Program makes reading a fun summer activity

NEW MANCHESTER – A couple of young cut-ups in Derek Chamberlain’s Energy Express class have just come in from an outdoor activity, and, needless to say, they still have a lot of energy.

They drop to the floor and crawl, commando-style, back to the classroom, where soon they will be reading with Chamberlain, a 19-year-old AmeriCorps mentor from New Cumberland.

“We encourage this,” said Julia Provenzano, an Energy Express community coordinator, as she watches the two boys. “If they want to Army-crawl down the hall, they can. We stress that this is not like school.”

Energy Express, a six-week program for children living in rural and low-income communities, is in its 15th year of trying to make reading sound like a fun summer activity for Hancock County students.

“It’s our best start ever,” WVU Extension Agent Carole Scheerbaum recently told Hancock County commissioners.

More than 80 children have enrolled in this summer’s Energy Express, which began June 23 and continues through Aug. 1. The program attempts to prevent the “summer slide” for children entering grades 1 through 6, said Patrice Cain, site supervisor for the Energy Express program at Oak Glen Middle School.

“It’s so they don’t drift backwards in the summer from not reading,” Cain said.

“Energy Express has been shown to help children not only maintain their reading skills during the summer, but often to actually improve them,” Scheerbaum said.

Energy Express seeks to engage the interest of children by guaranteeing them 20 minutes of one-on-one reading a day and then organizing a series of activities around that reading, Cain said. In addition to reading with a young volunteer, students are read to by a college-age mentor.

On Friday, Madison Wade, 6, of Newell, read about bears with AmeriCorps mentor Cherish Orr, 24, of Weirton, while Isaac Kelly, 6, of New Cumberland, read “If the Dinosaurs Came Back” with volunteer Janaya Montgomery, 12, of New Cumberland.

Isaac also read “The Penguin Who Wanted to Fly,” “Bears” and “The Jungle.” The thought of dinosaurs coming back and helping humans sounded pretty cool to him.

“This one is probably the goodest,” he said, holding the dinosaur book and smiling. “They can do stuff really a lot for you. You don’t even need a ladder to get to your house if you have dinosaurs like that.”

Isaac said he enjoys Energy Express because “we get to do a lot of fun stuff. This is the school that I like.”

Although its two Hancock County sites are in middle schools, Energy Express tries hard to transcend conventional notions of summer school, Cain said. The fast-paced, four-hour day, with reading at its center, is taken up with arts and crafts, “non-competitive” recreation, writing and drama.

Students are encouraged to do art projects with “found” objects, such as toilet paper rolls, paper bags, pieces of fabric, egg cartons and boxes, Cain said. Games and activities are non-competitive, meaning there aren’t supposed to be winners or losers, she said.

Discipline is handled less through punishment and more through guidance, Cain said. “We try to do the opposite of school,” she said. “Everybody gets positive reinforcement here.”

Cain said children come to Energy Express because they want to, not because they have to. “We try to make it fun so they want to come,” she said.

There also is a nutrition component to Energy Express. Children are served breakfast and lunch, which are provided by the Weirton-based non-profit organization C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. The meals are served family-style to groups of eight children each.

Leading the activities at Oak Glen Middle

School are five AmeriCorps mentors and a cadre of young volunteers. Janaya Montgomery said she came to Energy Express for three years before deciding to become a volunteer.

“I like reading to the kids a lot,” she said. “I just love the kids.”

Megan Baxter, 23, of New Cumberland, is in her fourth year as an Energy Express mentor. A recent graduate of West Liberty University and a newly hired teacher at Weirton Elementary School, Baxter said Energy Express is a nice change of pace from traditional elementary school.

“These kids really have a special place in my heart,” she said. “Because you have only eight kids in a class, as opposed to 25, you get to make that personal connection with the child.”

Prior to the start of this year’s Energy Express, Baxter, like the other mentors, went to each child’s home and discussed the program with his or her parents.

Those parents, and the public, are invited to an open house at Oak Glen Middle School from 6-8 p.m. July 22.