First seniors graduate from Midlands STEM Institute

WINNSBORO – Midlands STEM Institute celebrated a big milestone last week with an event that’s been a decade in the making: the graduation of its first senior class.

Fairfield County’s first public charter school, Midlands STEM, saw six students graduate – a 100 percent graduation rate for its first class. Executive Director and Principal Cynthia Prince says it’s evidence that the school, which opened in 2014 after a two-year planning process, will be here for a long time to come.

“When the school first opened, no one thought that the school would last beyond a few years… but these students have been able to see their school grow and thrive in this community, and the school has shown the community that we’re here to stay,” Prince says.

“I’m really proud of our students because a lot of students in Winnsboro or Fairfield County have various obstacles to overcome, either within their families or within the community as a whole, and these students have persevered in the midst of that, and to have a 100 percent successful graduation rate the first year has been wonderful, but it’s because they worked hard.”

The school, which has a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, was founded by Kevin Thomas, who currently serves as chair of the board, and Marie Milam, who served as its first administrator.

Thomas says at the time it was a big vision: It began as a K-5 school, with a plan to add one grade each year. So far, they have done that, and with the school now operating for students in grades K-12, a pre-kindergarten class is being added for next year.

“The big vision was to catch the kids who may be falling through the public school cracks and didn’t have another school choice option and they couldn’t really go to the private school in the community just because of economics,” Thomas says.

“Fairfield County is a rural community, and about 90 percent of the students in the county are on the school lunch program.”

As a public charter school, Midlands STEM is publicly funded and free to attend. But, like all charter schools, it operates independently from the local public school district and has its own program of education.

The first year, Thomas says, the school had about 45 students. Now, enrollment is approaching 200, and the school is busting at the seams in its current facility. Midlands STEM draws its students from Fairfield, Richland, Newberry, and Kershaw counties.

Eventually, Thomas says, the plan is to have a total of 300 students and graduate around 25 each year. With the first graduation now complete, he says more exciting announcements are coming for the school in the near future.

“It was very rewarding seeing this come from a vision 10 years ago to everything coming to fruition this past Thursday evening and seeing the graduates who have come to this milestone in their education careers,” he says.

“A few of them are going to college; one of them is going to trade school; one’s thinking about being a mechanic, following in his father’s footsteps; and I think one of them is going into the workforce. So, it’s just exciting to see those kids that were in the 5th grade eight years ago graduating and becoming young adults.”

Thomas, who has three kids, says the idea for the school began when his oldest was in kindergarten. Unsatisfied with the available educational option, he was outspoken about the need for school choice – and his son’s teacher suggested that he open a charter school.

While this seemed like an unlikely path for him – he noted in the commencement address that he was a C-student back when he was in high school – his son’s teacher put him in contact with the South Carolina Public Charter School District, and 18 months later he and Milam were approved to start the school.

Prince says that in addition to graduating its first senior class, Midlands STEM has also reached some other important milestones.

“We are the most diverse school in the county as well, so that diversity has made for a lot of great things that are happening as far as bringing the community together, a community that too often is polarized,” she says.

“It was also very impactful to see [Fairfield County Schools Superintendent] Dr. J.R. Green there at the graduation. He was there representing the Winnsboro Rotary Club to give a scholarship to one of our seniors,” Prince says.

“It was really nice to be included in that this year… and to have it come from Dr. Green because it shows that there’s unity and goodwill among the traditional school district and the public charter school district.”

Going forward, she says, Midlands STEM is seeing more high-schoolers enroll, and they’re hiring more high school teachers to deliver more electives and more rigorous core content. Next year’s graduating class is expected to be triple the size of this year’s.

But the six who just completed their senior year are the first – and, in that regard, they’ve made history.

“I know what it’s like to grow up in a rural town,” Prince says, “and just to see their perseverance through Covid and through all those challenges has been inspirational to me, and I’ve grown very close to many of them, so I look forward to seeing them thrive and prosper in the future.” 

For photos of the graduating class, see the June 9 issue of The Voice of Fairfield.

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