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Rural, Low-Performing Schools to Benefit From New AmeriCorps Partnership

Two rural, low-performing Kentucky high schools are among 70 nationwide that will benefit from the first round of federal School Turnaround AmeriCorps grants.

Officials announced in July that $15 million would go to 13 organizations nationwide during the next three years to put more than 650 AmeriCorps members in schools.

One of the funded projects that will help rural schools exclusively was Berea College's Partners for Education, which is a department within the college that has extensive relationships with its new partner schools as well as others throughout Appalachian Kentucky.

Dreama Gentry, executive director of the department, said PartnerCorps is a new program that was designed specifically for this grant. Its goal is to help Knox Central High and Leslie County High by supporting turnaround efforts and using AmeriCorps members as mentors, college advisers, and family liaisons for low-income, rural students.

"For a long time, we wanted to do a program where we put a critical mass of volunteer role models into one high school, and this grant competition provided us the vehicle to pull together our design," she said. "There are programs around the country that do this in urban schools, but we had not found one that did this in rural schools."

The program received $633,689 and will launch this fall. Most of the money will go to paying stipends for the AmeriCorps members, as well as a full-time project director. The grant requires matching funds, which Gentry said always is a struggle in rural communities. PartnerCorps is working with community groups and looking for corporate donors.

"We are working to develop partners who are engaged and committed to sustaining the program in these schools after federal funding," Gentry said. "We would also like to find funding to replicate the program in neighboring schools if we see the positive results that we expect."

PartnerCorps hopes to see better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and improvements in academic performance. Forty AmeriCorps members will have caseloads of 30 to 35 students, and they will serve as mentors and college guides. They will help students develop graduation plans and support them in following through. They also will make connections with students' families.

"Individualized attention is critical to student success," Gentry said. "In our under-educated rural area, many young people do not have someone to guide them through the education system."

Gentry said it is critical to attract highly qualified AmeriCorps members who want to serve in the area, and they're looking locally and nationwide.

"I expect ... our biggest challenge in the program to be the continual recruiting of highly qualified members with a passion for working with young people and a desire to serve in rural Appalachia," she said.

It's worth noting that Berea College has a number of outreach efforts with rural schools. It has won grants through the federal Promise Neighborhood, GEAR UP, Upward Bound Math and Science, Talent Search, and Investing in Innovation programs, and those efforts serve more than 15,000 students.

The 40 new PartnerCorps members will join a staff of 140 people who are working in 19 nearby counties to improve high school graduation, college enrollment, and college success rates.

The new federal School Turnaround AmeriCorps program was a result of a federal task force looking at ways for public and private groups to partner to tackle national issues. The program was launched in February and will place participants in persistently under-achieving schools to help implement schools' turnaround efforts as required by federal School Improvement Grants or by waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The 13 recipients were selected from 66 applicants from around the country. The U.S. Department of Education joined the federal Corporation for National and Community Service agency to provide the first grants, and the corporation plans to raise private money to contribute to the effort.

One other project will serve some rural schools. LearningWorks in Maine received $728,575 to serve six schools, four of which were rural.

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