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.

PHOTO: SCS
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.

Interview

McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.