WINNSBORO — Fairfield County Magnet School for Science and Mathematics has gained notice from the S.C. Association of School Administrators and is one of a handful in the state the SCASA is considering for its Palmetto’s Finest Award.
On Wednesday a team of evaluators, comprised largely of staff from other Palmetto’s Finest Award Winning Magnet Schools, will evaluate the Fairfield County school for phase one of a two-part process.
Principal Gale Whitfield said she elected to have her school apply for the award because the school is one of the best in Fairfield County and she wanted to share the “secret” of that excellence with the rest of the state. Fairfield County Magnet School for Science and Mathematics is the first district school to move this far along in the Palmetto’s Finest selection process, according to district office staff.
The Palmetto’s Finest Award is different from the Palmetto awards the school has received the past two years. The Palmetto Gold Award and Palmetto Silver Award are based on student performance and growth and are given out by the state.
The Palmetto’s Finest Award recognizes schools that first complete a rigorous application process. Whitfield said her team of administrators and staff completed the 30-page document together, an example of the teamwork at the heart of the school culture of FMSMS.
Areas the S.C. Association of School Administrators consider when awarding the Palmetto’s Finest Award include student achievement, institutional progress, the promotion of earning communities and the overall school culture. The awards process also considers parent involvement, faculty and staff involvement, and school pride.
Teams of parents, students and teachers will be interviewed Wednesday. Whitfield said the students are aware the school has applied for the recognition but the best way they can help the cause is to treat Wednesday like any other day. A handful of students will be on interview teams but otherwise, it will be business as usual.
According to Whitfield, the goal is to show the school is well-rounded and that its curriculum provides children opportunities to participate in educational activity that moves beyond a traditional classroom.
Innovation, hands-on learning
The last Friday of each month, the students have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Day, a time that includes clubs like a Science Club for girls, a LEGO Club and a Technology Club. Currently 365 students attend FMSMS.
Engineering instruction begins with kindergarten students. Last year during an Invention Convention, kindergartners designed rollercoasters using toothpicks, glue and household items. The coasters had to be mobile and with the guidance of teachers, they learned engineering concepts required to make an effective rollercoaster.
Another age group used iPods and designed a device where the iPod controlled drum sticks and the sticks banged a drum at the direction of the machine.
Innovation and hands-on learning are two elements Whitfield requires her teachers to include in their lessons plans, even related arts teachers in music, art and physical education. Those related arts areas use themes related to the other instruction their students receive. Strings, band and chorus are a few areas students are exposed to, such as guitar lessons for third-graders at FMSMS.
Whitfield maintains she must challenge her students to excel. Lessons are collaborative with teachers required to spend a maximum of 20 minutes lecturing in a 45-minute class period. She sees innovation and rigor as keys to the students’ and school’s success.
“Children will rise to your expectations,” Whitfield said, “and we expect nothing but the best from our children. We focus on moving children academically. The end goal is to show every student is successful at FMSMS.”
Though quick to deflect attention from her leadership, she acknowledges that test scores have increased each year she has been at the helm at FMSMS. This year 44 students were recognized for exemplary scores in all areas or in the top 10 percent in the state in ELA and math. Those PASS scores and the number of students moving from “not met” to “met” were a key factor in a school earning a Palmetto’s Finest visit.
‘Every child can learn’
“Every child can learn, without a doubt. They do not all learn at the same pace or in the same way but every child can learn,” she said. “I have not seen a child yet with poverty of the brain.”
Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics are areas of emphasis at Fairfield County Magnet School for Science and Mathematics, a STEAM school. Whitfield spearheaded that effort to add arts emphasis and is becoming a STEAM certified administrator.
Whitfield and her staff remind students that respect is earned. They do their best, she said, to offer a variety of programming for students, including an after-school enrichment program to challenge students who are doing well that focuses on moving them from “met” to “exemplary.”
Whitfield said any student in the district can apply to attend. There is a lottery in effect if classes are filled to capacity but in recent years there has still been space for students in many classes.