From the Lee County Education Foundation

The resumption, at Greenwood Elementary School in January, of the Lee County Education Foundation’s “Head of Class” award and ceremony signaled, perhaps in some way, an unofficial emergence from the pandemic for students in Lee County’s schools.

But post-pandemic studies and conversations among local educators revealed an unwelcome leftover from Covid-19: the decline, or even the loss, of soft skills, plus an increasing difficulty in the ability of many students to establish strong interpersonal relationships.

That drew the attention of LCEF Chairman Susan Keller. It impressed upon her and her board members that the Head of Class project — LCEF’s flagship prize, which awards $50,000 to the faculty and staff of the most-improved elementary school in Lee County — was in need of some kind of a companion program at the middle school level.

The result: the Durable Skills Project, a collaborative effort with Lee County Schools, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Carolina and Sanford’s First Bank. Programming in the project, which concluded in May, focused on communication, leadership and goal-setting at Lee County’s three middle schools, with 120 students taking part in 14 B&GC- facilitated sessions.

“Giving the students a safe space to be themselves while building them up and teaching them life skills, improving all aspects of health, and learning more about themselves has been great,” said Keyona Thomas, a program leader at the Boys & Girls Clubs, which helped facilitate the effort.

Results from the Durable Skills Project indicated significant positive impact: year-over-year absences among the participating students dropped 24 percent, while the number of classes failed declined by 21 percent. Suspensions related to behavior also fell, and student classroom engagement went up — particularly among the 83 percent of participating students who rated the program as “impactful” or “very impactful.”

“I’m extremely proud of this project,” said LCEF board member Shay Benton. “My youngest just completed middle school. Navigating middle school is tough in the best scenarios, but this current group had to navigate during the Covid pandemic. The same teachers that my rising senior had grew so weary just three years later. I could immediately see how this program would not only benefit the at-risk students but could also go a long way toward classroom management for our educators. Giving these students the tools necessary for successful communication is a win-win for all involved.”

Keller said soft skills such as verbal communication, collaborative abilities and self-awareness are critical to success in the classroom, as well as any job.

“The global pandemic stymied the development of these skills in our children,” she said. “They all moved to isolated, online worlds for an extended time. Many kids need extra focused mentorship and training to learn and practice these integral skills.”

The Durable Skills Project, Keller said, provided a logical and helpful boost.

“The monies spent to work with these students through the Durable Skills Project are considerably less that the monies spent when students experience behavior issues, drop out of school early, or worse, end up in trouble with the law,” she said. “Building up our most vulnerable allows school staff and even other students to work more effectively and therefore helps all students and our larger Lee County community excel.”

The project fit within LCEF’s mission to empower educators and move futures forward. The Foundation has, since 2003, provided more than $1 million in awards and grants to help Lee County Schools create a workforce-ready population while building an endowment of more than $1.3 million. But without First Bank’s investment in the Durable Skills Project, it wouldn’t have been possible, according to Keller and LCEF founder Dennis Wicker.

“By providing this funding, First Bank joined with the Boys & Girls Clubs to initiate these programs in our middle schools,” Wicker said. “I would not be surprised if other school districts across the state adopted this model for middle school students. Kudos to First Bank for taking the lead.”

LCEF board member Rob Patterson, the regional president of First Bank in Sanford, called the Durable Skills Project “a perfect fit” in First Bank’s commitment to education in the communities it serves.

“We are proud to be part of a project that has had such a positive impact on our young people,” Patterson said.

Wicker, a Sanford native who served two terms as North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor under Governor Jim Hunt, described the studies compiled by Lee County Schools administration on the effectiveness of the durable skills courses as “overwhelming” in terms of impact.

“These studies clearly support the idea that students who learn durable skills in the middle school years of their education can positively impact the academic performance of all the students at their respective schools,” Wicker said. “These studies are truly compelling.”

Interim LCS Superintendent Dr. Chris Dossenbach described the support LCEF and First Bank provided to the middle school students as “invaluable.”

“Community partnerships like these are the cornerstone of our school system’s success, empowering our students to develop essential skills for a promising future,” he said. “Together, with the help of the Boys and Girls Club, we are fostering a community where education thrives and dreams are realized.”