A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Promise Neighborhood leading ‘new charge’
in Clay, Jackson, Owsley school districts

Manchester Elementary student J.P. Hensley works on a project as teacher Mamie Bowling looks on. (Photo from Berea College)


By Beth Dotson Brown
KyForward contributor

When the Kentucky Department of Education released school test scores in November, Clay County found itself in the bottom 10 schools in the state. But educators there were already aware they had a lot of work ahead. One partner in that work is Berea College’s Promise Neighborhood.

“I feel like we’re leading a new charge in education in this country,” says Ginny Blackson, director of Berea College’s Promise Neighborhood, which is working in Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties. “It’s the most holistic program I’ve been involved with, and I’ve been in this business for 30 years.”

Promise Neighborhood is part of the Obama Administration’s effort to help Americans find the opportunities they need to survive and thrive. The initiative is modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides communities with services that continue from cradle to career. These services comprehensively help students and family work through educational challenges that, for years, have blocked the progress of so many.

State test scores showed that Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties all have significant progress to make. Of the state’s 174 school districts, Clay ranked 170, Jackson 155 and Owsley 159. Kentucky Kids Count reports that childhood poverty rates in these counties range from 37.6 percent in Jackson to 48.4 percent in Owlsley. Blackson points out that generational poverty is connected to low academic success. She also notes that 80 percent of the land in one of the counties is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Less land to develop for homes and businesses lowers the tax base, and thus, school funding.

Berea College applied for a 2010 planning grant during the first round of Promise Neighborhood funding The college received the grant along with five other recipients. The next year, five of those recipients, including Berea College, were awarded a five-year implementation grant that provides approximately $6 million a year. Berea is the only one of those five recipients that is addressing education in a rural area.

Owsley County High school students participate in Destination Imagination team activities. (Photo from Berea College)

That consistent funding is allowing Promise Neighborhood to build a comprehensive support system in each county that engages the school district, families and community supports around the idea that when everyone in the neighborhood works together for students, the schools will become centers of success. To do this, Promise Neighborhood is working to: improve academic achievement (especially in math and language arts); improving early childhood education; providing formal and informal opportunities to participate in the arts; addressing the health and well-being of children; offering opportunities for students to explore careers and connect them with schooling; and helping all students become college ready.

It’s a long list of goals that has employed more than 40 people in the region to fill a role on the team. Three-quarters of these employees work in their home counties. Blackson is seeing the results.

“We have people in every school working on a caring team to provide interventions,” she says.

For example, each school has an academic specialist to examine an early warning system that will alert them with a student is exhibiting early signs of becoming a dropout at some point. This happened recently when a student who generally ranked high academically showed up on the system. The specialist looked into the situation and discovered he had missed several days of school. Those days in math class included key math concepts. Without understanding those concepts, his math scores had dropped.

That school also has a computer lab where students who need help with math can work independently to catch up. He did just that and is up to grade level once again.

“We’re paying a lot of attention to how to support students,” Blackson says. That means they’re also addressing student health. Health problems in the counties are high, and because of the obesity in children, adult health issues such as heart attacks and diabetes are showing up in elementary students, Blackson says.

“We have a great staff and they’ve been very skilled in integrating physical activity with schools,” she says.

For example, Paces Creek Elementary in Clay County has a 66 percent obesity rate. The Promise Neighborhood health content specialist learned that some busses drop students off 30 to 45 minutes before school begins. Those students have been hanging out in the gym.

Now, they have physical activities during that time for students and teachers. Blackson says the only cost is staff time and they are now replicating the approach in Jackson County.

“Anything they can do to integrate physical activity will help,” she says.

Sue Christian, the Community and Family Relations coordinator for Owsley County Schools, shows her group's work during training. (Photo from Berea College)

One thing Blackson is positive about is that this partnership between Promise Neighborhood and the school systems is helping the schools lay a foundation for something that can continue. “We’re building capacity, and that will be there when the grant goes away,” she says.

One example of that is the partnership with the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition. EKCCC is providing professional development to early childhood providers in early childhood centers, in-home programs and school programs. Mentor coaches work with less experienced service providers on improving the physical environment and curriculum to support the education of the young children.

Experienced teaching artists are also mentoring community artists who are learning to work with students in school and community settings. By providing artists who work to national and state education standards, Promise Neighborhood is helping schools integrate arts across the curriculum.

There have also been student field trips that join college visits with opportunities to see how people in their chosen field work. Two groups of students who are interested in careers in the arts went to Washington, D.C., where they visited two schools. They also saw a play, did writing about that play and had experiences that helped them broaden their understanding of how their education can tie into their career.

While Promise Neighborhood is managing this initiative, Blackson says the partners they are working with, like Save the Children and Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, are imperative. The school systems are, too. They bring knowledge and understanding to the table that people outside of the district and county don’t have.

After a visit to Clay County High School, Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in his blog about meeting a student who talked about how he’s seeing opportunities change. The student explained that he used to feel like he was attending an “I can’t” school. Since Promise Neighborhood has begun, he says CCHS is an “I can” school.

Blackson sees even more of that to come. In five years, she says, “I believe that we will have helped a wide variety of stakeholders in this region look at how we can truly help kids have academic success then move onto higher education and a career. We want these counties to have a culture that supports success for children and we hope people will make connections between how their lifestyle affects their health and well-being.”

The comprehensive approach to the work makes Blackson believe Promise Neighborhood is on the cutting edge of implementing what students truly need to succeed.

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