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Chartering New Territory

Tommie Henderson ‘95 heads Tennessee’s first charter school.
May 1, 2005

Chartering New Territory
Alumnus teaches the future
By Dave Enders

Tommie Henderson ‘95 considers himself one of the lucky ones, given our country’s hit-and-miss approach to public education. East High School in his hometown of Memphis, TN, offered a unique engineering and health science preparatory curriculum. The curriculum was tough, he says, but it taught him a valuable lesson that has served him well: it’s not so much what you learn but how you learn to learn.

Today, the 32-year-old Henderson is passing that lesson on as principal of Tennessee’s first charter school, the newly formed Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE). Now in its second year, MASE aspires to be a center of excellence in technology, science, and math education.

Henderson didn’t plan a career in education. Armed with his SB from MIT, he returned home to earn his master’s in chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee. He went to work for Oakridge National Labs and was contemplating attending law school when, he says, “a fateful situation” arose. The principal of East High School telephoned to share his concerns over the school’s disintegrating engineering program. The conversation ended with a not-so-subtle “‘unless, of course, you can do this,’” Henderson laughs. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was an opportunity to be a part of something larger.”

Henderson ended up staying at East High School for five years, revamping the curriculum while adding a master’s in edu­cation to his credentials. At the same time, he was developing a curriculum for a hypothetical charter school. “It was all an exercise in thinking outside the box,” Henderson says, for at the time Tennessee had no provision for charter schools. That changed, however, in 2002.

Fate stepped in when a news reporter familiar with Henderson’s work at East High School learned that the Memphis Biotech Foundation (since renamed the Memphis Bioworks Foundation) was interested in sponsoring a charter school ­focusing on science and engineering. Introductions were made, and the foun­dation liked Henderson’s ideas for an alternative curriculum. MASE became a reality in January 2003, officially opening its doors the following August. Since it is the first charter school approved in the state, he adds, “a lot of people are watching what we are doing here.”

What they are doing is inviting kids to strive for excellence, creating an environment in which more is expected. Classes are held from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and for half-days on Saturdays. Students and parents must, on applying to the school, sign a “commitment to excellence.” Tuition is free, but applications already outnumber available seats two to one, so students are selected by a lottery. “The school was not designed to filter just the best students in the district so the results would be self-evident,” Henderson says. “We have just as high a percentage of students who are deficient in some areas as any other school.”

Henderson says the school spends a lot of time working on those deficiencies. “While most schools group students by proficiencies,” Henderson says, “we have the flexibility to group our students differently, so we can even the playing field.” Teachers at the school advance along with their classes, so that they get to know the students—both their strengths and their weaknesses, Henderson says. And although deficiencies are acknowledged, “no one is stuck in any box,” he emphasizes. “As each school quarter changes, so do the dynamics of our classes.”

The long school hours are enthusiastically supported by students and parents. “But it’s not just the time,” Henderson says. “It’s time plus energy. We have a curriculum that harnesses both.”

Education researchers report that we remember about 10 percent of what we read, 15 percent of what we hear, and 80 percent of what we experience. Henderson hopes to make MASE the type of experience that students will remember the rest of their lives.

As for the rest of Henderson’s life? “I really haven’t thought past this,” he says. “I do know that no matter what I’m doing in the future, I cannot see myself doing anything less than advocating excellence in education.”

Enterprise Forum
25th broadcast

On january 20, the MIT Enterprise Forum held its 25th satellite broadcast program at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Titled “Forecasting Markets: The Capital Update for 2005,” the program featured a panel of five experts in the areas of investments, banking, and entrepreneurship analyzing what the coming year held in store for companies trying to raise capital. This was the first broadcast produced locally by an Enterprise Forum chapter-the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge-and was distributed globally.

Thirty-five Enterprise Forum chap­ters and MIT Clubs participated in the program, viewing it via satellite or web­cast and joining a global audience that totalled 1,500.

If you missed “Forecasting Markets” or are interested in other Enterprise Forum broadcasts, you can view them at MIT World. Visit for more information.

The MIT Enterprise Forum’s next broadcast will take place on Wednesday, June 1, as the kickoff to Tech Reunions week. For more information on the topic and a list of viewing sites, please visit

Tech Reunions

There’s still time to register for Tech Reunions 2005: the deadline for registering is Friday, May 13! Don’t miss your chance to participate in great events like the 108th Tech Night at the Pops, or this year’s Technology Day program on bioengineering, moderated by MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield. If your class is celebrating a reunion this year, your reunion committee has also planned some exciting events just for you! For more information or to register, visit or call 617-253-8824.

Stay in Touch

The fastest, easiest way to stay connected to MIT is through the Alumni Association’s website, You can connect with old friends and classmates and stay up on the latest news about the Institute and fellow alumni. The Alumni Association’s website is also home to the Infinite Connection, the Association’s online suite of services designed exclusively for MIT alumni, such as the Online Alumni Directory, E-mail Forwarding for Life, and career services such as ICAN. If you haven’t visited the Alumni Association’s website lately, stop by for a visit and bookmark it. It’s simply the best place for all things MIT alumni.

Infinite Possibilities
Young alumni seminars resonate

A patent lawyer, the founder of a successful video game company, and the president of the L.A. City Council. What do these three people have in common? They were panelists at a recent young alumni seminar in California. Titled “Infinite Possibilities: Careers after MIT,” the event brought together young alumni for an evening of networking, socializing, food, cocktails, and career-focused discussion in Southern California.

The event featured a panel including John Botti ‘90, president and cofounder of Black Ops Entertainment; Wesley Bush ‘83, chief financial officer of Northrop Grumman; and Alejandro ­Padilla ‘94, president of the Los Angeles City Council. Dora Gallo, MCP ‘92, chief executive officer of A Community of Friends, served as moderator. More than 55 alumni attended the event, which was held at the beautiful beachfront hotel Casa del Mar.

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