WINTHROP — Project Reach specialist Hauns Bassett watched Wednesday morning as his students struggled through a communication and team-building exercise, undermined by the traits that prompted them to attend a leadership conference in the first place.

“The problem is they’re all leaders and they all have big mouths, and they want to be in charge,” Bassett said. “There has to be a lot of compromise involved.”

Seventh- and eighth-grade students from around Maine attended the overnight Leadership Education Conference for Project Reach on Tuesday and Wednesday at the YMCA Camp of Maine. They practiced skills like cooperation, organization and time management in activities that included building balloon-powered cars.

On a hillside sloping toward Lake Cobbossee, a team of Bassett’s students from China Middle School attempted to direct a blindfolded classmate to pick up oversized puzzle pieces scattered on the ground. They were stymied by a lack of coordination in signals and directions, as well as changes in who gave them.

“If you can’t communicate properly, you’re going to have some problems,” eighth-grader Emma Beyor said after the exercise. “They didn’t quite figure out the system. It got vaguer and vaguer as we changed people. So we had a very confused Josh going in circles saying, ‘Which way am I supposed to turn?’ We still won, though.”

Despite their problems, the China team completed their task faster than a team from Freeport, assembling the puzzle pieces to reveal the quote, “Leader: One who shows the way.”

Project Reach is the middle school version of Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a statewide nonprofit organization that helps students with barriers to education graduate from high school and succeed in college or the work force.

“It’s teaching you how to go somewhere — how to do something besides work at a fast food restaurant and flip burgers all day,” Beyor said.

Victor Esposito Jr., the Project Reach specialist at Vassalboro Community School, said the program for middle school is less career-focused, but helps students acquire similar skills through leading school and community service activities.

“We’re really connecting them back to their roots so when they go on to high school, they’re more successful,” said Esposito, whom students call Mr. E. “And they’re more successful because they’ve learned all these pieces, really developmental pieces, of who they are.”

In another exercise at the leadership conference, volunteers helped students read through a meeting script, giving reports, making motions and discussing matters such as how much to charge for a school dance.

Students will return to their Project Reach classes with skills from the conference, as well as ideas for activities gained in exchanges with other schools.

Vassalboro seventh grader Dylan Plugge said it was important to learn how to run a meeting because they can easily get off topic and out of hand.

“If you don’t know how to run a meeting, all sorts of bad things could happen,” he said. “If Mr. E couldn’t run meetings with the other specialists, we wouldn’t be here.”

Corvus Crump, also in seventh grade at Vassalboro, said participating in Project Reach is helping him learn how to work in a group and to cope when he encounters a difficult task.

“I want to go into architecture and go to Yale — big dreams,” Crump said. “So I can’t do that if I don’t have the work ethic or the willingness or the organization or the emotional stability to do it.”

Plugge described Project Reach as “life-changing.” He said last year he earned detentions almost every day by disrupting classes, going so far as to throw chairs.

Plugge said he now feels less stressed at school because working with Esposito and relieves the stress he experiences from conflicts at home with his father and siblings.

“Reach has helped me to ignore all the tiny things in life like that,” he said. “It’s harder to make me explode, and it’s hard to topple me over or anything.”

Susan McMillan — [email protected]