Setting Kids Up to Soar in School and Life

Should kids strive for more than their zip code offers? YES. We teach skills like self-awareness so kids make smart choices now & as adults.

Photo of Bridget Laird
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 1998, I signed on to WINGS as the 1st employee of an after school social and emotional learning program being piloted in a Charleston Title I school. I vividly recall sitting with my first group of WINGS kids and sharing my excitement about being recently engaged. A 4th grader in the group said, “Oh Miss Bridget, why do you have to go and get married? Now you’re going to get black eyes and bruised up.” I realized all he had ever seen were abusive relationships; he couldn’t understand a relationship could be full of love, support, and trust. I knew right there and then that I was fully committed to getting WINGS to as many kids as possible, to bring the relationship skills we were teaching to thousands more kids. With a determined focus on measurable outcomes and a relentless commitment to quality and effectiveness, we have built a comprehensive after school social and emotional learning model that has served more than 6,500 low income kids in 3 states and 4 cities. Along the way, we became an AmeriCorps program, an Edna McConnell Clark Foundation grantee, the subject of a four-year impact study conducted by the University of Virginia and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and a Wallace Foundation grant recipient. After having worked in nearly every position at WINGS, I became CEO in 2011. My resolve to reach as many kids as possible has never been stronger and with a proven model to build on, we are ready to FLY!

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • South Carolina

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • South Carolina

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Charleston SC, North Charleston SC, Lake City SC, Charlotte NC, Atlanta GA

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Kids living in poverty often lag behind in academic & social development, are at higher risk of childhood trauma, receive less opportunities, and often lack supportive relationships & role models. Grim HS dropout statistics underscore how crucial it is that students leave elementary school in a strong position academically, fortified with the social and emotional tools they need to succeed against the odds and stay in school. Effective social and emotional learning (SEL) in a supportive & engaging setting can change the trajectory of a child’s life. We work with the toughest kids in the toughest schools, transforming each child through improved behavior and increased attachment to school and peers. We give kids the missing piece of their education and oftentimes, their home life, AND we provide a safe place to call home after school.

We see the hours after school as a tremendous opportunity to fortify kids with the tools they need to succeed against the odds, stay in school and stay out of trouble. WINGS works with the toughest kids in the toughest schools, transforming each child through improved behavior and increased attachment to school and peers. We give kids the missing piece of their education and oftentimes, their home life.

The WINGS After School program differs significantly from typical youth development programs because it weaves a comprehensive social and emotional skills curriculum into a fresh and fun after school program for elementary school students. Everything we teach revolves around the five core competencies of social and emotional learning (SEL): self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills.

S-E-T for Success

WINGS’ approach to SEL is multi-pronged: we believe that when adults SUPPORT, ENGAGE and TEACH, students soar. So, the foundation of our approach is adult SEL skills and practices. Once adults comprehend and internalize these skills on an individual level, they are then able to transfer their skills and knowledge in their capacity as educators, mentors, and youth workers. The S-E-T framework provides the building blocks that allow adults to cultivate a culture of SEL through positive student support and engagement, and implicit and explicit teaching.

The core of our teaching is the WINGS Creed. We call the Creed the ABCs of WINGS: just like you learn your ABC’s before you read and write you have to learn and live the WINGS Creed before you become socially and emotionally smart. Simply, the Creed puts the five skills of emotional intelligence into kid-friendly language:

I soar with WINGS. Let me tell you why. I learn lots of skills that help me reach the sky.
I love and accept who I am on the inside and know my emotions are nothing to hide.
Life’s full of surprises that make me feel different ways. If I can control myself I will have much better days.
I understand the choices I make should be what’s best for me to do and what happens is on me and not any of you.
I understand others are unique. I want to learn more about everyone I meet. I want to step into their shoes and see what they are going through.
I am a friend. I support and trust. Working together is a must. Kind and caring I will be. I listen to you. You listen to me.
I soar with WINGS. I just told you why. All of these things are why I fly high.

Our curriculum includes 30 weekly Learning Objectives that are taught over the course of a full school year. Every lesson revolves around one of the five core competencies and each lesson builds upon the last. The Learning Objectives are taught through small lessons, integrated into planned group activities, and reinforced through spontaneous teachable moments. Teachable moments are a core tenant of the program and happen in real-time, all the time. Throughout the WINGS day, WINGS Leaders look for situations where they can teach or reinforce a Learning Objective in group or individual settings.

The program operates in Title 1 elementary schools. Each school enrolls an average of 150 students. Students are referred to the program by teachers and principals based on their struggles in school and lack of family support at home. Students attend WINGS after school for three hours, five days a week, at no cost to parents. Each student is assigned to a small group of 10-12 based on grade; we call this their Nest. Each Nest is led by a WINGS Leader responsible for the group throughout the year. College students are recruited as WINGS Leaders and serve as fun, relatable, role models for the kids. WINGS Leaders receive more than 65 hours of training each year as well as constant coaching and not only do the kids benefit, the WINGS Leaders grow and strengthen their own social and emotional skills, better preparing themselves for successful careers and personal relationships.

