First STEAM middle school in SC wins international design award
From the Greenville News
Article by Nathaniel Cary; photos by Mykal McEldowney
[caption id="attachment_23414" align="alignright" width="250"] Classroom spaces at Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School are set up to be flexible, providing options for teachers to use team and project learning programs,[/caption]
When Greenville County Schools opened Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School in Greenville in August 2014, the district knew they’d created something new and different, possibly even unique in the United States.
It was a middle school designed around a curriculum. Every facet of the school — from color-coded exposed pipes to glass enclosed communications and power panels to showcase the building’s technology to its bio-retention pond to retain storm water and to remove harmful hydrocarbons — everything was built with instruction in mind.
Now, the school has been recognized with an international award for its design.
Fisher Middle School received the 2015 Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) James D. MacConnell Award during the CEFPI Annual Conference in San Diego, California, on Sunday, Oct. 25.
The award recognizes the comprehensive planning process that results in educational facilities that serve the community, enhance education and meet multiple goals. The school was selected from four finalists from across the nation. The school is the first in South Carolina to receive the award.
It was presented to representatives from the school district and the architectural firm McMillian Pazdan Smith, which was part of the team that designed the school.
Fisher is the first STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) middle school in the state.
Plans for the school launched in 2011 with initial concept meetings with Clemson University to place a STEM-focused middle school in Greenville.
A team assembled to plan the curriculum, design, technology and energy-efficiency. That team included school district representatives, education architecture firm Fielding Nair International and Greenville-based architectural firm McMillan Pazdan Smith.
The $30-million school was split into learning communities with flexible spaces for each separate community. Classrooms, or design labs, have movable walls and large windows to let in sunlight. Most have garage-style doors that roll up and down and can open classrooms into larger collaborative spaces.
A ground-level innovation lab is large enough to drive a car into from Clemson’s nearby International Center for Automotive Research, where students can learn hands-on.
Student project galleries line the hallway walls. A fine arts wing puts the “A” for Arts in STEAM. Even the lighting brightens and dims automatically based on the amount of sunlight available.
Fisher Middle was previously awarded a rating of three Green Globes through the Green Globe certification process that encourages facility design to conserve energy, reduce water consumption, and promote responsible use of materials.
It was named for retired GCSD Superintendent Phinnize Fisher and dedicated to her in November 2014. It opened with sixth grade and added seventh grade this fall. It will add eighth grade next fall.
Image above: the media center inside Fisher Middle School
Advocates say arts education crucial for fixing schools
From The Greenville News:
Story by Paul Hyde
Photo by Bart Boatwright
An additional $1 million in funding for the South Carolina Arts Commission could help fix South Carolina’s broken public school system, arts advocates say.
The Arts Commission is asking state lawmakers for the money to provide more grants for school programs in music, dance, theater and the visual arts, particularly those in the state’s poor, rural school districts.
Arts advocates see the request as part of a legislative fix to a November state Supreme Court order to correct inequities that deny educational opportunity to students in the state’s poorer schools.
“We think the arts can be part of the solution,” said Betty Plumb, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance.
Research has shown that arts education provides direct and indirect benefits for students, motivating them to work harder and stay in school, and teaching them about teamwork, leadership and creative problem-solving, among other values.
The arts also enhance other academic subjects, said Bradley Wingate, the Greenville school district’s academic specialist for visual and performing arts.
“A teacher may incorporate visual art into history,” Wingate said. “Research shows that students who learn materials through those different modes tend to retain the information longer and are more able to apply it when it’s taken out of context.”
Currently, the Arts Commission spends $800,000 annually on arts-education grants.
“We think that figure needs to be a lot larger,” said Ken May, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “We have high demand for the funding we already provide. We’re focused on trying to make sure all students have access to the arts in the school day.”
Most arts education classes are funded through local school district revenues. Some poor school districts cannot afford arts education, however, so Arts Commission grants help those districts initiate programs.
