WVU Extension’s Energy Express celebrates 30 years of promoting literacy

West Virginia University Extension’s Energy Express program is celebrating 30 years of providing children in West Virginia with quality educational programming during the summer.

Since its inception at two pilot sites in 1994, Energy Express has grown and changed shape many times, but it has always remained clear on its mission: to help children in disadvantaged West Virginia communities maintain and improve their literacy.

Energy Express is a free award-winning, six-week, summer reading and nutrition program for children in first through sixth grades that aims to prevent the “summer slide,” in which children regress in their reading skills because they aren’t learning during the summer.

Jessica Mace has two children who have participated in Energy Express for years, and she can clearly see the positive effects it has had on their lives.

“My kids have ADHD, so I always worry about them losing some of their reading and writing skills during the summer because they already struggle in the classroom,” Mace said. “Being able to take them to Energy Express gives me peace of mind that they won’t have as much loss since they’re working on those skills during the summer too.”

During Energy Express, children practice their reading skills through creative, colorful and captivating uses of books, art, drama and vocabulary. Volunteers, mentors and staff create a print-rich environment where students have access to books and printed materials, opportunities to read and write and the chance to explore the meaning of text through engaging activities.

In 2023, 98% of children who attended Energy Express improved or maintained their scores on literacy assessments, and students also gained, on average, 1.7 months of comprehension, vocabulary and fluency skills.

These statistics are made possible by a unique approach that makes reading interesting and fun for students, motivating them to continue learning. Daily read-alouds and take-home books are staples at Energy Express, and the environment is saturated with the students’ writing and artwork so that they are always interacting with words in some way.

“Energy Express is a very well-designed model. The research shows that if you have eight people in a group, everyone can communicate and participate effectively. Our AmeriCorps members facilitate these small groups, and right there, we’re setting up the kids for success,” said Margaret Miltenberger, WVU Extension agent in Mineral County. “Every day, the children are practicing working in small groups, creating relationships, learning how to have conversations, to say what they like and what they don’t like, whereas you can’t always do that in a larger classroom setting. We’re creating a safe environment for them to really develop these skills.”

Miltenberger oversees three Energy Express sites each year, with Mineral County having the longest consecutively running site in the state. She attributes this feat to the program’s strong ties in the community. The Mineral County Board of Education and Mineral County Family Resource Network are dedicated partners with Mineral County Energy Express, making it possible to facilitate sites long-term.

Similarly, the partnership with AmeriCorps makes Energy Express possible statewide each year. AmeriCorps members serve as mentors at Energy Express sites, leading the day-to-day activities of the program. In 2023, 235 college students engaged in service as AmeriCorps members at Energy Express sites across the state.

College students who serve through AmeriCorps are eligible to receive a $1,459.26 educational award, a $3,726.00 living allowance and 300 community service hours. Beyond that, serving as a mentor at Energy Express has far more benefits than the financial ones.

“They’re trying to figure life out, and they need a place where they feel good, safe and like they’re capable. For a lot of them, this is their first job, and they haven’t been given the opportunity to teach or do a service project yet,” said Miltenberger. “For these students, it’s life-changing. It sets the stage well for them in their careers – if they made it through a summer with AmeriCorps and Energy Express, they can do anything.”

Since the program began, it has served more than 84,000 children throughout the state, and provided more than 1,747,000 meals and 360,000 take-home books since 2006. Additionally, more than 13,600 AmeriCorps members have dedicated their summers to serving at Energy Express.

“Energy Express is a beacon of creativity and exploration like no other. For three decades, our dedicated WVU Extension agents, site supervisors, volunteers and AmeriCorps members have collectively contributed thousands of hours of service, leaving an enduring impact on lives across West Virginia,” said Melissa Calabrese, director of Energy Express. “This is a community program that has deep and strong roots, with a lot of heart. For 30 years, this program has been indispensable in nurturing families and communities throughout our state, and we look forward to continuing to serve West Virginians.”

Energy Express is offered in various counties at select locations. To learn more about the program, visit https://extension.wvu.edu/youth-family/youth-education/energy-expressContact your local WVU Extension office for more information about sites in your area.

If you want to learn more about WVU Extension, visit extension.wvu.edu or follow @WVUExtension on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.  

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