VOL. 7 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 20, 2014
Old School, New Day
By Bill Dries
Vasco Smith remembers working the polls at Fairview Junior High School in the 1960s as a child. His job was simple – to hand out campaign literature and not stray within the 100-foot limit by law between poll workers and the polling place in the gymnasium.
He didn’t stray. But an adult poll worker Smith describes decades later as a “white gentleman with a red neck” said he did, and Smith was arrested and “roughed up” by police.
Students file through the hall to their first period of the school year at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, formerly Fairview Junior High and now an optional school whose curriculum mixes science and technology with the arts.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
That was until they discovered he was the son of civil rights leaders Maxine and Vasco Smith.
“When they found out whose child I was, they were not happy with what they had done,” Smith recalled last month.
Smith was at the school again last month as it was renamed the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy in honor of his mother, who was not only the executive secretary of the Memphis Branch NAACP but also a veteran Memphis City Schools board member and a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
A portrait of Smith hangs in the circa-1930 art deco school building, which in August became an optional school whose curriculum emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
And a Middle College High School continues with the new school year on another floor of the school.
“This is the future of Shelby County Schools,” SCS board chairman Kevin Woods said. “Let this be the first. Don’t let it be the last.”
The idea of adding arts to a STEM curriculum is a recent national trend that in Memphis linked up with parents of elementary school students in the area who wanted a different feeder pattern.
The plan began to materialize despite tentative calls by some in city government just a few years earlier to demolish the school as part of a planned renovation of the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
The prime commercial real estate on a busy corner was an early part of city plans to fund development of the Fairgrounds as a recreation area with some kind of retail development on the corner.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who inherited the Fairgrounds effort from his predecessor, Willie Herenton, said he was glad the school survived.
Sixth-grade student Maurico Green begins his first day of school at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Christian Brothers University president John Smarrelli said the school, across Central Avenue from his campus, breaks down the walls of the university.
“Our faculty and our students are going to interact with their teachers and their students and find ways for them to be leaders in terms of STEAM,” he said. “We’re crossing our boundaries at CBU. … We’ve been over here most of the summer in terms of working with the teachers, developing the curriculum.”
Lischa T. Brooks was picked last February to be principal of the new school and immediately began meeting with Smarrelli and his faculty to plot the curriculum.
“This is a brand new school from the ground up,” Brooks said, standing just a few feet from the plaque in the school’s doorway that shows it was built from April to September 1930.
What’s new is the idea that arts and the sciences are not separate tracks for students.
“There was this whole base of research on whether creativity and the fact that the people had been involved in the arts – whether that influenced their ability to think outside the box and come up with different ideas and projects,” she said.
Brooks also says the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy is a symbol of the system reclaiming schools in older parts of the city that have not been the schools parents have selected when they have a choice.
Smarrelli said as the middle school students decipher formulas and equations and the nature of their own creativity, the hope is they will not see college as a bigger mystery.
“In the long run, what we’ll be doing is training graduates of Shelby County Schools who are now going to be able to study the higher level disciplines – the sciences, the engineering, the mathematics – and ultimately, if we can do this right, make a difference in the economy of the Memphis community,” he said. “We’re trying to demystify the college experience for these individuals to say college is possible for each and every one of the students at Maxine Smith.”