East Bound

To convert historic East High into T-STEM school, Hopson taps proven STEM principal

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Principal Lischa Brooks meets with parents during a 2016 open house at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy in Memphis. The Tennessee Department of Education wants to do more to support and develop principals.

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.”

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: