Dreama Gentry is GEARed UP

Published Originally in the Winter/Spring 2012 Issue of Berea College Magazine

By Rachel Tsvetanov

Since its founding in 1855, Berea College has been dedicated to Appalachia, not only educating students from the region but also providing outreach services. This commitment has always extended beyond the borders of campus, and with four new grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the College will make a significantly larger impact on education in the neighboring region. In fact, the educational systems in some 17 southeastern Kentucky counties will receive comprehensive educational support for children, teens and parents through programs administered by the College. Together these grants, totaling over $100 million, will impact the lives of more than 20,000 people.

Dreama Gentry, ’89, executive director of the Office of Externally Sponsored Programs and a native of Lincoln County, has spearheaded the grant process and will lead a team of approximately 130 educational support staff. Awarded in the fall of 2011, these large and highly selective grants are with the following federal programs: Promise Neighborhood, GEAR UP (two grants) and Investing in Innovation (i3).

The two Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grants will leverage $75 million in federal monies over seven years to provide services to nearby schools and communities. GEAR UP Appalachia! focuses on Estill, Garrard, Laurel, Lee, Madison, Powell, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties. GEAR UP Promise Neighborhood is based in Hazard, through a partnership with Hazard Community & Technical College, and serves Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Knott, Knox, Leslie, Owsley and Perry counties. Both grants place academic specialists within schools and work to improve college readiness through tutoring, campus visits, career exploration and financial planning assistance for parents. Complementing that endeavor is the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, a partnership between Berea College, the Kentucky Science and Technology Council and three Kentucky counties. The grant will offer intensive Advanced Placement (AP) training for teachers and support classes for students. National research consistently shows that students who take AP classes, regardless of their test scores, enter college better prepared academically than those who do not.

Berea College was one of five organizations awarded the fourth grant, Promise Neighborhood, out of 200 applicants from 45 states, as well as from American Samoa and Puerto Rico. Berea is the only grantee that will serve a rural area. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, Promise Neighborhood is a new initiative of the U.S. Department of Education that provides a broad spectrum of services in communities where poverty rates exceed the national average. The focus is on cradle-to-career support of youth and their families. The work in three neighboring counties, Clay, Jackson and Owsley, will reinforce the educational pipeline with intensive services from birth to age 24. Programs will include summer camps, health and wellness education, domestic violence prevention and community arts. Funds will be used for neighborhood health care services, safety and security organizations, tutoring and teaching programs, expanded Internet access, artistic and recreational venues and incentives for family involvement in student progress.

Berea’s President Larry Shinn reiterated the College’s commitment, saying, “We take the responsibility of service to communities beyond Berea very seriously and feel an even greater responsibility to serve well the Promise Neighborhood communities.” Promise Neighborhood, as implied by its name, is a formal recognition of the deep roots that connect Berea College and Appalachian Kentucky as a rural “neighborhood.” The plan for services in Promise Neighborhood draws on the history of Berea College community education programs to map a plan for 21st century involvement and resource development in the shifting Kentucky neighborhood of southern and eastern Appalachia.

Dreama’s commitment to educational programs for Appalachia is the result of her own educational journey. As a first-generation college graduate, she understands the leap of faith that it takes for a student to go from a household with no background in higher education to a world of new and often competing ideas.

She still remembers going with her mother to meet Virgil Burnside, ’74, who was at the time an admissions counselor at Berea College. After one campus visit, she knew “this was the place for me.” While in college, Dreama worked summers as a tutor and counselor for Berea’s Upward Bound program. That experience unveiled “the huge impact that a college access program can have on high school students. These programs give hope and skills to students who do not realize that they have the potential to succeed,” says Dreama. Inspired by her experiences working in rural Appalachia, her hope is that one day “all youth will have the opportunity to attend college.”

Dreama and her team of educators, counselors, researchers and service coordinators developed these new grants around the College’s vision, a vision of educational success and achievement for Appalachian youth intertwined with the values of the College itself.

