History of the June Harless Center

Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development was established in 2000 with a mission to provide leadership in educational initiatives for West Virginia educators and students. This mission reflects the philosophy of James “Buck” Harless and the late June Harless, for which the center is named. The June Harless Center was created to fulfill a dream of Buck Harless to help every West Virginia child become whatever their dreams could create. The Center provides educators and families of rural West Virginia with a support system that addresses educational problems, sustains school improvement, and provides growth in all educational factors. The Harless Center provides professional development in STEAM, literacy, and early childhood education.

County and school partnerships have purposely been established to focus on benefits for teachers, administrators, and students, as well as assisting school districts to obtain supplementary funding for educational programming. The Center aims to support highly effective teachers and to ensure all students are engaged in rigorous, relevant assignments in order to increase student achievement.

A great example of a successful collaboration is between Cabell County schools, the Harless Center, and the EL Education Network. This partnership paved the way for the opening of the Explorer Academy in the Fall of 2015. Explorer Academy is a consolidated elementary school in Huntington, WV. It is the first EL Education school in West Virginia, established to become an incubator and model school for the state. EL Education supports a hands-on approach to learning through natural and authentic experiences.

The Harless Center also partnered with Logan County Schools to provide professional development and support for pre-k and kindergarten teachers. This led to the creation of a pre-k through first-grade early childhood model initiated in 2017 and formally opened at Chapmanville Primary in 2018. The goal of this project was to establish a network of early education sites that would share their results of innovation and positive academic growth. Funding for the research center was provided by grants from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The Harless Center manages the Early Education STEAM Center on the campus of Marshall University, serving as a model pre-k program for the state of West Virginia. The Harless Center expanded by adding another classroom at Explorer Academy. In 2018, both locations were affirmed as nationally accredited early childhood centers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), making Explorer Academy the first nationally accredited pre-k program in a West Virginia public school building. This program supports educators and districts by demonstrating exemplary educational experiences influenced by the Reggio Emilia method of child-initiated, teacher-supported curriculum.

Included in the Harless Center’s history of STEAM work was a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab. The Harless Center hosted the first of 13 CREATE Satellites at Marshall University. The CREATE Satellite provided teacher training as well as a lending library of technology tools, which included robotics, circuitry kits, SPECK air quality monitors, and Gigapan technology. The CREATE Satellite still exists in the form of a lending library where technology tools are accessible to West Virginia teachers.

Additional STEAM programs include the Shewey Science Academy, which was established in 2007, through the philanthropic support of the Fred and Christine Shewey family. The purpose of the program is to stimulate in Mingo County middle school students a vision of STEAM careers. Students and teachers in Mingo County collaborate in engaging in hands-on research during these summer or afterschool programs. The Harless center also supports many outdoor learning projects which include professional development focused on enhancing lesson plans with effective strategies, techniques, and tools to be used in an outdoor classroom.

The mission of the June Harless Center has led the Harless staff to take advantage of every opportunity to submit proposals for programmatic funding to benefit teachers and students. Grant proposals have resulted in summer institutes, follow-up sessions, and instructional supplies in STEAM areas for teachers in Cabell, Lincoln, Mason, and Wayne counties. Additionally, the Harless Center received mini-grants from various sources which were used to introduce littleBits and sphero robotics to children in Cabell and Mason counties. Our STEAM footprint has expanded to other locations like Fayette and Summers Counties where we provide extended professional learning opportunities.

A 2015 partnership with the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) Office of Early Learning resulted in a grant enabling the Harless Center to expand its staff to include five Early Literacy Specialists. The Specialists served and supported every county in West Virginia as they participated in the West Virginia Leaders of Literacy: Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Since that time, the campaign has evolved to host the Early Learning Technical Assistance Center (ELTAC) for the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE). The ELTAC employs six early and elementary learning specialists who provide literacy support based on the science of reading throughout the state.

As an extension of the work with early literacy, the Center is partnering with the WVDE and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to foster a love of books and reading among West Virginia children by increasing the number of children who receive high-quality books from birth until they begin school. In 2020, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was made available to all eligible children in West Virginia.

These are just a few of the initiatives that represent the efforts of the June Harless Center staff who are dedicated to working with West Virginia educators to create purpose-driven professional development and exemplary support and leadership in educational programming.