SIDEKICKS Academy in Durham Public Schools focuses on character development, leadership

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022
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A pilot program at Burton Magnet Elementary and R.N. Harris Elementary aims to help students who have had issues with academics or behavioral issues in the classroom.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The energy was palpable inside the gym at Burton Magnet Elementary in Durham on Wednesday, where rows of students lined up, listening intently to instructions and directions from volunteers with SIDEKICKS Academy.

"At the time, we were having some students that were demonstrating some issues in the classroom. Whether with academics or behavior," said the school's principal Tiffany Boss, alluding to the period just prior to the pandemic when staff was discussing ways to address the problem.

That's when they reached out to Freddie McNeil, who had just retired as Executive Director of Human Resource Services for the district. McNeil, who founded the program and first implemented it in Orange County in the mid-1990s, tested out a two-week version in Burton.

"We talk about concentration, we talk about focusing. But the most important piece is the discipline and the respectfulness. And if we can get them to be respectful and disciplined, they're teachable," said McNeil.

McNeil now works as an interventionalist counselor for the school.

"During the day, I go into classrooms, I check on the kids, I mentor the kids, and I check on their behavior," said McNeil of his role.

Wednesday, he helped lead a taekwondo session during recess.

"What you saw in the gym, those are students that were quiet, that were introverted. That weren't leaders in the classroom. But SIDEKICKS has given them an opportunity to lead in this avenue, and they're able to take those same things into the classroom," said Boss.

"The martial arts allows them to exert energy and then we want them to go back to class focused. We want them to go back to class caring about their education. We want them to be confident not only in their athletic abilities or their abilities in the art of taekwondo but in their ability to be a good student," said Greear Webb, a UNC student who serves as the nonprofit's Director of Social Justice and Communications.

Principals at both Burton and R.N. Harris Elementary, the other school participating in the pilot program, identify students who would be good candidates for the program. Parents meet with McNeil to learn more about SIDEKICKS before choosing whether to move forward.

"If you can get the parent, if you can get the community to be engaged with the child, it's just the holistic approach. It's from mental wellness, it's physical health, character education, it's tutoring," said McNeil.

The program, which focused on students who are ethnic minorities, provides access to tutoring and mental health counselors, as well as lessons on social justice, led by Webb.

"The way I explained that to kids is it means being kind, it means being respectful, but it also means taking it a step further and defending your peers and sticking up for what's right," said Webb, who started with the organization shortly following the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Webb makes it a point to also highlight Durham's rich history.

"Durham's Black history. Black Wall Street. And R.N. Harris. That's one of our pilot schools. He was the first African American on Durham City Council. A lot of these students don't know that until we tell them in third, fourth, fifth grade. So to teach them about their own history and to teach them about ways they can benefit and become history-makers themselves, that's powerful," Webb said.

The nonprofit, which is funded in large part by financial support from McNeil and other volunteers, is looking into private and public resources to expand both in Durham and other districts. To learn more about SIDEKICKS Academy, click here.