Leland Middle School: Planting the Seed for Higher Education

by Jan 27, 2016Across the Cape Fear, Brunswick County, North Brunswick

Duke. NC State. Virginia Tech. Tennessee State. East Carolina University. These are just a sampling of the many college pennants and paraphernalia that form a continuous border along the expansive hallways in Leland Middle School.

Patricia Underwood, in her second year as principal for Leland Middle, has an energetic plan underway for all of her students. She saw a need to change her students’ mindsets about their futures. She has set out to show them that higher education, whether it is attending a community college, a technical school, a trade school or a four-year university or entering the military, is within their reach after high school graduation. Underwood believes middle school is the perfect time to establish this type of enthusiasm. She also understands financial circumstances and wants to give her students the hope that money doesn’t have to be a roadblock to higher education.

Underwood explains, “I started out attending a community college for the first two years and it was a great education. Money was an issue for me at the time. We were not a wealthy family, but a hard-working one, and I needed to have time to bank some money to pay for the next two years.”

She seeks to educate her students about earning the grades and applying for scholarships, one being the LaDane Williamson Universal Scholarship that is open to Brunswick County high school graduates. It is an endowment that pays for the bulk of the cost at Brunswick Community College for two years.

“In most careers, you have to be certified to some degree,” says Underwood, “so we want to raise awareness that the students have to apply themselves now in all their subjects so that they are better prepared for high school and able to pursue something that they will enjoy after graduation.”

The school calls this higher education awareness plan “The College Pennant Program.”

It all started after last year’s April break when Underwood had the idea to buy college pennants from across the United States to adorn the hallways. Staff members began adding pennants from their alma maters from all across the country. These pennants sparked exciting conversations between students and staff. Since, the pennant idea has expanded to much more.

Leland Middle’s mission statement is “We ARE going to be successful in high school and we CAN go to college.” The school has changed all of its hallway bulletin boards to reflect this important quest. One bulletin board states, “You Can Be What You Want to Be” and shows pictures of colleges, the military and various careers. A second board lists all of the possible higher education facilities within two hours of Leland.

“We want to make the point,” states Underwood, “that they don’t have to go far from home to get the education that they want.”

It is apparent that Leland Middle strives to give students the upper hand by preparing them now for higher education. Students take daily literacy courses and classes called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), where important proficiencies, such as organizational and study skills, are stressed. The school is also dedicated to raising math test scores.

“In my experience, when you expect a lot out of your students, they will rise to your expectations,” adds Underwood.

The school is bringing this higher education frame of mind into the classrooms in several ways. Discussions are held about colleges, and writing to colleges is a part of the plan. Every Friday the students dress in their team’s college colors. Field day will also revolve around the college theme. Alumni and college representative guest speakers are anticipated.

In addition, each grade team (from sixth grade to eighth grade) has identified two colleges within a two-hour radius that they would like to learn about. As a culmination activity at the end of the year, they plan to actually take a trip and visit these colleges. They have chosen colleges such as Pembroke, NC State, ECU and NC Central in Durham.

“Our goal,” says Underwood, “is to have each of our students tour these campuses at the end of the year, then share their information with each other. By the end of their third year here, they will have walked away with knowledge of 18 different colleges.”

Underwood also proposes to have her students visit Brunswick Community College and University of North Carolina Wilmington. Each subsequent school year, Leland Middle plans to focus on a wider range of colleges.

“Next year we want to identify colleges in states that border North Carolina and the following year go beyond even those states,” she says.

Funding for these college trips is a work in progress. The North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce’s new Education Committee has made it their mission to be a liaison between the business community and the education community. Principals in the area are invited to the Education Committee’s meetings and are encouraged to express their school’s needs or concerns.

Todd Godbey, the chamber’s Education Committee chair, says, “As a business community, it’s our privilege and our responsibility to offer strength and services to education for the benefit of everyone involved.”

Once Leland Middle’s plan came to the committee’s attention, they wanted to assist in anyway that they could.

“We believe stronger schools make for better employees, who in turn, make for better businesses and for an improved overall future,” says Godbey. “We all want North Brunswick to be the best place to learn and work — and we are looking to do our part.”

Nancy Nipper, a retired teacher currently in the real estate business and a member of the Education Committee, is exploring ways to fund the program. Although in the beginning stages, Nipper is hopeful. “We would like the business community to be involved in this special funding project, as well as the public,” she says.

Nipper has proposed a plan where local businesses or individuals sponsor a student or group of students for these campus visits at the end of the year. A cost of $25 per student is estimated based on current gas prices. This plan provides a realistic way to raise enough money for 700 students to visit six college campuses in North Carolina. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a student, they should make the check out to Leland Middle School with “College Pennant Project” in the memo line. An appreciation letter will be mailed to the donor for tax purposes.

Underwood is optimistic, and she believes in her students. “I love this end of the county,” explains Underwood, “parents truly love and support their students here.” This makes her all the more eager and dedicated to being a number one cheerleader for each of her middle schoolers.

“This part of the county is growing and changing fast,” Underwood says. “Opportunities continue to develop here. Students who do choose to go to college can always come back here and let their county benefit from what they’ve learned to do.”

For more information on the College Penant Program or to donate contact Patricia Underwood at (910) 371-3030 or punderwood@bcswan.net. 

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