story by Jordan Pupa / photos by Jonathan Boatwright
We hear it all during the early years of life, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For many of us, the answer is either completely unknown or a conglomerate of several tasks making up the perfect career path. For Stacy Wilbanks, her heart was set on being a nurse. But even the weeks before leaving for Clemson University and into her first semester there, her parents could sense the opposition and would say, “Nursing might just not be for you.” Turns out, they were right! After Stacy’s first semester, she decided to change her major to elementary education. It didn’t take long before she realized she was exactly where she needed to be.
Stacy now holds a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and has held numerous teaching positions in an elementary setting including first, second, fourth and fifth grades, and she taught at night at an alternative school. It was in 2007 that Stacy began working with Marion County School District teaching first grade. Stacy shares, “Ms. Angie Grice, the then principal at Easterling Primary, took a chance on me. There was only one teaching vacancy in the entire school and it was in first grade, a grade I hadn’t taught yet. Ms. Grice offered me the job and I taught there for the next five years and then became the Curriculum Specialist at Easterling Primary School. I later went to the district office to be a district curriculum specialist before I decided to go back to my LOVE- teachers, students, and learning!”
In the spring of 2017, Stacy was offered a position to open a new school – the Academy of Early Learning, Marion County School District’s consolidated preschool program. This school included all of the 3-year-old with disabilities classes, 4K classes, and Montessori classes to one building in Mullins. For the past two years, Stacy has been the principal there – growing their student population and growing the district’s Montessori program, something she is particularly proud of.
Stacy was instrumental in bringing the Montessori program to Marion. Montessori is a way for students to become intrinsically motivated learners, where they can learn at their own rate with materials that develop conceptual understanding instead of just skill and drill. The environment is quiet and peaceful. People pay a lot of money in other places for private Montessori school, but in Marion County School District they offer it for free! “When Marion County School District decided to open their first Montessori classroom, I did not know much about it,” says Stacy. “I was new to the district office and someone else had started down that road. After some time researching, learning and spending time in classrooms with the students and teacher, I realized what great potential it had in our school system. I lobbied to everyone I knew – teachers, parents, community members, and the superintendent. We started with just one classroom at the then Mullins Early Childhood Center and now have three 4k/5k Montessori classrooms at the Academy of Early Learning and will have two Early Elementary Classrooms (first and second grade) at North Mullins Primary for the younger Montessori students to feed into. I believe there are plans for continued expansion which I couldn’t be more excited about.”
The program has made a great impact on students in the Marion County School District. Students have the opportunity to stay with the same teacher for two years, developing relationships and learning at their own rate. The older students in the classroom become leaders and teachers to the younger students which cultivates a strong sense of leadership from a very young age. Students have a choice in learning materials and lessons, encouraging them to be self-motivated, responsible, and problem solvers. “Our Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test scores are proving that students are growing leaps and bounds,” explains Stacy. “We have six-year-olds that can count by nine’s and five-year-olds that can add three-digit plus three-digit numbers. It’s amazing!”
For Stacy, the most challenging part of her job is wanting to inspire every teacher and student and not being able to reach them all! The most rewarding part of her job is watching children grow and change. “Children that come to school not even knowing how to walk in a line or sit on a rug and listen to a story become the ones reading and writing the stories and leading the line in the hallway. Children giving me hugs and high fives, stopping by the office to see me, sharing their work, or reading to me is also pretty amazing too! Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It’s very hard work…but it is some of the most rewarding work you will ever do.”
Stacy has been instrumental in many exciting changes and new opportunities that are in the works. Creek Bridge Middle/High School will now be Creek Bridge STEM Academy which will serve students from kindergarten through 8th grade in the area that used to be Marion 7 (Rains, Centenary, Gresham, Britton’s Neck, etc.). This fall, Stacy will begin her next chapter as principal at Creek Bridge. “We have big plans! STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
We are going to thread this theme throughout our academic content and infuse problem-based learning in all classrooms for our students. We have installed a state-of-the-art STEM lab and I couldn’t be more excited to watch us grow and succeed. The teachers and our STEM Facilitator will be going through some big training this month. We want to instill a lifelong love of learning in our students, have them proud of their academic achievements, and be prepared socially and academically for their next steps!”