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VOL. 132 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 20, 2017

East High T-STEM Program Takes Applications

By Bill Dries

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Dedric McGhee got right to the point Wednesday, Jan. 18, as he explained to a group of about a dozen parents of eighth-graders what the new optional school at East High School will be about.

East High will begin its gradual conversion to a T-STEM optional school in August. During the four-year phase-in, the T-STEM school will co-exist with the conventional school but have its own principal. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“How many of you hated the flyover?” the Shelby County Schools STEM manager asked as hands were raised in reaction to the question about the design of the state’s tallest flyover linking Interstate 40 with Interstate 240.

In another part of the more modern annex of East High School, other instructors talked about flying and building jets, robotics, coordinating traffic signals with technology in cars, driverless vehicles and architecture.

When the new academic year begins in August, East High will begin a transition over several years to become a T-STEM optional school – with the “T” standing for transportation in addition to the traditional STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It took a little while to develop, but it’s actually been moving pretty quickly,” said Heidi Ramirez, Shelby County Schools’ chief academic officer. “We’re still just making tweaks on the design and continue to grow.”

Those tweaks depend on an ongoing survey of parents and other input.

“We’re still developing some of the offerings,” Ramirez said. “This allows for an even deeper dive around the transportation theme. You can imagine in a social studies class thinking about the way cultures have evolved based on transportation to some extent.

“Some of the hands-on learning in science and engineering will be specific to transportation. Think about bridges. Think about moving things. … It doesn’t mean everybody has to go into a transportation career later on, but it’s one common lens to sort of drill into this good, exciting stuff at once.”

McGhee pointed to the back of East’s engineering lab, where students have begun assembling an electric car – after their teachers purposely removed a few critical parts from the box to see if the students would notice.

“No, they did not just open a box and put it together,” McGhee said. “The first thing they did when they opened it, they called me and started fussing, ‘There’s something missing out of this box.’ … We want our students to be critical thinkers.”

In an aviation lab, there isn’t as much hardware at work tables. But there are flight simulators lining three of the four walls in the room, and FedEx pilots as well as leaders of the local chapter of the Organization of Black Aeronautical Professionals are working with students. There are also some ties to the aviation optional program at Wooddale High.

Martin Lipinski, the director emeritus of the University of Memphis Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute, is also part of the East effort.

“I’m going to be working with people from FedEx and the CN (Canadian National Railways) and the BNSF railroad to develop projects and things of interest that industry can work on and students can work on,” Lipinski said. “We’re going to try to make things real all the way through.”

The more modern annexes at East reflect several forays by the school system into STEM curricula.

“We have the last several years made some investments in STEM-related labs, a lot of interesting things going on here during the school day and after it,” Ramirez said. “We want to leverage that and create greater access to the good stuff.”

In an aviation lab, there isn’t as much hardware at work tables. But there are flight simulators lining three of the four walls in the room, and FedEx pilots as well as leaders of the local chapter of the Organization of Black Aeronautical Professionals are working with students. There are also some ties to the aviation optional program at Wooddale High.

The T-STEM school will begin with a ninth-grade class in the 2017-18 academic year. It will exist side by side at East High with the conventional school, with a separate principal for each.

Students who start ninth grade this August will graduate in 2021 – either in the first class of T-STEM grads or the last class of conventional grads. At that point, East’s conversion to a “full-on optional school” will be complete, Ramirez said.

From that point on, East won’t have a geographic attendance zone but will instead be open to students from anywhere in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County who test into the T-STEM program.

Wednesday’s school fair at East was one of several being held this week at SCS optional schools in advance of the beginning of the application process for all optional schools later this month.

“If this is your choice … we have space,” said Brett Lawson, who is instructional leadership director at East, referring to the line of parents already setting up tents outside Shelby County Schools’ headquarters for the first bar-coded applications next week.

“Don’t get in that line,” Lawson said. “Don’t camp out.”

The annex building that will be the home of the T-STEM school has room for 300 students, and Lawson is expecting 125 ninth-graders in August. The T-STEM students can participate in East’s robust athletic department. They might have their own lunchroom in the annex since it has a culinary arts lab that can prepare the lunches.

SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson has been looking for a new use and emphasis for East for several years because of declines in student achievement as well as the number of students on the school’s campus, which includes the large, circa-1948 main building as well as later additions on the Walnut Grove side of the campus.

East currently has 561 students in grades 9-12. By the most recent state report card, the school’s average ACT composite score is 15.7, with a staggering 98.2 percent of its students below basic proficiency in geometry and 90.9 percent below basic in Algebra I. U.S. history is the only subject in the statewide assessments in which a majority of its students did not show up as “below basic.”

The school has a Level 1 overall ranking under the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System for student growth – the lowest of the five levels.

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