Midlands STEM presentation prompts questions

By Kevin Boozer kboozer@civitasmedia.com

February 4, 2014

WINNSBORO — A presentation by Midlands STEM Charter School representatives became a bit muddled as Fairfield County Council members questioned the implication that poverty causes social maladies, lack of opportunity and lack of educational opportunity.

Council also questioned school’s racial make-up and its funding sources.

Marie Milam, executive director of Midlands Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, said at the Jan. 27 meeting that the school’s demographics must match the demographics of the county.

Councilman Mikel Trapp asked about the school’s racial make-up, wondering if choosing students by lottery would skew that percentage. Milam said charter school law would help if that issue arose and noted that since siblings of the students drawn could attend, that would help offset the impact a lottery would have on the demographics.

Milam reported the school has about half of its 162-student capacity. Classes will be 18 students with 27 students per grade. Slots are available on first come, first serve basis, unless more students apply than there are places for.

If that is the case, a publicly drawn lottery will determine who attends. There are no prerequisite tests students must take to be considered for Mildands STEM Institute nor are their minimum grade point average requirements.

A special education teacher will be on staff so no student with special needs will be denied admission to the school’s lottery or to the school if no lottery were needed.

Title 1 and Title 3 funds can go to charter schools, as can weighted per pupil funds. However, property tax dollars and funds from the V.C. Summer nuclear plants will not go to the charter school. Private donations and donations from corporations also will fund the school. Milam said state law prohibits charter schools from providing student bus transportation.

Devoted to STEM

Milam described the STEM school as a comprehensive program where the entire school day, including lunch, contained science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum. Milam said there are lots of schools with STEM programs but few devoted entirely to STEM education.

“Our (school has) a comprehensive program where STEM education takes place all day in everything we do,” she said.

The education would prepare people to solve real world problems by helping children learn problem solving skills, specific skills sets business people are looking for in a work force and soft skills, such as manners and communication skills.

Milam said the school’s focus is preparing its students to produce academically and physically fit STEM proficient students who can pursue careers in engineering, nanotechnology, robotics, physiology or alternative energy.

The comprehensive Midlands STEM curriculum includes participation in Project Lead the Way, an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day that includes physical education each day, and before/after school programs to target learning deficiencies and provide both small group and individual support.

Milam said the school will include art, music and media coursework. Eventually, the organizers plan for it to have its own sports teams as well.

The school is K-5 at first. Each year one grade will be added until it becomes K-12. Initial classes will contain a maximum of 18 students each. Parents have the option of their children attending multi-age classes that still offer coursework consistent with Common Core Standards.

The charter school will be a tuition-free deregulated public school of choice, which in Milam’s opinion is the most accountable form of public education. “If a public charter school does not make the academic gains stated explicitly in its charter the the school will be shut down,” she said.

Charter = choices

Milam and her colleagues said a public charter school will provide choice to children who lack educational opportunities due to poverty, and in her opinion would be like “a lever to raise them up to a level playing field and create a competitive advantage in Fairfield County.”

The movement results from a nearly two-year partnership between Milam, a former superintendent and English teacher working on her P.hD., and Kevin Thomas, an Air Force Reservist with a master’s degree who works in biomedical sales.

Thomas’s initial vision was of providing students with a pathway to become certified nuclear operators at V.C. Summer with a $60,000 starting salary with benefits. He and the charter school organizers said they believe that careers in those fields are stable and lead to stability in lifestyle and in the community.

John Peebles, a retired educator helping with the initiative, said his goal is for the charter school to hold youth accountable and get them to stay on the right track so they grow into healthy, productive members of society. Peebles said they are looking for serious students, not just youth to occupy space and time as they wait out getting a high school diploma.

Questions, answers

Milam said her team is open to discussing partnering with the STEM programs currently offered by the Fairfield County School District. She elaborated about how there is a direct correlation between health issues, poverty and crime rates.

By educating the entire student, they hope to give that student the tools to break out of entrenched cycles of poverty through education and sound decision making. Registration began Feb. 1 and the deadline for students to be included in the lottery was Feb. 1.

Milam said the school soon will break ground on its Greenbrier Mossdale Road construction site. More information is available at www.midlandsstem.org.

Members of Saving Fairfield and other concerned citizens questioned during public comment time why council spent so much time questioning the Midlands STEM charter school but, to the residents’ recollection/perspective, the council did not ask questions about projects like Drawdy Park.

After implying a double standard and asking questions, around two-thirds of the audience walked out rather than wait for county council to respond during county council time.