Free K-12 school aims for stars

WINNSBORO – Hearing Cynthia Prince talk about her vision for Midlands STEM Institute could inspire real hope here – in a state that consistently ranks near the bottom in education and a county that scores well below state averages.

Prince

With enrollment approaching 200 and a list of concrete plans for continuous improvement, the local charter school’s new executive director and principal has big plans for the future – plans she sees as a win for all Fairfield County schools.

“Our school motto is that when one wins we all win,” says Prince, who started the job last summer ahead of the 2019-20 school year. “In the first meeting I had with Dr. J.R. Green [superintendent of Fairfield County schools], I sat down with him and told him that we were here to make each other better.”

Midlands STEM – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – is currently in its sixth year. It began as a K-5 school, adding one grade per year; this year it has students in grades K-10, and it will ultimately teach K-12.

Prince has inherited her share of problems at Midlands STEM: rumors and misinformation, tension with the local school district, and initial test scores no better than those achieved by the county’s standard public schools.

But she views her job as one of building bridges. After six months on the job, she appears to be making a difference both in the community and in academics – though admittedly, when it comes to test scores, they’ve had some losses along with the wins.

“Our goal by the end of the school year is to have the highest test scores in Fairfield County, of any school,” Prince says.

“We want our school to be one that children are proud to come to. We want parents to know that their children are going to have a quality education and not even question it.”

Among the changes she’s implemented to boost students’ learning and scores: a second block of math instruction for elementary students, a daily “intervention” class period where students receive targeted help or enrichment, and interdisciplinary STEM-focused projects.

One thing that makes a charter school different from a standard public school, she says, is that it has the flexibility to innovate without administrative hurdles.

Her discipline policy aims to empower teachers, reward positive behavior in students, and involve parents to build the cohesiveness needed for success.

The bottom line, she says – academically and in other areas – is that she simply does not accept excuses.

“I have high expectations, and I believe all children can learn – I don’t care what their skin color is; I don’t care what their economic background is,” says Prince, who raised her three children as a single mother for a decade, all of them successfully. One is teaching at Harvard, one is working on a master’s degree and one is at the top of her high school class.

“I think a lot of the problem in South Carolina is that we make excuses as to why our children can’t learn, and then we try to cater to those excuses,” she says. “Oh they’re hungry or oh they’re poor… we make excuses, and then we try to find the excuses instead of looking at that child as a child with a brain. That child with a brain can learn like any other child – it doesn’t matter what their circumstances are.”

The statistical odds were against her children, she says – but they worked hard and nurtured the right mindset for success. She believes firmly that similar outcomes are possible for schoolchildren in Fairfield County.

At Midlands STEM, she hopes enrollment will continue to grow to reflect the community demographics in majority-African American Fairfield County and – hopefully in a couple of years – build a new school building in Winnsboro.

Prince wants Midlands STEM to be a middle ground where a diverse community can build a family-like atmosphere around learning. Kevin Thomas, co-founder and board chair for the school, says that with a 29 per cent minority student enrollment, it’s the most racially diverse school in Fairfield County – and the hope is for it to become more so.

“We show fellowship between African American students and white students, that we are a family,” Prince says, “that we can coexist together, learn together, play together, have meals together, exist together, and everyone be safe and happy.”

Thomas says the school was founded during a difficult time for the local public school system, as a means to give parents another option – an independent school with a technology-focused program, aligned with the goal of preparing students for the workforce of the future.

Competition, he says, drives everyone to improve – not only the local school district but the private school and charter school as well.

“Who ultimately benefits from this?” he says. “The kids.”

Like a private school, Midlands STEM is separate from the local school district, and students don’t have to live within a particular geographic area or even within the county to attend there. The school’s population includes students from Blythewood and Chester as well as Fairfield.  Unlike a private school, it does not charge tuition.

As a charter school – a publicly funded school operated on a more independent model – it’s free to all students, just like any other public school. It’s not targeted to any particular group, and it’s open to all students who are interested in a STEM-focused education.

Its funding model is also different from that of local public school districts. According to the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office and the S.C. Department of Education, Fairfield County School District receives more than $25,022 per pupil each year in federal, state, and local funding. Midlands STEM receives only state and federal funding which amounts to about $5,800 per pupil.

That means a charter school has to operate efficiently, says Prince – but not only is her school on track toward higher test scores, the students at Midlands STEM have an attainable path to higher education.

All high school students who graduate in Fairfield County can take part in a Promise Program that provides free tuition to Midlands Technical College – whether they seek technical skills to prepare for jobs in local industry or credit toward a four-year college degree.

On top of that, Midlands STEM graduates have the opportunity – if they qualify academically – to access a $100,000 scholarship to Erskine College, which authorizes the school’s charter.

The school’s logo features a rocket ship – because Prince wants her students to reach for the stars, change the statistics and pursue their dreams.

“I see our school being a flagship school and a wakeup call to all of those counties that just have the one-stop shop [of a single school district]” she says. “We want future astronauts.”