Though the state is relatively rural, it is rich in history, arts and culture, and outdoor adventures. As they traverse mountains and rolling hills, West Virginians won’t have to look far to find a Remake Learning Days event this May 15-26. With more than 30 on the docket, events will showcase everything from making at the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington to science projects at West Virginia University to family STEM activities in Charleston.
It’s a statewide celebration of innovation — much of which has been forged in the face of unique challenges, says Jim Denova, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. “One of the distinguishing features of West Virginia is that some communities are very isolated — particularly in very rural places where there’s little broadband connectivity,” he says. “While that can be a barrier, there have been some very resourceful efforts to innovate. West Virginians have this kind of ingenuity and grit.”
He cites Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, born out of a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE LAB, as an example. “It’s a place where roboticists team up with teacher trainers in southern West Virginia and ask, ‘What are the challenges here, and how can tech be a bridge?’ Then the team invents education technology in response to those challenges. It’s a remarkable partnership.”
The 73-year-old Benedum Foundation, along with other organizations such as Chevron and the Education Alliance, works to equip West Virginians with advanced tools for the classroom and beyond. “We’ve always put the teacher and the student at the center of the equation, looking at how we can empower teachers and educators to find new ways of addressing the challenges they see in their students,” says Denova. “Remake Learning Days is a way to showcase organizations and schools that are doing great work. In West Virginia, the Education Alliance helps us ensure that their stories get told — and that what we learn from them transcends borders.”
To learn more about what’s happening in West Virginia, we sat down with Dr. Amelia Courts, president and CEO of the Education Alliance; and Emily Schoen Pratt, the Alliance’s director of communications and national service programs.
Can you talk a bit about the Education Alliance and its work in West Virginia?
Dr. Amelia Courts: We’re a statewide nonprofit that’s been around for 35 years. Our goal is to bring business and community support to public schools, which we do in a number of different ways. First, we equip students with extra support through mentoring programs such as our AmeriCorps on the Frontline dropout-prevention effort. We also involve business and community volunteers in providing mentoring and positive role models for students.
Another focus is bringing business and community support to the school level —through the Born Learning Academy, for example, which is funded by Toyota. The program provides grants to schools to help them engage families in using everyday teachable moments to help children learn, particularly during the critical birth-to-age-five period before they enter school. The program, which we offer at a number of schools across the state, also helps families develop literacy skills and good nutrition. We also fund eight STEM Network Schools across the state, providing them with additional resources and support to enhance learning in science, math, engineering, and technology — all of which are critical to both students and the business community.
The final area of our work is what we call systems-level work. We try to be the voice of business and to ensure that the business community has a seat at the table in discussions about education and strengthening our public schools.
How did the Education Alliance get involved with Remake Learning?
AC: I’m a member of the Remake Learning Council, which is a collaborative group of individuals from southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia that come together to support education innovation across the region. There are lots of wonderful things happening in the Pittsburgh area that we can learn from in West Virginia, and vice versa. Two years ago, the Council determined that as a region, we needed to highlight the many places that are remaking learning in incredible ways, and also to involve the broader community in those efforts so that families, community leaders, and businesses could be a part of it, too. That’s how Remake Learning Days came to be, and we’re very pleased to be involved for a second year.
Emily Schoen Pratt: In West Virginia, Remake Learning Days has been a great opportunity for organizations and schools to host events that they otherwise wouldn’t have had funding for. They’ve really been able to highlight some creative, hands-on, engaging experiences for kids. Last year, with support from Remake Learning, we were able to provide grants to 20 organizations across West Virginia that wanted to host events. It was one of the most successful grant programs we’ve had in the past several years, and we saw huge amounts of activity in the media and online. Remake Learning was kind of a buzzword; things were very energetic and happening during that first week. So we’re excited to do it again, especially with the expanded schedule this year. It gives us time to hold more events and draw in even larger numbers of people.
What makes West Virginia special?
AC: Emily and I are both native West Virginians. I think oftentimes, when someone from our state talks about where they’re from, they’ll mention their home county or district. Automatically, when you say Berkeley County, which is in the eastern part of the state, you have a visual that’s very different than here in Kanawha County. Or if you’re from Monongalia County where West Virginia University is located, that’s obviously very different given that it’s a university town. The culture of the state is very diverse and often depends on the geography of the region you’re in.
But there are a couple of things that unite us. We’re very determined people — West Virginians have strong work ethic. Recently, we’ve faced a lot of economic challenges. I think it’s in the news right now that we currently have a huge budget deficit that we’re struggling to address. But in general, we’re very resilient, and we work to pass that on to our children. I’ve been to Pittsburgh many times, and I enjoy everything about that region, but I also like to come home. I enjoy West Virginia’s rural communities and natural beauty.
ESP: We do have a lot of beautiful areas and natural resources. Whether people are interested in hiking, biking, or whitewater rafting, West Virginians really enjoy the outdoors.
Are there any particular Remake Learning Days events that you’re particularly excited about?
AC: Honestly, I can’t say that there’s any one that I’m more excited about than any other. I really do believe that they’re all exciting, because the events and the organizations hosting them are very diverse. For example, the Second Annual Blackshere Garden Fair at Blackshere Elementary School in Mannington is using their school garden and having hands-on food prep activities, and you can just imagine how fun that will be for students and how engaging it will be for the entire community. And then at Wheeling Park High School on May 25, they’re going to have STEM-A-Palooza, which is a mini-maker fair. They’re involving the broader community and local universities. They’re going to have booths, laser cutting, 3D printers, sewing machines — all of those wonderful things. There are so many great events coming up, and I’m happy I get to see them!
ESP: I’ve been really impressed by the diversity of the organizations that are participating, from libraries to schools to community organizations. All these different organizations feel that remaking learning is important to them and their communities, and they put the work in to make something really engaging and fun for kids.
This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.
Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.