Whitfield County Schools to expand Power Lunches thanks to grant

File/Daily Citizen-News

Javier Avalos and Alondra Soto select books delivered by Whitfield County Schools' Lisleni Pace and Jeannie Fisher, part of the Power Lunches initiative that is a partnership between the United Way of Northwest Georgia and Whitfield County Schools, in June 2020. Whitfield County Schools' summer literacy efforts have received a boost from a $10,000 Innovative Education Grant from the Innovation Fund Foundation.

Whitfield County Schools' summer Power Lunches program has received a powerful boost for expansion: a $10,000 Innovative Education Grant from the Innovation Fund Foundation.

"We wrote the grant with our fingers crossed, (and when we got it) I was completely over the moon, because I'm so passionate about this," said Jennifer Eller, an instructional coach for Whitfield County Schools who wrote the grant. "I cried a little, and I shouted a little, because I was so excited."

The Power Lunches program allows youth to pick up books along with meals from the school system's summer nutrition program. Power Lunches will begin this summer on Friday, June 11, and more details can be found online at https://www.wcsga.net/Page/1052.

"We like to partner with (others) whenever we can," said Angie Brown, nutrition director for Whitfield County Schools. "We know that's where the kids (will be), so it just makes sense."

Power Lunches was launched nearly a decade ago, but expanded a few years ago due to a grant from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, which provided not only books but items like puzzles and jump ropes, according to Stephanie Hogshead, director of volunteer engagement for the United Way of Northwest Georgia. "In the past few years we have had 10-12 Power Lunch sites, (but in 2020) we (had) 30."

Power Lunches is "for sure a collaborative effort by many in our community who want to support the kids," Hogshead said. Whitfield County Schools, its nutrition department, transportation department, principals, teachers and staff; the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library; Sharon Hixon, dean of Dalton State College's School of Education; Suzanne Harbin, director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia; the United Way of Northwest Georgia and community volunteers are all critical to the growth and continuation of Power Lunches.

Eller is a former English teacher, so "I love this, because reading is so important," she said. "Reading is wonderful, and everyone should enjoy it."

Whitfield County Schools will use the $10,000 grant from the Innovative Fund Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that supports the work of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, to expand the program, which has been targeted to students from birth through grade five, to roughly 100 students in middle and high school, as Summer Silent Book Clubs will be incorporated with the aim of boosting student engagement and combating the summer slide in reading and comprehension, according to the school system. Whitfield County Schools will also use funds to buy more books, create flexible seating to build inviting spaces in school libraries and offer incentives for book club participation.

The summer program has long been well-stocked with books for younger students, "but we never had enough for" students in middle and high school, Eller said. "You shouldn't stop reading when you get to middle school (and/or) high school."

"There are so many great books out there, and we want kids to see themselves in books, (as well) as the perspective of others," she said. "That creates empathy, which is so important."

Eller is eager to launch the Summer Silent Book Clubs in school libraries.

"They'll do choice reading, where they pick what they want to read, and then the last 10 minutes or so, we have conversations (about those books)," she said. While that won't happen in physical libraries this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, "we're going to do a digital version."

The summer Power Lunches are an important component in the ongoing effort to increase community literacy.

Last year, Whitfield County was recognized as a Pacesetter in Grade-Level Proficiency for the second consecutive year, honored both for strides made in early literacy as well as in the category of Bright Spot for Parent Success for parent outreach efforts. The accolades were from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort of funders, nonprofit partners, business leaders, government agencies, states and communities across the nation working to help children from low-income families succeed in school and life.

"I look forward all year long to (Power Lunches) Fridays in the summer," Eller said. "If we can get even one kid to fall in love with reading we've done our job."

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