Energy Express rolls into Poca, provides fun, learning to lessen ‘summer slide’
One morning earlier this month, seven children sat in inflatable inner tubes on the floor of a Poca Elementary School classroom as a “princess” in a pink, flowing dress read to them.
The group followed along in their own books as she read, asking questions, answering hers and sharing their own stories when they deemed it appropriate.
“Education, that’s all that matters is education and pushing education,” said Senaia Sisi Harris, who was crowned as Miss West Virginia State University this year and quickly won over the kids in her reading group during her visit to Putnam County’s Energy Express program. “I told them all, if they stay in school, if they keep learning, the can be anything they want — even a princess.”
For more than 20 years, Energy Express has operated as a summer literacy program, helping students and teachers in the Mountain State combat the annual “summer slide.” With 82 sites in 38 of West Virginia’s counties, the program — which operates through West Virginia University’s Extension Services — works to help elementary-aged students practice the skills they learned over the last school year so they well be prepared and well equipped come class time in August.
“At this age is where you get the foundation for learning, the basics you’ll need as you mature and grow. When [these students] are out of school for two months, they actually begin to fall behind from where they left off before summer vacation,” said Chris McDerment, site supervisor for Putnam County’s Energy Express program.
Putnam County’s program also provides two meals a day to the students, and through a meal program, any child under 18 years of age can come to Poca Elementary for breakfast or lunch and eat for free, even if they aren’t registered for Energy Express.
“In this area and throughout our state, that’s where we need programs like this,” McDerment said. “That’s one thing kids shouldn’t have to worry about, finding a meal.”
The students in Energy Express attend based on a teacher’s recommendation. They may have struggled in their earlier classes, or have a hard time keeping up with regular lesson plans and need the extra practice before returning to school in a higher grade. Not only through reading, but through interactive activities like sports and crafts — which can be seen lining Poca Elementary’s walls — the children work for eight weeks over the summer practicing and hopefully retaining skills to help them succeed in their next chapter.
“We don’t want the students to feel like it’s summer school,” McDerment said. “We want them to have fun. To learn without realizing they’re learning.”
Putnam’s Energy Express program is funded partially through the Putnam County school board and partially through the state, which uses AmeriCorps to secure mentors with scholarships and living allowances, said Tim Sayre, an extension agent with WVU.
The school board provides facilities, books, materials for crafts and transportation when it’s needed. Through AmeriCorps, mentors, who “do all the hard work,” according to McDerment, receive a $1,800 living stipend and a scholarship for about $1,250.
Most of the mentors are college students interested in pursuing careers in education. Through Energy Express, they are able to gain some real-world experience before entering the field.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, and I’ve done student teaching before, but that’s just sort of observing — you don’t have much of a say in lessons or anything,” said Haley O’Neal, a mentor and a sophomore elementary education student at WVU. “Here you get actual hands-on experience. You get to teach them with your own lesson plan. ... I don’t think there is anywhere else I’d have [this opportunity].”
Mentors typically work from 7:30 a.m. to after 4 p.m. each day, not including the time it takes to develop engaging, tailored lesson plans for their students. Already, O’Neal said, she’s witnessed improvements in her students.
“It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy seeing them learn, seeing them grow. I remember how that felt when I was growing up — when a teacher would explain something, and it clicked,” O’Neal said. “It warms my heart.”
But while this summer is going smoothly, and even with unwavering support from the Putnam County school board, state budget turmoil — even with provisions to support Energy Express — makes Sayre uneasy.
“Cuts to higher education are cuts to programs like this,” Sayre said. “I don’t think people realize that connection. It’s a concern, and we constantly wonder where we’ll be this time next year.”
Because it operates through WVU’s Extension Services, state funding cuts to WVU — which total $8.8 million this year — hold a direct effect on programs like Energy Express. It can also hinder the ability to find willing and able mentors — one of the biggest obstacles the Energy Express personnel face each summer.
To battle this uncertainty, Sayre works trying to show legislators the direct impact education and literacy programs like Energy Express can have on communities such as Poca. Consistently each year, students have tangibly improved by the end of the eight-week program, scoring higher on exit testing than they do on entrance testing, McDerment said.
Students in K-5 are in the midst of integral developmental stages that can help them set habits — like reading, analytical thinking and comprehension — they’ll need to succeed in the future, and Energy Express helps with this, all the while giving them the confidence to tackle something they struggle with, McDerment said.
“If we can get these kids engaged in their education they’re going to be life-long learners,” Sayre said. “Our greatest resource is our youth. The more we can we can give to them, the better off we’ll all be.”