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Fund eyes Lee schools

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By Todd Cohen

SANFORD, N.C. — In the last 15 years, 2,500 youngsters dropped out of school in Lee County.

A new group wants to change that.

Launched in May, the Lee County Educational Foundation is raising money and will make grants to programs designed to help keep students in the classroom and improve the quality of the county’s public schools.

The foundation already has raised nearly $500,000 and aims to build a $1 million endowment by the end of the year.

The Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce is acting as staff for the foundation and looking for an executive director to run it, says Peg Esgate, chamber president and the foundation’s interim executive director.

Former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, who chairs the foundation’s board, says the new executive director initially will work part-time, and the foundation will keep overhead low.

“We’re going to be very efficient in operating expenses because we want the money to go to projects that will enhance the academic performance of children in our public schools,” says Wicker, a lawyer in the Raleigh office of Helms, Mullis & Wicker.

“This is not going to go for salaries and overhead,” he says.

The foundation already has made its first grant, giving $27,000 to Futures for Kids, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that provides students, families and educators with Web-based information about educational, training and career opportunities after high school.

That grant will cover half the cost of a program that Futures for Kids is providing this year to Lee County Public Schools to try to reduce the dropout rate.

The program, known as “Capturing kids hearts,” offers a team approach in supporting 125 students identified as likely to leave school.

The foundation has told donors it expects the program to keep at least one in five of those youngsters in school, Wicker says.

“By the end of December, we are going to hold ourselves accountable to do that,” he says.

In making grants, he says, the foundation plans to set goals that can be measured, track results and report back to donors.

“We’re going to tell donors when we fund projects how they are going to increase students’ performance in the public schools, and thereby allow the donors to hold us accountable,” he says.

Other than its grant to Futures for Kids, the foundation does not plan to make any grants until it has completed the endowment drive, says Esgate.

Wicker says board members will be talking to businesses, individuals and philanthropic organizations about contributing to the endowment.

“Our goal is to get the endowment created and use earnings to fund projects,” he says.

Donnie Oldham, owner of Sanford Contractors, is vice chair of the foundation’s board, and Robert Reives II, a lawyer with Wilson & Reives, is board secretary.

The board also includes George Perkins, owners of Frontier Spinning; Sam Wornom, owner of Imperial Freezer; and Michael Swartz, co-owner of Static Control.

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