If you’re a parent seeking a great school for a rising sixth, seventh or eighth grader, you might have understandably overlooked the middle school located at the corner of Central and East Parkway. For several years, Fairview Middle School has been on the state’s “priority schools” list for being in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, and has not been considered a school of choice for the community for some time.
But take a second look, because come August, a new school — Maxine Smith STEAM Academy (MSSA) — will take up residence in the recently renovated, Art Deco-style building, along with an entirely new principal and teaching staff. The curriculum will be focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, with a special emphasis on environmental studies (referred to as “greenSTEAM” by the school’s leaders).
MSSA, which will be part of the district’s optional program for higher-achieving students (students must score above the 65th percentile on TCAPs to apply), will be the district’s first STEAM school, and the first greenSTEAM middle school in the state. The idea was born as a collaboration between the school district, Christian Brothers University, and a group of parents looking for a rigorous education in Midtown for their future middle schoolers. (Fifty percent of seats in each grade will be prioritized for students living within a two-mile radius of the school, with the rest of the student body coming from throughout Shelby County.)
CBU, which is located right across the street, will share lab space and library resources, as well as provide teacher training through its education department. The “Implementation Team” of almost a dozen parents has been involved in key aspects of the school’s opening, including interviewing administrators and teachers, making decisions about school culture and program offerings, designing and implementing marketing strategies, and more.
MSSA will follow a curriculum developed by national non-profit Project Lead the Way, which is the leading provider of STEM instruction in the country. Students will use project-based learning and industry-leading technology to develop their skills in the areas of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. A partnership with CBU’s engineering department will add computer programming to the school’s offerings, and experiential learning opportunities will take place on a weekly basis.
In addition to traditional core classes, every student will take a STEAM-focused course each year. In this course, sixth graders, or “Technicians,” will learn about the basic concepts and history of the STEAM subjects. In the seventh grade, “Engineers” will explore innovation and why proficiency in the arts is critical to creative problem solving. Finally, eighth graders, or “Inventors,” will bring together all they’ve learned to create solutions for real environmental problems.
The middle school will also host a full complement of extra-curricular activities, including multiple athletic opportunities, band, strings, dance, theater, robotics, yearbook and newspaper. An optional student orientation will be held July 23-25 to acquaint students with their new school.
Interest on the part of applying teachers has been extremely high, though in order to even be given serious consideration for hiring, applicants had to be Level 4 or 5 teachers on the state Teacher Effectiveness Measure. Three of the new hires are Common Core state coaches and all core content teachers have been trained in Common Core and will receive additional professional development from CBU this summer.
While it will be Lischa Brooks’ first role as principal, she has experience as a teacher, assistant principal at Ridgeway High School (where she led the development of the school’s International Baccalaureate program), and regional coordinator. The Dartmouth College grad most recently oversaw grants worth more than $3 million to improve college readiness at four schools and promote middle school readiness for STEM courses at East High School, in addition to serving an instrumental role in organizing the state’s first virtual STEM school.
“I feel like my entire career has been preparing me for the opportunity to bring this first-of-a-kind school to Midtown and Memphis,” Brooks said. “I’m excited to work with the incredible team of teachers we’ve hired, collaborate with organizations throughout the community, and most of all, to be part of preparing our students for 21st century jobs in Memphis and beyond.”
Families interested in learning more should visit the school’s website, www.memphissteammiddleschool.com, for admission details and other frequently asked questions. The implementation team of parents has also started “Friends of Maxine Smith STEAM Academy” on Facebook.
By Ginger Spickler