The components of the program time include:

  • Community Unity: Each day starts with Community Unity where all the kids come together to have snack, hear the objective for the week, participate in games and activities, celebrate and encourage one another with awards, and recite the WINGS Creed together before breaking off into smaller groups and rotating through various centers and activities.
  • Discussion: The WINGS Leader facilitates a small group discussion of the weekly objective.
  • Academic Center: The kids get help with their homework and academic skill building.
  • Choice Time: An enrichment activity that each child participates in for a full semester, for example: dance, art, lacrosse, soccer, music, cheer-leading, or cooking.
  • WINGS Works: A community service project that the kids select and work on for a full semester.
  • Freeplay: Time on the playground.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

When the school bell rings, 3rd grader Marcus is greeted by Mr. Will (mentor) who enthusiastically asks about his school day, strengthening their bond. Community Unity kicks-off WINGS where the Program Director delivers the weekly learning objective centered around monitoring negative self-talk: Push and Pull. Marcus learns to “push out the negative and pull in the positive” and practices this during a group game. Mr. Will then weaves the Push and Pull technique throughout the rest of the afternoon’s events like Marcus’ Choice Time (our version of electives) activity of soccer and Academic Time (homework). And, capitalizing on teachable moments like transitions in the hallway, Mr. Will reinforces this method.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

External evaluations show WINGS kids have greater executive function skills (impulse control, emotional control, adjust to unexpected, planning & prioritizing to accomplish a goal, organization), applied problem solving skills, better classroom behavior, improved school attendance, reported higher self-esteem & less anxiety than non-WINGS students. Increases in these areas are predictors for positive long-term outcomes, such as improved academic achievement, positive high-school graduation rates, & reduced rates of criminal behavior. Our work has long term ripple effects for kids and society. As kids understand themselves and others, practice self-management & conflict resolution, & know how to make smart decisions, they are better equipped to succeed in school, stay on track to graduate HS, are better prepared for the workforce & become positive & healthy contributors to society.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We rely on a mix of public and private support from regional and national funders. By accessing various funding opportunities, we are able to diversify revenue, ensuring ongoing sustainably. Examples of public funders include 21st Century Community Learning Centers, AmeriCorps, and local school districts. Private funders include individuals, local foundations, and national foundations like Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and Wallace Foundation.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

With 20 yrs of experience and many lessons learned, we have a track-record of positive impact on kids: academic improvement, executive function skills, & positive behavior. We focus exclusively on low-income K-5 kids & provide programming at no cost to their families. We fold 30 specific learning objectives into every aspect of the program, a uniquely comprehensive approach. Our intentionally crafted environment – one filled with caring adults, engaging lessons, & constant fun – creates a culture where learning & kids thrive. And, we have the data from rigorous evaluations to prove it.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Creating positive environments where educators model SE attitudes & behaviors is the foundation required to scale effective interventions. We believe the SET (Support, Engage, Teach) framework we have developed could be applied to adult practice beyond our program. Ex, incorporating the principles of SEL as part of college curriculum for future educators or integrating it into training for national organizations that serve low income youth. Imagine enthusiastic youth workers advancing social & emotional learning across the country making sure every child knows their potential is limitless.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)


Program Design Clarity

A) Low income kids in grades K-5 B) Activities include presentation of weekly objective, games & activities to support the objective, small group discussion, enrichment activities (ex. soccer, dance, art), community service projects, & academic time for completing homework & skill building. C) Our program is held at the school site, after school for 3 hours, 5 days a week for the entire school year. D) A program director & assistant provide leadership & college students are trained as WINGS Leaders, serving as fun & energetic mentors & role models to small groups of 10-12 kids each.

Community Leadership

Other than our kids, ours key stakeholders are teachers and parents. Our feedback loop consists of ongoing input from teachers regarding individual student classroom behavior and academic progress. Parents are asked to complete surveys to share observations of the program & at home behavior, as well as share suggestions for areas of improvement or additional family support needed. This has resulted in adding parent training and workshop events.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

Our goal is to reach as may low income kids as possible with effective SEL programming. We can’t do this alone. We will scale by partnering with existing afterschool providers who share our values for SEL quality & are committed to implementing SEL with a high degree of fidelity. By providing the training, coaching, and support we can multiply our reach greatly. Our 5 year goal is an annual enrollment of 16,000 kids at 100 schools.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

We help kids thrive by equipping them with skills to be successful in school & life. They learn to love & accept themselves, express their emotions, control their behavior, make good choices, understand & appreciate differences, support & trust others, work together towards common goals, resolve conflict, & to be kind & caring to others. They are also exposed to positive role models & experience a sense of belonging within a larger community.

Leadership Story

When I began this journey, I was young & not yet a mother. Now with a 7th grader and kindergartner, a lot has changed, including my perspective. My kids are fortunate enough to attend public schools in an affluent area of town & have benefited from a variety of extracurricular activities we’ve provided. The stark contrast between their school experience & opportunities versus the experience & opportunities low-income kids receive fuels my fire daily to expand our reach to serve more kids and to someday close the opportunity and achievement gap between low income kids and their wealthier peers.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Named by Edutopia as a “School that Works” Named a Promising Practice by the Character Education Partnership Recognized as one of the “most innovative AmeriCorps funded programs in the US” by the Corporation for National & Community Service

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Attachments (6)

The Need is Big.png

The impact of poverty on academic achievement.

SET for Succes Framework.pdf

The WINGS approach to social and emotional learning. When adults SUPPORT, ENGAGE, and TEACH kids soar.

SET for Succes Framework.pdf

The WINGS approach to social and emotional learning. When adults SUPPORT, ENGAGE, and TEACH kids soar.

The WINGS Creed.png

We call the Creed the ABCs of WINGS: just like you learn your ABCs before you read and write, you have to learn and live the WINGS Creed before you become socially and emotionally smart. The Creed summarizes our program learning objectives in kid friendly language and is recited by students every day.


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Photo of Charlotte Stites

Sounds like a wonderful program. I'm curious if you work to engage parents and caregivers in any way? Like Tony's comment below, I wonder if your program addresses other issues like hunger, health, etc. As you expand, are you looking for any community-based options (other than schools?)

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