Artwork from the Ocracoke afterschool program adorns the post office wall. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Nancy Leach could give Jef the Mime a run for the money in the juggling department.

But that would have to be juggling in the abstract because Leach, as the Hyde 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) program director, coordinates multiple daily projects for Hyde County schools on the mainland and Ocracoke.

Leach contracted Jef the Mime, a juggler who performs annually at the Ocrafolk Festival, last fall to do a program for elementary students at Mattamuskeet Elementary School. That was a welcome event for students still hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The principal was thrilled to bring some performing arts into the building,” Leach said about the fun week of events. “She said the kids really needed that as they returned to the buildings.”

The 21st Century Program, funded by a $1.2 million, three-year federal grant, offers an afterschool program, Saturday programming for families, adult education, and a six-week summer program, all free for Hyde County families.

The afterschool program serves 200 students county-wide, offering academic support and enrichment in S.T.E.M, arts, social emotional learning, and health and wellness.

Begun in 2010, the program has garnered recent accolades.

Last summer, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s 21st Century Division unanimously chose the Hyde 21st CCLC as an exemplary program and asked Leach to represent North Carolina in an interview with the United States Department of Education.

“One of the reasons why our program is a stand-out is that they have seen how diligently our team has worked to provide continuous programming and support for our students immediately following Hurricane Dorian and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Leach said. “Many programs across the state and country were not able to do that.”

Tutors, who typically staff the afterschool program, joined Zoom classes with teachers.

“So, it was intensive, high-quality support,” she said.

High quality support is also evidenced by the high degree of parental involvement, attainable partly because of Ocracoke’s small size.

“It makes a big difference that a parent can get here in two minutes, rather than 30,” Leach said. “And because of the quality of our staff and our partnerships, we’re able to offer some robust programming for families.”

She is always looking to improve on the middle and high school offerings.

“We have some projects we would love for a qualified person to spearhead,” she said.

Nancy Leach

Students always ask for ceramics and cooking.

“It’s overwhelming how many students say they would like to do ceramics, but we don’t have a place to have a kiln or a (potter’s) wheel,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the adult education component was English as a Second Language (ESL) through a partnership with Beaufort County Community College.

“This was a wonderful program, considering that 46% of the Ocracoke School student body and their families are Hispanic,” she said.

The program is looking for a part-time ESL teacher to work with adults on Ocracoke.

“You don’t necessarily have to speak Spanish, but you have to be able to connect with people really well, to be able to meet them where they are,” she said.

When working on a needs assessment for the current 21st Century grant, Leach found that Hyde County has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the state. She contacted the Alice Aycock Poe Center in Raleigh and the two organizations collaborated on creating a year of health, fitness and nutrition activities along with many cooperative games.

“We need a shed for all this stuff,” Leach laughs.

This year, Leach was selected as an Afterschool Ambassador by the Afterschool Alliance, one of just 16 leaders across the country chosen for the honor this year. This nonprofit promotes the importance of afterschool programs for America’s children, families and communities.

Each Ambassador organizes an event for Lights On Afterschool, the Afterschool Alliance’s annual rally for afterschool, which usually occurs in October.

Retired Superintendent Stephen Basnight called this program “our secret weapon,” according to a school statement when Leach was named an Aftershool Alliance ambassador.  “Under the leadership of Ms. Leach, the 21st Century Program is as much a part of our overall educational program as the courses we teach from 8 to 3. This program provides our students another layer of individualized assistance before they leave school each day.”

Most recently, Leach was one of four professionals in the state who received the Emerging Afterschool Champion Award by the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs.

While she feels honored, Leach said, “The program would not, and I would not, be getting any of this recognition without the amazing team of people I work with. They give me so much to be proud of, but what they do for the children of Hyde County is just inspirational.”

Particularly, she said that Claire Senseney, who, as head site coordinator based on Ocracoke, has gone above and beyond to collaborate and innovate during her more than five years of service.

In addition to the afterschool program, Leach serves as the director of student services for Hyde County Schools, coordinating a myriad of services relating to the physical and mental health of the students, district scholarships, juvenile crime prevention, Title IX, memorandums of understanding with school/community partners and other grants.

She manages Hyde County Schools Provisional County Partnership with the N.C. Arts Council.

Adults interested in being tutors for the Hyde 21st CCLC summer or afterschool programs will find an application on the Hyde County Schools website.

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