In less than three years, Principal Lischa Brooks has led Maxine Smith STEAM Academy to become the go-to middle school for Memphis families seeking a rigorous academic program emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.
Now, Shelby County Schools is turning to the 20-year education veteran to transform one of its most iconic schools.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced this week that Brooks will become the new leader of East High School as it transitions to an optional T-STEM school, with an emphasis on transportation and STEM.
The move indicates the district’s commitment to East, a sprawling school in midtown Memphis that could have faced closure due to a gradual loss of students, poor performance on state tests, and the high cost of maintaining its 69-year-old building.
The founding principal of Maxine Smith, Brooks is a former classroom teacher and technology coordinator. She is also a graduate of East.
“Moving Principal Brooks to this new role will expand her reach to the high school level and continuing to ensure innovative STEM education across the 6th grade through 12th grade continuum,” Hopson said in a news release. “Her versatility and proven experience will ensure the new program at East is launched strategically and successfully.”
Maxine Smith opened as an all-optional middle school in the fall of 2014 in the building that housed Fairview Middle School before its closure earlier that year.
Under Brooks’ leadership, Maxine Smith’s test scores quickly rose to the top of the school system. It has become such a popular school that parents typically camp out on the district’s central office lawn every January to secure a spot for their children on the first day that optional school applications are accepted.
Fairview had served mostly black students from low-income families, but Maxine Smith looks very different. Last year, only about 16 percent of its study body was considered economically disadvantaged, compared to 59 percent for the district overall. It also had a 50-50 split of students who are white and of color. Districtwide, less than 8 percent of students are white.
The school that Brooks will take over this fall looks much more like Fairview than Maxine Smith, even as it transitions to an optional school.
In recent decades, East’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000. Its student body is mostly black, and about 70 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. Last year, East was identified in the state’s bottom 10 percent of schools academically, making it vulnerable to state intervention.
East High’s transition to an all-optional school will also be slower than at Maxine Smith. The T-STEM Academy will accept ninth-graders in the fall and phase in a grade each year, allowing current East students to continue there and eventually graduate.
Brooks will split her time between East and Maxine Smith for the remainder of this school year before moving full time to her alma mater this fall. Marilyn Hilliard, East’s current principal, will continue in a support role. Meanwhile, Maxine Smith will be led on an interim basis by its current assistant principal, Keith Booker.
“I am humbled and honored to accept this role and develop a curriculum continuum for our students,” Brooks said. “This will expand the work that we have begun at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy to include the T-STEM program at East High.”