By ALEXA MILAN
SANFORD — Dennis Wicker and Carol Chappell have always had a thirst for curiosity. At five years old, they climbed into the front seat of the car while their mothers were in a bakery and took off, rolling backward down a hill and barreling toward an intersection until a stranger intervened and saved the day.
That was long before Wicker became North Carolina’s lieutenant governor and the founding chairman of the Lee County Education Foundation, and long before Chappell stepped into her role as Lee County Schools director of K-5 instruction. But their curiosity hasn’t faded, nor has the connection these first cousins share. It’s taken them a long way from their days of car stealing to the development of an initiative that could change education in Lee County, possibly throughout the state or even across the country.
When Wicker and the Lee County Education Foundation first started formulating the Head of Class Project, an incentive-based program that will award $50,000 annually to the faculty and staff at the county’s best-performing elementary school, Wicker knew his cousin was the perfect person to assist him.
“My vision was what can we directly impact in the classroom that can help kids learn,” Wicker said.
Together, he and Chappell developed a formula to determine the best-performing school that incorporates Adequate Yearly Progress, ABC scores and free/reduced lunch percentage, plus bonus points for making expecting growth, high growth and School of Distinction or School of Excellence status. Always complimentary of each other, Chappell said Wicker set up the formula while she just flushed it out, and Wicker insists he couldn’t have done it without Chappell’s data and hard work.
“She literally spent hours at my kitchen table on Saturdays working with this formula and came up with a model that is fair and objective,” Wicker said.
One of the reasons he and Chappell work so well together, Wicker said, is their mutual respect for one another. Even when they disagree, they never raise their voices or exchange harsh words. Wicker said they’ve never had a real fight. They were born just two months apart, and they can’t remember a time when they weren’t in each other’s lives.
“There was a special bond between Carol and me because we literally were together from the cradle through graduating from UNC,” Wicker said.
Many of Chappell’s and Wicker’s qualities that the community knows best can be traced back to their childhood in Sanford. Wicker said Chappell was always a creative and innovative thinker who served as his “moral compass,” and he isn’t surprised she went on to have a successful career in education.
“I think it goes back to having a vested interest in the community,” Chappell said. “Part of the joy of my work is that I still know a lot of the teachers and parents. I’m interested in how these children learn.”
In a community as tight-knit as the Sanford of their childhood, Chappell said there wasn’t a person in town who didn’t know Wicker. He displayed his leadership skills early on, including at a memorable family trip to Tweetsie Railroad during a show that involved a group of Indians attacking the train. Not wanting anything to come between him and his family, Chappell said, four-year-old Wicker took the initiative to climb into the overhead compartment and jump down on top of the offending Indian.
“If he thought something wasn’t just, he’d say, ‘Something’s not right here. We have to go investigate,’” Chappell said.
Wicker’s and Chappell’s passion for fairness and helping the community’s children led to one of the most original components of the Head of Class formula — the free/reduced lunch percentage. Wicker calls it “the great equalizer,” the key to making the formula fair and balanced.
They thought it was important to include established state measures, such as AYP and ABCs, but when combing through the data, Chappell and Wicker found it was much harder for schools with a high free/reduced lunch population to reach certain achievements. It was noticeably more difficult for schools with more than 60 percent of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch to achieve a high performance designation. In 2009-2010, all of the area elementary schools except for Tramway had free/reduced lunch rates of more than 60 percent. Tramway was the only one to achieve School of Distinction status.
“(Free/reduced lunch) was just critical because that’s how you level the playing field,” Chappell said. “That goes back to poverty’s impact on the home. Free/reduced lunch is based on economic disadvantages.”
The cousins said their dedication to Lee County, and particularly the community’s schools, stems from the positive influence of their parents and teachers. In addition to their long-lasting bond, Chappell and Wicker brought to the Head of Class Project their shared commitment to education.
Their families have been a staple in Lee County for generations. Wicker’s father was in the general assembly for 14 years, and his grandfather was an active member of the civic community. Chappell’s and Wicker’s Lee and Moore County roots stretch back 200 years. Wicker said they wanted to leave their own mark on the community, one he hopes will influence the family’s future generations.
“We always talk about what we can do to add to that legacy, what we can do to help,” Wicker said. “It’s just in our DNA.”
The Lee County Education Foundation had given out smaller grants before the introduction of the Head of Class Project, but Wicker said he thinks all the pieces have fallen into place with the initiative. Corporate donors are attracted to the healthy competition aspect, Wicker said, and educators are excited by the scholastic benefits the program could provide their students.
Chappell and Wicker both feel the formula is a flexible model that can be tweaked if necessary, especially as state testing programs change. If it succeeds here, they hope other districts throughout the state and the country will find the formula is also applicable to their schools, an accomplishment that will only add to their ever-growing family legacy.
“Every school is a team,” Chappell said. “The students are all winners here.”