Project Lift_off...Supporting Students
Steven Kunz is a single father of four. His job as a communications installer with cable companies is unpredictable, at best – some days he could be off at 2 p.m.; on others he's in the field until eight, and he never really knows what the day will look like until he starts it.
That work schedule means his children – gifted students all, he says – sometimes need opportunities for education during the summer. Enter Project Liftoff, a grant-funded Lee County Schools summer program which aims to serve students in transition – those who lack stable living conditions, lack a permanent fixed address or are even at risk.
“My daughter Kassidy is a very gifted student, she won the Emily Cagle award at J.R. Ingram Elementary and she sets a really good example for my other kids,” Kunz explained. “With my work schedule, (Project Liftoff) is a really good chance for her to have something to do during the summer, but it's also an educational thing. She's really excited about the educational basis. It's not just a summer camp, it's a learning experience.”
Kassidy, 12, did her second year of the program this past summer. Kunz' son Kolby is 10 and participated for the first time. Overall, 24 kids across the district were a part of Project Liftoff, which was held at Southern Lee High School over 20 days, according to Peggy Mann, a social worker for Lee County Schools.
“When you're dealing with more transient populations, that obviously creates issues with stability,” Mann explained. “So the focus of this program, while it has a strong educational component, is working with the kids on social skills, things in every day life. Just showing them that they can be successful and building their confidence to do that.”
Mann said the program weaves together guest speakers (from a local dental hygienist to members of the Southern Lee High School basketball team), field trips (the Aloha Zoo south of Sanford or the Poe Health Center in Raleigh), physical activity, and math and reading. The program is open to students at the upper elementary and middle school levels.
“The summer break allows for a lot of lost time as far as learning goes,” said Dr. Johnnye Waller, the district's director of student services. “Students in transition may lack resources, so we saw this as an opportunity to use that time to help them catch up and build self-confidence in their learning.”
The program began in 2010 with just 10 students and a loose framework put together by Mann and other social workers in the district. Project Lift-off did not occur during the summer of 2011 after district funding cuts meant fewer social workers were available. It resumed in 2012 and continued to grow in 2013. Project Liftoff is funded through a McKinney-Vento sub-grant and through Title I funding. McKinney Vento is federal legislation aimed at providing services to the homeless or those at risk for homelessness.
Phyllis Farren, a K-5 lead teacher for the district, said the program's educational component has increased over the years and integrates practical experience with concepts like fractions.
“We use the home economics classroom at Southern Lee, so we had access to the kitchen,” she explained. “We were able to integrate a lot of the math concepts into cooking skills. We had a team cook-off where the students had to find a recipe and multiply it for 30 people and then make it. That's a lot of fun, and the kids really got to use what they were learning in terms of math and fractions”
Additionally, the students this year were assigned a novel - “The Clockwork Three” by Matthew Kirby – which they read and discussed together.
“We had multi-age students in the same classroom, and we chose a novel that was very rigorous and addressed their interests,” Farren said. “Some of the kids were rising 4th graders and some were rising 8th graders, and the older kids often led the discussions. That was important because those kids don't have as many opportunities to be leaders and role models.”
“It's not that they're behind academically – some of them are very accomplished students – but some of them needed a confidence boost and to realize that they could achieve,” she continued.
For Farren, the program has been a wild success.
“I've been in education for over 30 years and this was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I've ever had,” she said. “It changed me as an educator, and I think any adult involved in the program would tell you the same.”
Waller said the students' level of achievement was paralleled by the input from their families.
“The parental involvement we had was absolutely phenomenal, it was wonderful to see how proud parents are of all the things the students do,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kunz remains thrilled with Project Liftoff and said his children will participate as long as they're able.
“I wish I had something like it when I was a kid,” he said. “(Kassidy and Kolby) both love Mrs. Mann – she's an awesome mentor and someone they look up to. If it's offered again next year, they will definitely be going back.”