhood offered a variety of demonstration projects in schools. “It was important that we not just do data gathering and planning that first year,” says Blackson. “We wanted to show schools the kinds of things that Promise Neighborhood could make available.”

The Promise Neighborhood funding has also made it possible for schools to try out ideas they are interested in. Gentry explains: “Promise Neighborhood gives schools a safe way to pilot ideas they’ve invented or try things they’ve wanted to do. They can explore and refine the ideas and decide whether to reallocate permanent resources. It takes a lot of the risk out of those decisions.”

Two new programs are an Arts and Humanities initiative and a Recovery Coaching program, described below.

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Arts and Humanities

“Arts teachers and programs always seem to get cut first when there are budget problems, even though research demonstrates arts improve skills in all subject areas,” says Natalie Gabbard, Promise Neighborhood’s Content Specialist for Arts and Humanities. “Arts empower students and generate creative thinking and other 21st century skills. If we want innovation and creative thinking, it is critical that kids have opportunities to create, and to explore and experience the arts while they are young.”

Student and Local Artist making a quilted pillow top as part of an arts residency connected to math.
Student and Local Artist making a quilted pillow top as part of an arts residency connected to math. Photo courtesy of Berea College.

Like many rural places, the communities in the Berea Promise Neighborhood are deep with cultural resources but they lack funding for teachers who are arts specialists, especially at the elementary level. “We live in a place rich in cultural tradition. We have artists, including people who practice a traditional art or craft like quilting or blacksmithing, living in all these counties,” says Gabbard. “Yet there haven’t been many ways to connect them to schools or students.”

In response Berea Promise Neighborhood developed an arts residency program that places Teaching Artists affiliated with professional arts organizations and Local Artists in schools. Gabbard explains how the program works: “In the spring of 2012 we called a meeting for anyone living in the community who practices an art or craft they were interested in sharing. About 30 people came—woodworkers, quilters, storytellers, musicians, others. We worked with each person to determine their interests and collect work samples. After we ran the background checks, we paired the Local Artists with KAC Teaching Artists to begin developing preliminary lesson plans.”

Promise Neighborhood staff worked with schools to match Local Artists and KAC Teaching Artists to the interests and needs of the schools and place artists with classroom teachers for residencies. Everyone worked together to align lesson plans with curricular goals for the grade and subject.

A scene from the original play “Home Song,” based on local stories and history that was developed as part of an after-school Arts residency.
A scene from the original play “Home Song,” based on local stories and history that was developed as part of an after-school arts residency. Photo courtesy of Berea College. 

In addition, residencies have been integrated with after-school and family engagement programs. “When students see connections from their own culture, it can help them understand something they know about as art. It opens doors for broader cultural understanding and helps them think differently about what they can be when they grow up,” says Gabbard.

So far about 35 artists have been involved, some in multiple residencies.

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Recovery coaching

“There are families that are falling apart because of substance abuse or other mental health issues,” says Gentry. “So if we can help deal with issues and reunify families, indicators for kids can improve.”

To this end, Promise Neighborhood used its Department of Justice funding to form a partnership with Jackson County’s family court to create a Recovery Coaching program. The Court refers highly motivated parents to the program, which pairs participants with a trained peer coach. The coach works with the parent to set and reach individualized goals in their recovery process.

“The model uses strength-based and motivational interviewing,” explains Sears, who coordinates the program as part of the health and safety initiative. “Coaches help parents break their goals into doable steps. There is usually a complex set of issues involved, so coaches help identify and address some of those obstacles. They might, for example, help a parent figure out what to do if their phone is not working when they expect to get a random call to report for required testing.”

At its core the new program is about supporting the parent toward recovery, which in turn supports the children and the rest of the family. “It ties back to kids and their outcomes,” says Gentry.

The program has already produced positive outcomes. “There is a stronger relationship between the schools and the court system,” says Gentry. “We had been in a situation where kids were in multiple systems, but those systems were not connecting. We’ve been able to work out careful confidentiality agreements so that the systems can work together. This helps everyone pull in the same direction with students at center.”

Strengthening infrastructure

Berea Promise Neighborhood is seeing evidence that it is succeeding in building and strengthening infrastructure for supporting children and youth. Collaborations have been formalized and are growing. Partners are involved in an integrated planning process to tailor programming to specific communities and make it self-sustaining.

The investment of significant federal dollars in place has built capacity. For example, several Local Artists have organized a county Arts Council. Some local artists have been juried on to other teaching artist rosters and are finding new ways to generate income through arts while living in their own communities.

Less formal infrastructure is also important, including the growing web of relationships among families and a burgeoning sense of pride. “We want students to feel pride in the place where they are from,” says Gentry. “Pride is important for making those connections for learning and success. It’s also a fact that many students will have to leave to go to college and to find a job. We want them to feel good about where they are from and to think about returning when they are able. We also want them to feel good about investing in their communities, even if they don’t wind up living in them. Philanthropy is a long-term commitment. This is another way of sustaining the place and opportunities here over the long term.”

Implications: Challenges and opportunities

Promise Neighborhood is intended to address some of the most entrenched challenges in American education—ensuring that all children have access to the supports they need to thrive. So it is no surprise that the work itself faces challenges. One of those is transportation. In rural areas distance confounds attempts to make buses available for all activities and presents barriers to families for whom time and/or a reliable car and gas are limited resources. Distance and all its costs and contingencies must be considered in rural Promise Neighborhood programs.

Forming partnerships and figuring out sustainability can look different in rural communities as well. “Each partner brings experience and expertise,” says Gentry. “The lead agency has to think about its own entry point and how to scale up for the whole spectrum. It is not possible to develop all the competencies in the pipeline, they have to be blended across the partners.”

In smaller communities there are usually fewer formal organizations with which to partner, so partners may have to do more capacity building. And small communities are rarely home to institutions and businesses with the capacity to make or garner significant financial investments, magnifying the challenge of sustainability. Uncertainty over sequestration and future budget cuts hasn’t helped.

But some of these challenging rural realities are also strengths. Fewer organizations can mean more people are personally vested in students and their outcomes. And, community residents can more easily see themselves as relevant to the school. Students are loving many programs, especially the arts residencies.

The challenges also underscore the value of the investment. In just two years, Berea Promise Neighborhood has seen measurable outcomes: test scores have risen, in some cases dramatically. Two elementary schools have achieved Distinguished status in Kentucky’s accountability system. The percentages of families engaged in some aspect of their children’s schooling has also increased significantly.

“Berea College will still be here honoring its commitments to the region when the Promise Neighborhood dollars gone,” says Gentry. “And those dollars have helped forge new partnerships, build capacity, and demonstrate what is possible when children’s well-being is prioritized.”

Ginny Ann Blackson underscores the point. “These kinds of supports make a real difference. They should be available to all children everywhere.”

Read more:

U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood website:

Berea College Promise Neighborhood Initiative:

Berea College Partners for Education:

Berea College

Harlem Children’s Zone:


Read more from the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.