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.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”