Berea College gets $30 million in grants to help students in poor counties

Three Eastern Kentucky counties that are among the poorest in the nation will benefit from a federal education grant of up to $30 million to Berea College.

The college announced Tuesday it had won one of five grants awarded nationally under a U.S. Department of Education initiative aimed at improving education and students' development in poor areas.

The money will be used for a range of services in Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties such as reading programs, after-school tutoring, arts and cultural offerings and expanded recreation.

"It's going to be a wonderful opportunity for our kids," said Tim Bobrowski, the school superintendent in Owsley County.

All three counties are among the 50 poorest counties in the nation, with Clay and Owsley in the top 10, according to information on the Department of Education Web site about the award.

Bobrowski said 91.5 percent of the 778 students in Owsley County schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The figure among Clay County's 3,400 students is above 80 percent, said assistant Superintendent Amon Couch.

The counties' economic distress makes it difficult for the schools to provide some programs that could help students, local officials said.

For instance, one thing Clay County wants to do under the grant program is offer tutoring for high-school students at community elementary schools nearer to their homes, said Couch.

Berea said in its application that the schools in the three counties lag behind many others. Only 12 percent of students in the three-county area are college-ready in math, for instance, compared to 43 percent nationally, according to the application.

The grant to Berea is $6 million a year over five years, said Dreama Gentry, executive director of external programs at the college.

Congress would have to appropriate money to renew the grant annually.

It has already approved funding the second year of grants like Berea's, according to the Department of Education.

Most of the money will go for direct services in the three counties, Gentry said.

For example, Berea will hire 24 people to work in schools providing academic services, and there will be other people hired for other services, Gentry said.

A partner in the program, Save the Children, has an early-childhood reading program. The grant will expand that program to help a lot more children, Gentry said.

As another example, the plan includes money to let kids stay after school for programs and then be transported home.

Berea would like to get people into schools to begin providing services by mid-February, Gentry said.

"They will see services this school year," she said.

There are plans for summer programs as well.

The grant to Berea is under the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhood program.

The five "implementation" grants of up to $6 million the administration announced this week were the first.

The grant to Berea was the only one to serve a rural area. Others went to colleges or organizations in Buffalo, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Hayward, Calif.

Competition for grants under the program was stiff. More than 200 organizations applied for the implementation funding and smaller planning grants.

The goal of the Promise Neighborhoods program is to develop a "cradle-to-career" approach to education and development, with services from early childhood until after high school, in schools and the community, according to the federal Education Department.

One goal, for example, is to make neighborhoods safer. The groups that got implementation grants will also be eligible for money from the U.S. Department of Justice for public-safety programs.

"Long-lasting change for kids living in poverty is only possible if we consider the communities in which they live," Mark Shriver, a senior official with Save the Children, a partner in Berea's Promise Neighborhood.

Gentry said Berea also won grants earlier that total more than $10 million a year for seven years.

Taken together, the funding will allow Berea to carry out programs that will focus on more than 15,000 young people in 17 counties, college President Larry D. Shinn said in a campus email.

"The true winners in this grant competition are the children and communities in eastern and southern Kentucky," Shinn said.