WINNSBORO — The future was on the minds of parents and rising seventh-graders Jan. 14 at an information session for the Fairfield County School District’s STEM Early College Academy.
These prospective students, if accepted, would join the program’s third cohort and pursue a rigorous curriculum that allows them to earn a two-year associate’s degree in science by the time they graduate high school.
Dr. Sonny White, president of Midlands Technical College, addressed the group and shared the value of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education with the students, noting that his Ph.D. was in chemistry and that he worked 31 years in the chemistry/pharmaceuticals business before embarking on a 13-year career in higher education.
“This STEM academy and early college coursework at the high school is not a dream, but this is reality,” White said.
He pointed out that right now within 30 miles of Fairfield County, he knew of 14,000 mid-level jobs requiring more than a high school degree but less than a college degree. White said many of those jobs have starting salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 per year.
“Together you have the opportunity to earn a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, or to be well on your path to an advanced degree,” White said. “At a public university saving two years’ tuition is a savings of over $20,000 per year.”
White said no other county in South Carolina could say it had a county wide early college academy program, to his knowledge, other than Fairfield County.
He encouraged the students to use the partnership between MTC and FCSD to their advantage, noting they could pursue careers in nuclear technology, nursing, medicine, Internet technology and more.
White shared how he grew up picking cotton but had goals and worked to achieve them. He urged the students to study and work hard to develop the skills and get the education that can lead to the kind of life they want to live, either here or in other states.
Career exploration is offered Midlands Technical College Center at FCHS and that exploration is for middle school students as well as high school.
Jump start to success
FMS principal Dr. Robin Hardy outlined the program’s goals and said educators expect this program to help increase the district’s on-time graduation rate. Students who enroll in the cohort will take a two- to three-week jump start course in June for Algebra I. The Jump Start includes life skills such as organization and prioritizing, time management, and Chromebook training.
Dr. Levette Malloy encouraged students to use their educations and career exploration to help them find a job they love.
In the STEM Early College Academy, she said students are taught how to think, how to work as a community, communication skills and problem solving skills. Much of the education incorporates technology.
The Chromebooks contain around 100 educational tools, from graphing calculators built in to collaborative communities for Google hangouts. Each student receives a monthly 3G data allotment from the district.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Claudia Edwards reassured parents that the Chromebooks their students would be issued in the STEM academy are monitored and secure at school but she reminded parents to be mindful of what is on students’ screens as they use the computers away from FMS.
“Parents need to be able to see the screen at all times,” Edwards said. “We need to remember that these are children we are dealing with and in some ways we need to intervene to help protect them from themselves.”
Edwards said she monitors usage and can take screenshots of any student’s computer at any time.
“Our cloud system is like a walled garden with a protected domain,” Edwards said. “No one outside FCSD walls could contact a child.”
Parents, students share experiences
The evening session was the second information session of the day for parents and students.
Seventh-grade parent Tanya Green spoke of the family commitment it takes, noting that she keeps her daughters’ assignments scheduled to her phone to follow up and see how they are doing with time management and other tasks.
“We expect our daughters to manage their time, but we want to be engaged as well,” she said.
She said the jump start program helped her daughters transition into middle school both socially and academically. Green was impressed by teacher availability and support and encouraged those present that if their children were accepted into the program that they, as a family, should do it.
Parent Gina Swann said it takes some convincing to get children to commit to the extra workload but she believes it is worth it.
“There are ups and downs to it but the rewards are great,” Swann said. “The district puts everything in place for these children to be a success. These students are used to succeeding and perhaps cruising through school but this program challenges them and makes them work for it.”
She has observed how the students feed off one another, learn together and bond in the program. Student Mercedes Carpenter of STEM Cohort I said the rigor in curriculum is hard but will be worth it down the road when she applies to colleges.
Lamar Richards, a student in Cohort II, called the program a life changing journey because there were people involved who were determined to help him and his classmates succeed.
“There is a world of opportunity ahead, but some opportunities only come once (like this one),” Richards said. “You have to work hard and resist those who would love to see you fail. It’s been a fun, engaging process.”
Important dates for applicants:
• Feb. 5: Applications will be available at schools, the district office and online
• Feb. 26: Deadline for applications is 4 p.m.
• Feb. 27: March 12 STEM interviews and writing tasks must be completed. Specific dates TBA.
• March 20: Parents notified by mail of acceptance to STEM Academy
• March 26: Deadline to accept or decline a slot in the academy