By Lisa Shrewsberry
1,2, 3-4-5... Rhythmic claps serve to break the clamor inside Coal City Elementary’s cafetorium, which is bustling with activity in July.
Janet Smith, a 40-year education veteran, stands on stage, ready to get down to business. Her audience enthusiastically returns the pattern in unison and tempo. She has their full attention now, a privilege she’s earned as site coordinator for the school’s Energy Express program for the last 13 summers.
As with each preceding year, it has taken six weeks to develop this level of attentive rapport with the group of students grades K-5.
Energy Express is a program led by West Virginia University Extension Service’s 4-H Youth Development program in partnership with AmeriCorps. It is funded, in part, by grants from the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts, Volunteer West Virginia and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. Raleigh County’s Energy Express program is also supported by the Raleigh County Board of Education.
On this morning, students prepare for their culminating open house performance, set to wiggle, dance and otherwise act out books they’ve been reading as part of their scheduled 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. itinerary. Energy Express has the express purpose of staving-off the three-month summer learning slump. To that end, Smith says post-tests compiled by program coordinators indicate improvement in overall learning when compared to pre-test baselines for participating children, without exception.
It’s part of the research-based evidence that should be considered in support of a 12-month school year for West Virginia, the teacher believes.
While year-round school is conjectured enough to be urban legend in these parts, according to Smith, there’s proof in the anecdotal pudding. “Students who come to Energy Express are not regressing in their skills. There are 48 (Energy Express) sites in West Virginia and all the data shows the same thing.”
Other than feeding idle minds, this condensed and fun-infused version of summer school has also nourished hungry bodies. A hiatus from the structure of school can mean carefree summer days to some students, a lone fight for survival for others. Not all children within the Energy Express program come from economically-stressed families, but those who do may not eat as regularly during the summer months, as much as they would on a consistent, two-meal per day basis throughout the school year.
“We send snack bags home with all of them every day,” Smith explains, as the children file on cue to receive a brown grocery grab-bag of assorted ready-to-eat snacks.
Smith has proactively stuffed the bags of the children she feels have the most difficulty getting adequate nutrition at home, with extra for their weekends. None of the children are aware of how much food the others received and remain, for the most part, unaware of one another’s diverse circumstances.
Local churches like Sunset Hills Missionary Church and Beckley Presbyterian contributed to the snack bag efforts, Smith attributes, while the program itself provided consistent breakfast and lunch to students throughout the weekdays.
Reading, writing and dramatic arts made up the educational curriculum of Energy Express, providing a common ground for learning among students, regardless of social and economic strata. Coal City played host to over 40 students this year, reading and acting out everything from a rendition of Five Little Monkeys to Dr. Seuss’ The Sneeches. Even the YMCA song, complete with vintage choreography became a platform for learning, moving and expression.
Energy Express remains open to teaching children from the participating sites and one or two additional “feeder schools” associated with each main site. Coal City’s program also hosted students from Crab Orchard and Hollywood elementary schools for 2012. Other Raleigh County Energy Express sites included Bradley and Fairdale elementaries. Any students at these and the feeder schools were eligible to participate.
Energy Express has served yet another purpose — to help expose AmeriCorps volunteers, especially aspiring teachers, to their chosen field, offering hands-on experience valuable to the decision of whether or not teaching is for them.
“AmeriCorps’ motto is ‘Getting things done’. Energy Express not only helps children, it gives mentors money for college and helps enhance their careers,” Smith comments. The students trained for two weeks prior to the start of the program, making the project, for them, a full eight-week endeavor.
Mentors like Kevin Crouse, a Concord University student who has his sights set on teaching as profession, considered the experience invaluable.
“This is helping prepare me for what teaching is like,” he says.
Crouse’s brother, now a teacher, was also an AmeriCorps volunteer for Energy Express. It was at his recommendation that Crouse followed suit.
“You see the kids coming in and they’re shy at first. You get to see them open up and you think, ‘Hey, I was the one who helped them do that.’ I have a lot of little buddies now.”
To the contrary, Kelli Ketz of Beckley, is certain that teaching isn’t the pathway for her, but she has found her Energy Express experience to be useful to her as a psychology major at West Virginia University.
“I thought this would be rewarding because you have a little longer with the children. It’s more of an exploration, and it has opened up my eyes to what children in rural areas like Coal City face.”
She may not make children her specialty, but she did learn a valuable lesson about early intervention that rings true universally.
“It’s easier to help people make changes in their lives when they’re younger as opposed to waiting. I feel this program is very important to reaching children before they have too much negative stuff in their lives.”
For the children served over the last six weeks, any negativity has taken a backseat to getting lost in a good story or celebrating the silliness of Seuss on-stage. It has also offered a proven advantage to students for tackling the new school year, just three weeks away.
“You can really see the difference in the kids who come back year after year,” says Smith.
For more information about Energy Express, visit www.energyexpress.wvu.edu.
To learn more about AmeriCorps, visit www.americorps.gov.
Give your child a learning boost with these boredom-beating tips from Janet Smith, lifelong educator and reading instructor
— Go to the library regularly with your children and help them select books on their own level.
— Each evening, allow your child to read to you and/or you to them. “They not only enjoy the attention, but you will raise their reading level,” says Smith.
— Make reading a game. Have your children read labels to you from products in the home, or let them read a recipe to you while you cook.
— Act out, not up with a game of charades, allowing your children to dramatize words appropriate to their ages.