At the District, we know our teachers and leaders work tirelessly to ensure our students are reaching their personal goals and academic aspirations. We know the work isn’t always easy, but we appreciate the commitment and the consistent drive to better the educational outcomes for the students of South Carolina. We love to spotlight leaders who exemplify excellence in their schools, classrooms, and communities. Keith Bailey of Pee Dee Math, Science, & Technology does just that. We spoke with him recently about PDMSTA and we’re excited to share what we’ve learned about his vision.
Keith Bailey, PDMSTA
In your own words, why and for whom was PDMSTA created?
Pee Dee Math, Science and Technology Academy (PDMSTA) was created to serve students in Lee County and surrounding areas. Concerned parents and community stakeholders were concerned with the educational plight and the limited options for parents to choose alternatives for their children. With little money and a great deal of grit, a small group of committed individuals came together to form what is now PDMSTA.
You could lead a traditional public school—why charter?
Forming a charter school has allowed us to customize an educational program that fits the needs of the students we serve. We strongly believe that a cookie cutter program does not work to close the achievement gap. Charter schools have the freedom to customize a curriculum and create a climate that meets the needs of their students that is not district mandated. Each charter in our district has a unique approach and we are not any different. We are, however, held to the same standards as traditional schools.
Why is PDMSTA such an important choice for your community?
PDMSTA has indeed given a choice to parents. There is not a week that goes by that parents stop me in the car line, send me personalized notes on social media, or contact me via phone to share their enthusiasm about our school. When I hear the appreciation in the voices of parents, or when I see teary-eyed parents bragging about our school, I know that the struggles, hurdles, obstacles, ridicule, and opposition we face are worth it for us to realize the change we’re making in our students.
In what ways has your community been supportive of your school?
We are proud of the support we have received from our community. The Lee County Council has recently decided to fund an upgrade to our road. Monies of this sort are normally earmarked for other county repair projects, however, the board unanimously agreed to fund our road project. Moreover, several police officers trust PDMSTA to serve and educate their children. The Lee County Fire Chief has also enrolled his children. During a recent school-wide exhibit, Representative Wheeler and County Board Chair Windham visited our school in support. In a small town like ours, this is noteworthy.
What initiatives are your teachers and staff making to ensure your school is accessible, equitable, and high quality?
We have a very committed staff at PDMSTA. Severa teachers volunteer their time to tutor students after school. Academic supports are also in place, from RTI (Response to Intervention) to our KAPLAN (Knights and Parent, Learner’s Academic Network) tutoring program. PDMSTA strives to meet each student at the point of their need by creating individualized learning paths that are evidence-based and provide a clear plan for students and parents to follow. It truly is a team effort at PDMSTA. As our motto says, “Working together, makes our world better: One vision, One voice!”
What are some highlights about your math, science, and technology initiatives?
PDMSTA ascribes to a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) model and Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classrooms (LATIC). Problem-based learning is a subset of project-based learning. There are differences in the project based and problem-based learning model. Problem-based learning starts with a problem and focuses largely on the process of finding a solution. Students learn through grappling with a problem through open-ended problem-solving. Project-based learning focuses on the product or project which is usually at the end. In contrast, the entire process is the project in problem-based learning.
Recently, the faculty, staff, and students hosted its first “Knights Museum” during School Choice Week. Parents and members of the community were able to see kindergarten through seventh-grade students’ exhibits. The exhibit was campus wide and was a tremendous success. Parents were excited to hear and see their children explain the scientific design process used in creating their solutions.
Through Title I funds, PDMSTA has created a one-to-one computing environment where students have either a laptop or tablet. With the computing devices, students are able to use technology in the discovery process as well as to complete assignments. Teachers use educational tools such as Edmodo, Classflow, and Remind to communicate assignments to students and parents. Technology is used throughout the day at PDMSTA.
What has been your greatest accomplishment at PDMSTA?
I feel the greatest accomplishment at PDMSTA is building a sense of community. Having overcome various obstacles that would make PDMSTA statistically unsuccessful, it is a joy to see what was once slated as on track for closure to now being an integral part of the local community. The local media recently stated how happy they are to see the diversity at PDMSTA and the positive changes we are bringing to the area.
What has been a learning curve for you at PDMSTA?
The learning curve for PDMSTA is understanding the unique dynamics of our school including our location, our student population, and the educational history of our community. We knew coming in that it would be difficult bringing a charter school to an area that already had an unsuccessful one. What we did not realize is the scale of difficulty. Our first year we had a mere 50 students at the end of the year. Learning not only what type of skill set is needed for PDMSTA, but learning that the right attitude is just as important, if not more so. As a colleague shared with me once that I can not say any better, we tend to require a recruitment of faculty and staff with “will over skill.” Why? If we find individuals that truly believe in our philosophy, we feel we can train and provide professional development to compensate for any deficits in skills. We sometimes work with students who are two to three grade levels behind and it takes tenacity and motivation to teach at a high level. One thing that has not changed is that we aim to change our community one student at a time.
If you had any words of encouragement for your staff and students, what would it be?
To my staff and students, I would say: “Shoot for the BLUE!” What does this mean you might ask? Blue represents the color scheme outlined by NWEA on our MAP assessments. It is the highest percentile group of students in the 80th percentile or higher. We know that many of our students are not there. However, setting high expectations has released an energy on campus that students strive for high achievement. Our theme this year is “Forward Thinking.” I would say to our staff and students to continue to think forward. Thinking forward is a part of the “growth mindset” philosophy— taking failure as an opportunity to learn something new. When we see failure as a help sheet to show you what you do not know, you can take that information to master it during the next opportunity. I would say to my team—Think Forward!
Why do you have the best teachers and staff in South Carolina?
Our faculty and staff are the BEST! The majority of our faculty commutes 40 minutes to an hour to serve our students. Moreover, these same individuals choose to remain after school to tutor and work with students each week. I can not ask for more dedication than what I see at PDMSTA. They are truly one in a million. They truly possess the passion that I have and that is to see students succeed and have the chance to receive the best education available. Go, KNIGHTS!!!!!
In general, why is school choice so important for parents in this state?
School choice is a must. There are many parents that desire more for their children but have no choice but to send them to the school in their neighborhoods. Students learn differently. Students are different. Many traditional schools have not accommodated the population of students and families that do not thrive in a traditional setting. What charter schools provide is a way for parents to be able to be a part of the decision-making process of their school. Charter schools are designed to be lead by teachers, parents, and community stakeholders. As such, charter schools are built from the ground up based on the unique population of that community. If our charter did not exist, many parents would be left without an option and required to homeschool or send their children back to the local school district. Our school has the luxury of being theme based. Typically, in a traditional school, this is not feasible.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about PDMSTA?
As we are in our fourth year, I have seen many positive changes to date. I am excited with the direction Mr. Smalley is taking South Carolina Public Charter Schools to provide an equitable approach to building high-quality schools that allow for students from different demographics to participate. I believe that the momentum and synergy that is being created will help to put South Carolina charters on the map to compete nationally with other high-quality schools.