‘Place-based’ Work is Transforming Rural Kentucky So Students Don’t Have to Leave to Succeed

Cross-posted from Community of Practice.

While Sherry Scott was growing up in rural eastern Kentucky, she didn’t know a single person who went to college, and thought she had zero chances of ever doing so herself. When she was 13 years-old, Scott’s family left the impoverished area for better opportunities.

Community Solutions Pic

Megan Ward of Berea College’s Partners for Education staff helps a child use art to learn good tooth-brushing techniques, part of a collaborative effort between of the Jackson County Community Early Childhood Council and Berea College Promise Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Beth Dotson Brown, Partners for Education at Berea College.

She went on to earn a master’s degree and now has a role in wide-spread efforts to transform the Appalachian region into one that holds promise for its families. Scott heads the Partners for Education team at Berea College, the lead applicant and now the lead agency for local efforts under several federal “place-based” programs, including Promise Neighborhoods, Performance Partnership Pilots and Full Service Community Schools. Through place-based programs, ED and federal partners work hand-in-hand with contacts in distressed communities throughout the U.S. to help them progress in education, as well as health, employment, safety and other interwoven factors that impact quality of life.

“I see myself in the kids we serve. They shouldn’t have to leave this community to have successful lives,” said Scott, now 44 years old.

While the area still struggles with poverty – 81 percent of the students in the Berea College Promise Neighborhood qualify for free or reduced rate lunches – there are promising signs of progress.   For example, since 2012, the percentage of students starting kindergarten ready to learn has grown from 16 to 42 percent — a particularly hopeful boost because studies show that children who enter school with strong academic and attention skills tend to remain high achievers. Scott credits the increase to collaboration, a core thread throughout place-based work.

“Independently, community partners often don’t have the capacity to achieve major goals,” she said.

The collective efforts of traditional and non-traditional partners impact local kindergarten readiness. For example, libraries have transformed spaces to increase multi-generational learning. County health departments work with Head Start and other preschool programs to increase referrals to HANDS, a home visiting program for parents of children birth to age 2.

An unconventional partner– the Jackson County court system—helps former substance abusers who have lost custody of their children to reunify their families through a recovery program that provides increased counseling, parenting classes, and drug testing. It was formed in partnership with ED and the U.S. Department of Justice.

While federal place-based initiatives have existed for decades, their growth under the Obama Administration has been dramatic, with nearly 30 programs and participation from multiple federal, state and local partners now impacting targeted communities throughout the U.S.   The holistic approach is a signature element of place-based programs, but each is unique.

For example, the Promise Neighborhoods program awards grants while successful Promise Zones applicants receive no direct funding, but receive preference points for some federal grants. Some place-based programs — like Strong Cities, Strong Communities — offer intensive technical support, only.

Scott said the collaborative nature of place-based programs makes them a real game-changer.

“A lot of previous work in this area was completed in silos. Organizations came in with a lot of funding and said ‘this is what we’re gonna do and this is how we’re gonna do it.’ Things might have changed for a time, but after that organization exited, everything reverted back,” said Scott.

She noted that cross-sector efforts of Promise Neighborhoods helped to form local “partnerships that didn’t exist before. We were bringing in law enforcement and social services and other community-based organizations to the table that were meeting each other for the first time.”

The next step, said Scott, was building a cultural competency among all partners to discourage looking at residents as “mine” or “yours,” but instead as “ours.”

“We had to tear down barriers that should have never been there, in the first place,” she said.

That value is just as important for federal staff as it is for local partners working on place-based initiatives, said Scott, who reviewed an early copy of the Forum for Youth Investment’s new report, “Transforming Government, Transforming Communities: Strengthening the Federal Workforce to Help Communities Implement Place-Based Initiatives.”   The report was developed to examine the roles frontline federal staff play in helping communities implement place-based initiatives.

“Cultural competency at the federal level is critical to place-based work in rural America.  It’s vital for our federal partners to have a deeper understanding of the cultural norms of students and families from our region,” she said.

In turn, federal partners provided Scott’s office structure and technical assistance to become “a results-driven organization.” “It really brought about transformative leadership to our organization,” she said.

Early findings from FYI’s report generated long-term interest from federal leaders nationwide to apply lessons learned from place-based work to a broader scale. For example, TGTC learnings are being incorporated into cross-agency training, Delivering Outcomes for Communities, and a federal interagency “Communities of Practice” website is being developed – both working to improve government contributions to create meaningful change in communities.

True commitment from people at all levels has been vital to Berea’s success, said Scott.

“We’re all committed to doing this work, we come with the background and understanding of the region, and we bring strong partnerships to the table” she said.

Julie Ewart, a communications and outreach staffer in ED’s Chicago office, is on detail to the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s Place-Based Pilot Team.