“Our state unfortunately has a high rate of poor kids in schools,” Plumb said. “The new money would help to level the playing field for children who live in high-poverty schools districts. It’s bridging the poverty gap.
“It’s a modest amount when you think about all it can do,” Plumb said.
New wave of support
It’s uncertain whether the Legislature will embrace the Arts Commission’s $1 million request, but the state agency has an important ally in new Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, a former music teacher.
“I am fully committed to advancing opportunities for all students in South Carolina to participate in arts-related programs,” Spearman said via email.
Spearman said she wants the state to be a national leader in arts education.
“As a former music teacher for over 18 years, I have a deep appreciation for arts education,” Spearman said. “I want South Carolina to be seen as a national leader in STEAM education — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — and we can get there by continuing our partnerships with the business community, technical colleges and institutions of higher education across the state.”
Spearman served for serveral years in the past as the chair of the Arts in Basic Curriculum steering committee, which oversees one of the Arts Commission’s primary arts education programs.
“It’s great to have such a strong advocate for arts education in the position of superintendent,” May said. “It’s really exciting.”
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, said prospects for the Arts Commission’s proposal look good this year.
“I think this is a great opportunity to get more arts education funding into our schools,” said Sheheen, who is co-chair of the Senate Arts Caucus, a group of lawmakers who advocate for the arts. “The Arts Commission budget has been shrinking or static for many years. The time is right for an increase.”
However, State Rep. Rita Allison, a Lyman Republican who is co-chair of the House Arts Caucus, was skeptical that more money could be found for arts education at a time when other priorities are looming large and Gov. Nikki Haley is calling for big cuts in state spending.
“There’s not a lot of new money available,” Allison said. “The Arts Commission has been pretty level for quite some time. Whether the Arts Commission’s proposal has a chance with everything else on the table — roads and infrastructure, base student cost — that’s still a question mark.”
Gov. Haley’s budget did not include the additional $1 million for arts education grants, although she supported current Arts Commission funding, urging that current money be used for arts education.
Haley declined to comment further.
“She did not endorse any new funding, so we’d have to cannibalize existing programs for arts education and that’s not desirable or popular with the rest of our constituency,” May said.
In addition to arts education, the Arts Commission provides modest grants to arts organizations across the state, including more than a dozen in Greenville.
Plumb said many state lawmakers, however, appear to be willing to provide more money for arts education.
“We’ve got a lot of support from a lot of legislators,” Plumb said. “We really are saying that we want to raise the education level for the total child. There’s just no reason for another generation of students to not get the quality education they deserve.”
Enhancing local programs
The $1 million could be used especially to expand or help create arts programs in poor districts, May said.
Arts Commission funding, however, would not be limited to high-poverty districts. Grants through one program — the Arts in the Basic Curriculum (or ABC) initiative — are usually modest: a maximum of $7,500, May said.
“The money we provide to ABC sites is pretty unrestricted,” May said. “It can be used in any way that advances their curriculum.”
Grants may be combined with local money to help a school afford a salary for a band or choral teacher, May said. Or a school might use a grant to introduce a new arts discipline, such as dance. Grants also might be used to bring an artist-in-resident to a school or fund a bus trip to a play, a museum or an orchestral concert.
“Our money is often used as startup money for new elements of school’s curriculum,” May said. “The amount of bang we get out of the money we provide is just unbelievable.”
For wealthier districts, such as Greenville County Schools, Arts Commission grants provide teachers with the freedom to offer creative initiatives.
“It gives teachers the latitude to look at large-scale programs and activities that they probably wouldn’t be able to do with local funds,” said Wingate. “Local funds are earmarked for specific activities.”
Monarch Elementary in Greenville County, for instance, was able to use Arts Commission funding to bring artists-in-residence to the school for music, dance and visual art, Wingate said.
“They work with students and teachers, tailoring a program for whatever is best for the school,” Wingate said.
Arts education inspires young people to stay in school, according to Shannon Kelly, director of advocacy at the National Association for Music Education.
“Music has been correlated with higher attendance and graduation rates,” Kelly said. “It’s our position that arts education conveys many benefits to students and should be included as a core subject in all schools.”
Arts education also encourages creative thinking, problem solving, leadership skills, personal confidence and collaborative skills, said Kelly, whose organization represents more than 100,000 current and former music educators.
Kelly cited a recent University of Vermont study that found that music education in particular improves students’ cognitive ability, having a beneficial influence on auditory processing, inferential abilities and ability to focus.
The Atlanta-based South Arts, a research organization, found that Arts Commission grants have helped to raise the quality of school arts programs statewide.
“Schools that do have really robust arts programs are doing that with supplemental state funding,” May said. “The basic allotment that school districts provide schools for arts education is not sufficient to address all arts disciplines.”
Image: Eastside senior Jill Edmonds works on a painting at the Greenville County Schools' Fine Arts Center
STEAM focus a key for employers
Editorial from the Greenville News:
South Carolina has for a long time been working hard to prepare students in high school to take jobs in the emerging high-technology manufacturing industry that is taking root here. That's important, because this industrial sector is essential to the state's economic well being.
Related: Greenville classrooms to add STEAM
In Greenville County, the efforts are taking the form of strong push to educate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and math — the so-called STEAM fields. Those efforts will get a significant boost when the upcoming school year begins as the district opens the new Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School that is dedicated to STEAM.
It also will be helped as the district begins spreading the ideas of workplace collaboration and project learning — essential to success in STEAM fields — throughout the School District.
To that end, a group of 20 middle school teachers have spent time this summer developing projects based on the Reedy River and Falls Park to try out on their students, according to a recent report by Greenville News reporter Ron Barnett. The goal, as one of the teachers put it in the report, is to connect "all the disciplines of education with real life."
That is vital because the goal of state educators has long been to show students how the things they learn in school can be applied to real life — how education translates to career, in other words.
In a recent op-ed column in The News, Dee Dee Washington, the Greenville County School District's associate superintendent for academics, said that innovation in the public schools is gaining support. She offered several examples of what innovative classrooms look like:
• Students are actively engaged in their learning, including working as a team on projects to research and solve problems.
• Technology is used to expand learning.
• Teachers lecture less and have flexibility and time to work with individual students.
• There are clear measures of accountability.
• Character traits needed for success in the workplace are emphasized.
In addition to the new Fisher Middle that opens this fall, Washington mentioned other efforts that lead this direction including the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School that has a focus that very much fits with the new middle school, the district's 11 magnet academies, the Fine Arts Center, the International Baccalaureate Program, Sterling School and others.
Here's an important takeaway: Although the focus on STEAM is really taking off this year, the emphasis on transforming how children learn in order to better meet the needs of state employers is ongoing and is evident in an array of School District resources. Greenville County is among the state's leaders in this sort of innovation.
It is important that these efforts are being driven by some of the very employers that will benefit. For example, the district-wide efforts to promote the focus on the STEAM disciplines is being funded by a two-year grant from the Bosch Community Fund, and it was a joint effort between the School District and Clemson University.
Dani Herro, a Clemson teacher education professor, summed up the value in a collaborative effort such as this: "It really fosters a partnership that's responsive to what business is asking for," Herro said. "So that's what we're hearing from industry leaders and educators. This is what we really need, this is the requisite skill set."
As state economic development leaders market South Carolina to potential employers, one of the most vital things that they can offer is an adequately trained workforce. That training starts well before an individual reaches college or even graduates from high school. And work done now to show students the value of their education will pay dividends not next year or the year after, but perhaps a decade from now.
The success of efforts such as Clemson's International Center for Automotive Research, and the creation of jobs at employers such as BMW, Michelin and Boeing — and the many small-business suppliers that serve those companies — are the seeds that have helped all of us see the need for this focus on the STEAM disciplines.
State education leaders, state economic development leaders and business leaders throughout the region deserve credit for making this a priority and for giving these important disciplines the attention they need in our local schools.