Principal Q&A

Meet the new leader of one of the most popular public schools in Memphis

PHOTO: Maxine Smith STEAM Academy
Andy Demster is taking the reins from founding principal Lischa Brooks at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, an optional school in Midtown Memphis.

Andy Demster grew up and attended schools in Midtown Memphis, where he credits his teachers and principals for inspiring him to enter education as a profession.

Now he’s taking the reins of a Midtown middle school that’s one of the city’s most sought-after public schools.

Andy Demster

As the new principal of Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, he’ll oversee an optional school that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, math and the creative arts. He arrives after serving five years as assistant principal of Middle College High School, which shares a campus with Maxine Smith.

Demster replaces founding principal Lischa Brooks, under whose leadership the school’s test scores quickly rose to the top of Shelby County Schools. Earlier this year, Brooks was tapped as the new leader of East High School, which will reopen next month as another optional STEM school.

Chalkbeat spoke this week with Demster about his vision for Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and why he thinks he’s up to the task. This Q&A has been edited for brevity.

Tell us about your background.

I’m a third-generation Midtowner. I went to Snowden Elementary and Middle schools, where I walked to school every day. Those teachers and principals believed in me and saw something in that rambunctious kid who usually had to sit next to the teacher. I went on to Christian Brothers High School and then to the University of Memphis, where I met my beautiful wife, who is my rock and No. 1 cheerleader. I earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Christian Brothers University, taught for nine years at Bellevue Middle School, and served as assistant principal for five years at Middle College High School.

You’ve been an assistant principal under the leadership of Docia Generette-Walker, one of the district’s most highly regarded principals. What was your administrative role there, and what have you learned from her about being an effective administrator?

(Generette-Walker) hired me out of the classroom, and life hasn’t been the same since. She observed, allowed me to make mistakes, and cared enough about me to provide tough feedback. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without her. She’s the BEST! I’m so grateful to have her as my mentor still. In my role as assistant principal, I led teams and handled school culture and recruitment and retention for staff and students. The experience gave me the confidence to go into a principal role myself.

Describe the learning environment at Maxine Smith. What are the school’s biggest strengths, as well as its growth areas?

I’ve met this summer with many community members, teachers, parents and students, and the sense of camaraderie and collaboration is huge. You just feel it; there is a positive, encouraging, joyful culture. The robust and rigorous curriculum is another strength. Going forward, we need to continue building relationships to sustain what’s already been created and to maximize student outcomes.  

Both Middle College and Maxine Smith have partnerships with Christian Brothers University, another Midtown institution. How do you plan to build on the relationship at Maxine Smith.

We couldn’t ask for a better partner in Midtown than Christian Brothers. They do training in leadership and student development throughout the year on both campuses. I actually just got off the phone with Dr. Rick Potts (in the university’s education department), and he’s excited to build onto already established programs.

Unlike Middle College High, Maxine Smith is an optional school with a STEAM curriculum. STEAM schools tend to be most effective when there’s a significant hands-on component to student learning. What will you do to increase that?

We have nine-week curriculum pathways that focus on project- and problem-based learning. Every student takes STEM classes every day. To build on those classes where we have projects living every day, we have extended labs every Thursday, with students going into the community or extra project-based learning experiences. We have speakers coming in, or the students go on field trips. For instance, we’re doing a field trip to Memphis Light Gas & Water to learn about green energy. Field trips give the kids real-world exposure. Every nine weeks, we invite the entire community and let our kids present and show off their hard work.

The student demographics of Maxine Smith trend toward being more advantaged socioeconomically than in the vast majority of Memphis schools. How will you make sure that STEAM remains an option for students from diverse backgrounds?

We want to be a hub for diversity in this school building, so the goal is to expand on that. It’s a challenging topic and a focus of mine. We want every student to apply, and there is an equitable and fair process that the optional schools set forth. We’ll get the message out at all elementary schools about how to apply and what the qualifications are. We want all of our schools to reflect our city and our community.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.