Madison Heights

15 years of struggle and success at Tennessee's first charter school

Memphis' Madison Heights neighborhood is best known for its restaurants and thrift stores, but it is also home to Tennessee's first charter school.

Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering is a STEM-focused middle and high school celebrating its 15th year. A STEM curriculum centers lessons on science, technology, engineering and math.

Located at 1254 Jefferson Avenue at the corner of Poplar Avenue, MASE serves more than 600 students grades 6-12 from 30 different zip codes.

“We are the granddaddy of all charter schools in Tennessee,” said Roderick Gaston, MASE's executive director.

Founded by Memphis Bioworks in 2003, MASE's history hasn't been far from storybook.  

The 2010-2011 school year was its lowest point in terms of academic performance, and in 2012, the Tennessee Department of Education listed MASE as a Priority school. For the three years prior, its student performance ranked in the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools.

MASE risked closure then and again in 2016 due to budget cuts. 

MASE attributes its more recent improvements in part to investing in its innovative, hands-on STEM in Motion program with partners Smith & Nephew, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Code Crew. 

“The core mission of MASE was and still is to prepare our students for success in college or any post-secondary program ... to confidently choose careers in [STEM] or any field that inspires their excitement and interest,” said MASE Board Chair Steve Bares.

Gaston also attributes their success to investing in MASE's staff. 

“When I first started, it was pretty tough," said Gaston. "We were in the bottom five percent. We turned it around quickly by creating a solid team. I wanted the best teachers here. Now we have little to zero turnover."

Gaston said a good team to support students was the only way to improve test scores, improve graduation rates and increase enrollment in college and trade schools post-graduation.

“'All in!,' is our motto," said Gaston. "Also, we preach 'family' consistently. We support each other and work collaboratively together. Nobody wants to leave because of the close bonds and the morals that we have established.”

MASE students practice intubating a patient alongside nurse anesthetists at a MASE career day. (Submitted)

15 Years and Growing

MASE employs 32 teachers, two directors, three instructional coaches to support and train teachers and a bevy of other team members including admins and facilities staff. Overall, there are more than 50 staff members.
 
Gaston has served as MASE's executive director for three years and as its high school director for five years prior. 

“I do a little bit of everything," he said. "From academics to athletics to HR and finance — you name it, I’ve got my hands in it.”

And his hands are undoubtedly full.

In addition to serving students from across the city, MASE is the only public middle school in Madison Heights, one of several smaller neighborhoods within the Medical District.

“We are bursting at the seams and are now exploring a partnership with Mississippi Boulevard Church to create a 6th grade academy that will prepare kids for upper middle school,” said Gaston.

MASE is also expanding its busing options, including service to nearby neighborhoods. Gaston estimates only five students live within walking distance of the campus, and transportation is a big challenge for many MASE students who live in and outside of the Medical District. Gaston hopes expanded busing will help recruit more families from the surrounding neighborhoods and alleviate the transportation burden for many more. 

“If there were good public transportation options to, from and within the medical center that could augment these bus services, it would help our families significantly,” said Bares.
 

Schools within a School

Bares has been involved with MASE since its inception and said the MASE model goes well beyond traditional classroom education. He describes it as a series of “schools within the school” focused on learning partnerships with local STEM-related organizations. 

Students must have a 3.0 GPA to participate in the STEM in Motion programs and all five tracks are hands-on and in-field.

Twelve grade students in the biomedical track can spend their entire senior year at Smith and Nephew meeting and working with its biomedical professionals. High school students in the computer software track can work with Code Crew, a leading nonprofit for technology and computer science education for youth across Memphis. 

The Code Crew program culminates in a certification for network administration and its classes double as college credit so students can choose to get an early start on a computer engineering degree, seek immediate employment after graduation or both. 

“Layered on top of our core high school STEM program, we offer five different STEM in Motion programs that take students into the “real world” of business in a way that might be a model for schools around the country," said Bares.

Cameron Cooley, director of federal programs, grants and compliance for MASE and leader of MASE's Smith & Nephew STEM in Motion tract. (Submitted)Cameron Cooley leads MASE's Smith & Nephew STEM in Motion program. He said the program emphasizes communication skills and professional etiquette. It also provides students with laptops for their general school work and lessons in programs like Microsoft Excel.

“The program provides exposure to the business environment," he said.

He said it also makes students more desirable to colleges and trade schools. 

“Most students in the program receive upwards of $500,000 in scholarship offers,” said Cooley.

MASE has plans to expand STEM in Motion with more career tracks, but when Bares was asked about big achievements, it wasn't a program that came to mind. 

Recently, he was contacted by a 2009 graduate looking for networking opportunities and advice on new technologies and emerging markets. He and some colleagues are looking to start a biomedical company to explore protein alternatives.

“I remember this student when he started in middle school," said Bares. "To see him as an adult, leading a team of graduate students, exploring ways to change the world — [it] was an inspiring moment for me."

"That was why we created MASE back in 2002," he continued. "No one [then] would have envisaged that option for this student. Our goal remains to offer this same opportunity for all 600 students in whatever field they choose.”

For more information on MASE, please visit DiscoverMase.org.

Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters. 
 
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