When asked about the awarded grants, Dreama emphasized the year-long planning process that involved gathering community feedback, formalizing school system partnerships and studying local and national research as well as best practices. “The reviewers were looking for a strong plan of action that will lead to measurable outcomes,” Dreama says. “Berea College has the experience to do the work and include evidence-based programs in our plan.”


Dreama Gentry, '89, reviews the Promise Neighborhood material submitted to the U.S. Department of Education

Dreama Gentry, ’89, reviews the Promise Neighborhood material submitted to the U.S. Department of Education

Support from both the College and individual Berea students in addition to alumni and community members is integral to the success of these grants. Research and best-practice models show that providing a caring individual to work with a young person increases the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school and attend college. Mentors help students dream about their futures and create a plan to translate those dreams into action. Specifically, the program aims to offer each student in a GEAR UP school a mentoring session at least twice a month by the eighth grade. The options for mentors range from one-on-one to group sessions and include both peers and community members. Volunteers within the region can meet with students face-to-face and virtual mentoring is available for Berea alumni living outside the program region who would like to participate.

Along with Berea College, a range of community partners is integrally tied to the work of the Externally Sponsored Programs office. Schools, community organizations and local businesses have assisted in the planning and committed non-federal matching dollars to the projects. A key partner, Save the Children, pledged $1 million per year to support the programs and will provide out-of-school and early childhood programming in the Promise Neighborhood. “Long-lasting change for kids living in poverty is only possible if we consider the communities in which they live,” says Mark Shriver, Senior Vice President of U.S. Programs for Save the Children. “A brighter future for Kentucky means ensuring a brighter future for Kentucky’s kids. We’re thrilled to partner in this Promise Neighborhood with Berea College and other community based organizations to make change for Kentucky’s kids.” Other individuals and groups are being identified regularly to work with the program and provide additional services.

Community collaboration is strengthened by Berea College’s strong reputation of successful and meaningful initiatives with government organizations over the last 50 years. The current list of major federal, state,and community-funded  partnerships now includes Educational Talent Search (ETS), Upward Bound, Woodson Upward Bound Math Science Institute, Women’s Education Equity Act, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Strategic Enhancement to Mentoring (OJJDP), Kentucky College Coaches, Promise Neighborhood, Promise Neighborhood GEAR UP, GEAR UP Appalachia!, Investing in Innovation (i3), Rural School and Community Trust and the Office of Violence Against Women: Services, Training, Education and Policies to Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking in Secondary Schools Grant Program (STEP).

The central mission of all these programs is to provide college readiness services to Appalachian students and communities. Dreama considers herself a part of that rich history and is currently assembling her team of 130 staff who share a vision of a thriving Appalachian college bound culture.

While most universities with similar programs and offices are larger, research based universities, Berea College is well positioned to do the work of these grants. “We have the infrastructure, research and vision to serve as careful stewards of federal money,” Dreama says.

Together, Dreama and her team are shaping both local and national visions of education and child services. Recently Dreama was appointed to the College for Every Student (CFES) National Board. She volunteers as the national coordinator of Project Meet Me Halfway, founded by country musician and songwriter Jimmy Wayne, an organization that focuses on bringing awareness to the issues faced by youth in foster care.

As her staff often says, “Dreama is the visionary. She sees farther and wider than most of us.” Perhaps that is because her vision is so intertwined with both her past and future. She is the mother of two sons, Malcolm, age 12, and Christopher, age 7. They attend schools served by Berea College’s GEAR UP programs. At a recent meeting with her new team, Dreama drew on her experience as a mother and a community member to turn the programmatic to the personal. She says, “I want all children to have the kind of educational experiences and the life experiences that I am able to provide for my own children. With the resources these grants provide, our children and our communities will have better tools to decide what they want to do with their own futures.”

Categories: News, Programs and Initiatives
Tags: Appalachia, Dreama Gentry, education, GEAR UP, service

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College only admits academically promising students with limited financial resources—primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia—but welcomes students from 41 states and 76 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of nine federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly to earn money for books, housing and meals. The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.