WINNSBORO — “You are embarking on a six-year journey,” Superintendent J.R. Green told an auspicious group of Fairfield Middle School seventh-graders last Thursday. The 20 youth will carry special backpacks containing Google Chromebooks, something that sets the group apart and gives the staff reason to have great expectations for them.
The inaugural cohort in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Early College Academy, this group of 20 will take Algebra I this spring at an accelerated pace.
Originally the first cohort or group was supposed to begin the program this fall, but after parents and students learned of the program they were so eager to begin that the school district moved up its timetable. The result is that an entire group of current seventh-graders will be able to earn associate degrees in science from Midlands Tech by the time the students graduate with their diplomas.
“We need you to support one another,” Green said. “Our goal is that every one of you who begins this program will earn an associate’s degree six years from now. And remember that next year’s cohort model will be based on how you conduct yourselves.”
Rigorous coursework is a hallmark of the program which allows students to earn technical school level credits as early as their freshman year in high school. As such, Algebra teacher Heb Nu said it is imperative students attend as many classes as they possibly can.
“I will be in constant contact, by computer, with questions, so that will extend the classroom a little bit, but I need you to be there because of the accelerated pace,” he said. Students must earn 70 or higher and pass the end of course test to receive the credit.
The required end of course assessment is scored by the State Department of Education’s processes that state it must count for 20 percent of one’s final grade.
It is theoretically possible to pass the class but fail the test and wind up taking the course again. The work is on the ninth-grade level. They can accelerate the pace by grouping similar mathematics concepts together and allowing them to build upon one another. Students will be in 115 minutes of math class each day. Video lessons will supplement teacher instruction. Also, Nu requires his STEM’s students to study algebra at least one hour every night.
Common core state standards must be met. By combining integrative thinking with problem solving and communications skills, Andrea Hicks, director of secondary education, said the Early College Academy will make Fairfield County graduates globally competitive in the workforce.
“Students learn through inquiry, or asking questions, that require them to interact with and on the material rather than memorize it by rote,” Hiks said. “STEM themes will include a component where young people are exposed to the variety of career options in front of them so that they can make informed decisions about their futures. As part of that exposure, Midlands Tech is partnering with the local business community. One goal of that partnership in the long term is to reverse a trend in Fairfield County of persons driving in from out of the county to work and then going back home at the end of the day.”
Adding real world experience will help with college and/or career readiness for on the job training. The academy should increase student enrollment and help with the on-time graduation rate.
Frontline and Truvista Communications representatives were available to help families determine if their home Internet coverage was sufficient. Students also can use their Chromebooks at restaurants or libraries that have free Internet access. The Chromebooks were purchased by the district for the students to use during their academic careers. If a student leaves the district, the Chromebook remains here and can be reformatted for another student to use.
By choosing Chromebooks, application software can be updated to keep the machines from becoming obsolete. Data is stored on a cloud so a student or parent can access the academic account and communicate with teachers or work on assignments. Students currently have access to 100 MB of data through Verizon.
Another part of the academy experience is a leadership component. The administrators want the students to take ownership in the program and to learn to effectively communicate in ways that show confidence and capability. Such soft skills will help not only in the classroom, but eventually on job interviews and in the workforce.
“This is a great opportunity and I never thought that our district would have something like this so early on for our kids. It’s very exciting,” said parent Leigh Gambrell. Her daughter, Madison, shared the excitement, her hands shaking slightly as she typed into her Chromebook for the first time.
“This looks like a good system,” said parent Myron Sims. “(My daughter) Kashinda is the youngest of five kids, and I hope that this will encourage her to apply herself toward great things.”
He also hopes the inspiration will trickle up to her sister, a freshman, and get her to apply herself in her own course of studies so she can stay ahead of her little sister’s accelerated learning curve.
Student Bryson Ricks said he is excited about what the program can do for him and his classmates. “I plan to go to the college of my choosing and become a mechanical engineer,” he said.
Student Cody McGauley is just excited to be getting an associate’s degree. He aspires to be a Navy SEAL and realizes more STEM knowledge will help him toward that goal.
Green called on the families to make a long-term commitment and said they could use the cohort as a way for them to bond with one another as well. Sessions will be held later for parents to reinforce the cohort and academy ideas.