POWER grant for coal communities will expand entrepreneurship program

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail File Photo
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (center) and other state and federal officials announced nearly $10 million in federal grants for West Virginia in Huntington on Wednesday. The grants are part of President Barack Obama´s POWER Plus Plan, meant to help revitalized coalfield communities.

A K-12 entrepreneurship education program that began in West Virginia last school year plans to use roughly $2.2 million to expand to four more Mountain State counties, spread to its first 18 counties in other states and begin serving displaced adult workers.

The grant to spread the work of the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education, a Charleston-based nonprofit also called EntreEd, comes through the Obama administration’s POWER initiative, part of the president’s effort to aid communities that have been affected by the coal industry’s decline. The Mountain State got more than 40 percent of the $38.8 million in grants announced Wednesday for various efforts, including education, infrastructure and economic diversification.

Federal officials in Huntington for the announcement that day emphasized that the $38.8 million could just be the beginning. The White House is calling for Congress to approve $9 billion in spending for redevelopment efforts in coalfield communities next year.

EntreEd Executive Director Gene Coulson said the $2.2 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant awarded through the POWER initiative will be disbursed to his organization over three years, hopefully alongside the $75,000 over three years that his group has applied to receive from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission — an economic development partnership among the federal government and state and local governments — together gave $125,000 for Coulson to begin the entrepreneurship education program last school year.

The program aims to get entrepreneurship education in some way to every student, down to grade schoolers, in each participating school. This can include students starting class-run businesses selling school supplies and other items to them taking entrepreneurship-related classes like agriculture and hospitality.

Teachers can also integrate entrepreneurship into the education standards they’re already required to teach. Schools that succeed in reaching every student with some sort of entrepreneurship education can earn the America’s Entrepreneurial Schools designation.

Coulson said his program is continuing this school year in three West Virginia counties — Calhoun, Gilmer and Lincoln — and could expand to four more in the state starting this school year as well.

While the original plan was to implement the expansion next school year, Coulson said the unexpectedly early availability of the funding — the federal government will start paying for expenses incurred starting today — means it can happen sooner.

He said he didn’t want to publicize which counties he’s planning to expand to because he has yet to contact their school systems. He said even if a school system agrees to take part, the actual number of schools and students affected is unclear because the program is voluntary.

Coulson said the plan is to also enter 11 Kentucky counties, three Ohio counties, three Virginia counties and one Tennessee county. Unlike West Virginia, some of these states have multiple public school systems per county, so the number of planned school system expansions is higher.

With only three counties in this state, Coulson said he was able to personally visit the involved schools when the program began. But with such a large planned expansion, the program is now enlisting the help of seven, possibly eight, community and technical colleges and hiring three regional coordinators who will organize between the colleges and the schools.

“They know the local K-12 schools, they know the superintendents and the principals,” Coulson said of the colleges. He said the grant money will help the colleges, such as by covering expenses for events for kids held on the college campuses or at the schools.

The community and technical colleges planned to take part are, in West Virginia, BridgeValley, New River and Southern West Virginia; in Kentucky, Big Sandy, Hazard and Southeast Kentucky; and in Virginia, Mountain Empire. Mountain Empire is anticipated to serve the one Tennessee county as well as the four in Virginia.

Joe Kapp, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College’s entrepreneur-in-residence, will be working with all the community colleges to help them fulfill the goals of the grant.

He said such colleges are often the only places in small towns to earn skills, and while they have historically focused on academics and workforce development through providing technical skills like welding and cosmetology, this grant will add the “third leg” that’s often been missing: entrepreneurial skills such as how to start a business, pursue clients and do billing.

He said students are often focusing on getting jobs at existing companies, but the grant will help teach them there’s another path: creating your own job. He noted colleges can provide resources to startups that would otherwise be expensive, like equipment to create prototype products and faculty with various expertises to provide consulting.

Kapp said the colleges will help develop a curriculum for K-12 educators that points not just to well-known entrepreneurs like Facebook founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, but also to local bankers and owners of local lawn companies. He said the colleges will bring in local entrepreneurs as speakers and provide events not only to teach teachers how to teach entrepreneurship, but to directly teach entrepreneurship to displaced workers like coal miners.

“Historically, coal has been such a driver of the economy that there hasn’t necessarily always been the need to invest in education, and the great thing about these POWER grants is they provide the opportunity for the short- and the long-term investments,” Kapp said.

Coulson said the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, a partner in the expansion, will be providing related webinars for the colleges and a hotline for their questions, while the Morgantown-based nonprofit EdVenture Group will provide similar services for the K-12 schools.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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