Corbin, KY— Five thousand eighth-graders from Appalachian Kentucky gathered Wednesday to officially kick off the Berea College GEAR UP CFES Scholars program.  The two-hour event included talks from Lyle Roelofs, Berea College President, and Hasan Davis, Commissioner of the of Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as musical performances by Chad Warrix of Halfway to Hazard, the Hall Pass Tour, a hip-hop and R&B group from New York, and Perry County eighth-grader Kennedy Bailey.

Warrix was the first in his family to attend college and he told students “college prepares you. High school is not enough anymore, guys. It used to be, but things are changing rapidly and you have to be prepared…so you can have a chance of getting a great job. ” Warrix volunteers his time to visit schools in Kentucky as part of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame Stars Over Appalachia program, working to encourage students to stay in school and go to college.  After the event, Kennedy Bailey shared her thoughts on why the event is important. “GEAR UP is about getting you ready to get up and do your best in whatever you do,” she said, “whether it’s performing or applying to college or just being in middle school.”

The Hall Pass Tour, based out of New York City, engaged students with a high-energy hip-hop and R&B show focused on building their dreams.  “On the Hall Pass Tour, we have a motto,” said headlining singer j.Renee, as she introduced a duet with co-headliner ScienZe.  “We say that, ‘Team work makes the dream work.’”  The pair emphasized the point further by explaining that the song “Dreamwork” was developed collaboratively with a student.

The Hall Pass Tour also auditions and selects students to perform as part of their shows. Bailey, an eighth-grade student from Hazard, KY, rehearsed with the group and joined them onstage to open the show.  “GEAR UP is about getting you ready to get up and do your best in whatever you do,” Bailey explained, “whether it’s performing or applying to college or just being in middle school.”

The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice was a key partner in the event, which aimed to increase high school graduation rates and college-going rates in southeastern Kentucky.  Commissioner Davis took the stage last, to put the messages from college presidents and motivational musicians in perspective.  “A lot of people wonder, ‘Why does the commissioner of Juvenile Justice, a guy who locks kids up, want to be here talking to you today?’” he said.  “What we know is that young people who get an education are much less likely to come into the prison system.  And we want you to do great things like all these people have talked about, not coming through our system.”  He said that it might be tempting for students to think that the people on stage did not have the same challenges they did, but everyone struggles to be the greatest they can be.  “You can do the same,” he said.  “You have the ability.  It’s time for you to get geared up.”

Davis closed the event by reminding students that they are Berea College CFES Scholars and they are expected to graduate high school and attend college.  He then led the students in chanting, “I commit not to quit!” Davis shared with students that Berea College and CFES will bring them back together in the spring of 2017 to celebrate their high school graduation and college acceptance.

GEAR UP is a U.S. Department of Education college readiness program and the Berea College program works in seventeen Kentucky counties.  The goal of the Berea College GEAR UP program is to increase high school graduation and college-going rates in these counties. Dreama Gentry, of Berea College, explains “Without interventions like our Berea CFES Scholars program, more than 1,000 of these 5,000 8th graders will drop out of high school, and less than 2,200 of these students will go on to college.  It is critical to the economic success of our region that we increase the number of students who graduate from high school and attend college.”

The event was a partnership between Berea College, College for Every Student (CFES), and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. CFES is a nonprofit organization with a national network of K-12 Scholars that commit to academic success, high school graduation and college-going.   The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame sponsors the Stars Over Appalachia program, which connects artists like Warrix to educational programs across Kentucky.