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.

moving on

Dismissed by KIPP over sexual harassment allegations, co-founder Mike Feinberg starts new organization

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was fired earlier this year over sexual harassment allegations, has started a new organization.

Called the Texas School Venture Fund, the group describes itself as helping individuals start and grow schools. It has already drawn a handful of prominent education reform advocates to its board.

This new group’s existence and Feinberg’s prominent role in it raise questions about how education leaders will deal with sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Its board indicates that some will continue to support Feinberg’s work despite the specific claims against him, which he has denied.

According to KIPP, which has grown to over 200 schools nationwide, Feinberg was dismissed due to allegations of child sexual abuse in the late 1990s and two separate sexual harassment allegations by adult KIPP alumni and employees from the early 2000s, one of which resulted in a financial settlement.

A 2009 photo of Mike Feinberg. (Via MerlinFTP Drop.)

That investigation found the allegation “credible” but did not “conclusively confirm” it, KIPP said. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” Feinberg said in the statement at the time.

Feinberg’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the education reform community, where he was deeply connected.

Feinberg, who is listed as the president of the new group, declined to comment for this story through his attorney. He described his ambitions for the organization in a LinkedIn post, saying the Texas School Venture Fund would be “a catalyst to the creation of innovative and responsive schools” that would work with educators on “starting new schools, helping single-site schools start to grow, [and] helping networks of schools continue to grow.”

Howard Fuller — the former Milwaukee schools superintendent and prominent advocate of private school vouchers for low-income families — is on the Texas School Venture Fund’s board. He told Chalkbeat that the “core group” that Feinberg will work with are KIPP alumni who want to start their own schools, though he said it will not be limited to KIPP graduates.

“I felt like this was something Mike can do well, so I’m happy to help in any way I can,” he said.

Fuller said he does not believe the allegations against Feinberg and they did not give him pause in continuing to work with him.

“Mike is a very close friend of mine,” Fuller said. “Mike said he did not do it.”

Also on the board of directors of the new group are Leo Linbeck, III, a Texas businessman who is listed as the chair of the board, and Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s school turnaround district and now works at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Linbeck declined to speak on the record. Barbic did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fuller said the group is in its early stages and is seeking funding, though he couldn’t say whether it has any funders presently. (Neerav Kingsland, head of the education giving at the Arnold Foundation, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether his group was funding Feinberg’s organization, which is not listed among Arnold’s current grantees.)

Few new details have emerged about Feinberg’s dismissal or the investigation that precipitated it.

A brief video of KIPP Houston’s board meeting the day before Feinberg’s firing was announced shows members immediately going into executive session, which is private, to consider a personnel matter. Feinberg did not appear to be present.

Three hours later, the board voted to delegate authority to the chair to negotiate and execute “employment arrangements” with Feinberg.

All but one of the board members present supported the move. The exception was Karol Musher, who abstained. Musher is now on the board of the Texas School Venture Fund. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in March, Chalkbeat filed a public records request to KIPP Houston seeking information about Feinberg’s dismissal, including the investigation conducted by an external law firm.

In an April letter to the Texas attorney general requesting an advisory opinion, a lawyer for KIPP contended that the information is shielded from public disclosure due to attorney–client privilege. (The version of the letter provided to Chalkbeat is partially redacted.)

Chalkbeat has yet to receive word on an opinion by the attorney general.

Where they stand

Where candidates for governor in Michigan stand on major education issues

There’s a lot at stake for students, parents, and educators in this year’s Michigan governor’s race.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could determine everything from how schools are funded to how they’re measured and judged. Some candidates are considering shuttering low-performing schools across the state. Others have called for charter schools to get some additional oversight.

To see where major party candidates stand on crucial education issues, Chalkbeat joined with our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to ask candidates for their views on school funding, early childhood education, and paying for college.

All seven major-party candidates on the ballot in Michigan’s August 7 primary were invited to sit down with the journalism cooperative, which also includes Bridge Magazine, WDET Radio, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public Television, and New Michigan Media, to answer a range of questions.

Six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans — accepted our invitation. The one candidate who declined was Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is generally considered the Republican frontrunner.

The candidates were largely asked a standard set of questions. Read some of their answers — edited for length and clarity — below. Sort answers by candidate or see everyone’s answer to each question.

Or, to see each candidate’s full response to the education questions, watch videos of the interviews here.

(Full transcripts of the interviews, including answers to questions about roads, the environment and other issues are here).