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.”

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.

Movers & shakers

Haslam names three West Tennesseans to State Board of Education    

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

A Memphis real estate executive, a Cordova lawyer and a Decatur County high school student are the newest members of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced appointments this week to dozens of state boards and commissions, including the 11-member education panel, which sets policy for K-12 schools in Tennessee.

The new members are:

  • Darrell Cobbins

    Darrell Cobbins is a Memphis native and third-generation real estate professional who attended Catholic, public and private schools. He has degrees from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis and worked for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He is president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, which he founded in 2007. Representing the ninth congressional district, he replaces William Troutt, who retired this year as president of Rhodes College and is moving out of state.

  • Lang Wiseman is an attorney in Cordova who graduated from Bolton High School in Arlington. He attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and finished as the 24th leading scorer in the school’s history. Wiseman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Wiseman Bray Attorneys. Representing the eighth congressional district, he replaces Cato Johnson, who accepted a position on the University of Memphis Board of Trustees.

  • Haden Bawcum, of Bath Springs, is the board’s student member, a position that changes annually. He is a senior at Riverside High School in Decatur County.

The appointments became effective in July and are expected to be confirmed by state lawmakers early next year. Board members are not paid.

B. Fielding Rolston is chairman of the board. A retired executive with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, he was first appointed in 1996.

You can find answers to the board’s frequently asked questions here.