For 11th grader Noah Nunney, getting to interview the final candidates for CEO of his own school district was an exciting experience. He said he hopes this kind of student involvement in district decisions becomes more common under the incoming CEO Warren Morgan.
Nunney, a student at Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, told Signal Cleveland the most valuable thing Morgan can do is listen to students and teachers and involve them in important decisions about how the district is run.
“If Dr. Morgan keeps students involved and truly cares about the students, then his time as CEO will be successful,” Nunney said. “The students and teachers are the most important part of the district. They are the heart of the district.”
Mayor Justin Bibb and the school board that he oversees announced Tuesday that Morgan, currently the chief academic officer at Indianapolis Public Schools, would replace outgoing CEO Eric Gordon after the school year.
Students want to see results
Nunney likes Morgan’s leadership style. Like Gordon, Morgan is personable, he said. Nunney served on the student panel that interviewed the final two candidates. He said Morgan took the students very seriously–he shook each of their hands and gave them each thank-you notes.
“It was very one on one, like we got to know him as a person,” he said. “Actually, most of these CEOs and superintendents don’t do that too much.”
He said he wants Morgan to stay committed to hearing from students, just as Gordon has been.
Another student, 11th grader Chardon Black, who is part of the district’s afterschool civics program, said he is really happy and proud to see Morgan, an African-American leader, as the new CEO of a district made up primarily of African-American students.
“I’m really honored to see that it’s a Black male who can have influence over other Black males and Black students in the district who want to be big and want to be great,” he said.
But Black said he also wants results and accountability.
“While I like to see representation, I’d also like to see effective leadership come out of Dr. Warren Morgan so that I can say not only does he look the role, but he fits the role as well and is an effective leader, so both representation and effectiveness,” he said.
Black offered some advice for Morgan: Be a good communicator.
“I want to see him directly answer questions, not beat around the bush and just understand that, you know, communication is key,” he said. “Transparency is key. You as a leader serve as a big influence across the district.… Your language builds the entire mood, entire perspective of the district. So use it wisely.”
Students share their policy playbook
Nunney plays football for the John Hay High School campus team and so he was also happy to hear during the interviews that Morgan realizes how much activities outside the classroom can benefit students’ lives.
“I cannot wait to see what he does with all these extracurriculars and sports to make them better,” he said.
During his introduction Tuesday, Morgan said his priorities include improving student access across the district to music, sports, and extracurricular activities.
He went on to talk about the Rebuilding Stronger plan he helped implement in Indianapolis.
“We saw that in different parts of the city, there were students that lived in more affluent areas, students who were not students of color that had more access and more resources,” he said. “There were other schools within our own district that didn’t [have] things like band, music and even access to Algebra 1 in 8th grade.”
It’s about equity
Morgan said that in Indianapolis he focused on creating an academically equitable district–something he wants to do here.
Black said he liked Morgan’s focus on this issue. He said his own school, Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, faces funding shortfalls because of the budget formula the district uses. It gives money to schools based on student enrollment. (Higher enrollment means more money for a school).
“I know several schools who are actively trying to find ways to spend [all of their] money, while we’re actively trying to find ways to get money and stuff like that,” he said. “So I feel like one of the biggest concerns that I’d like Morgan to address in his agenda as CEO is the sort of formula system and how it affects smaller schools.”
Nunney told Signal Cleveland that he would also like to see Morgan do something about school lunches. He brought up this issue at Morgan’s interview as well.
“School lunches aren’t good, or breakfast. It’s not even just that. It’s also that the portions are not good,” he said. “Like there’s days that we just have tater tots [with] lunch and like, five of them at that.”
Students know what they want
Nunney also made a few specific requests: more guidance counselors in school buildings, especially in K-8 schools, and continuation of Gordon’s Student Advisory Committee and the student philanthropy group. Those students will help decide how to spend MacKenzie Scott’s $20 million donation. After watching several school board meetings, Nunney said he also wants a pay raise for security guards. He has heard teachers ask for the same thing, and he supports that request.
Black hopes Morgan and the district will invest in technological infrastructure. He said his school often has internet trouble and that it’s difficult to get school-issued computers and tablets repaired.
He also said he wants the district to make sure all course curriculum material is up to date.
While he is excited about Morgan’s potential and for the district to move forward, Black said he also has some concerns about the mayor’s influence over the CEO selection and over the school district in general.
Cleveland is the only district in the state under mayoral control.
He said he worries that the mayor’s decisions to bring private businesses into public policy could spread to CMSD and favor funding charter schools at the expense of the public district.
“My concern as of right now is that the integration, or the influence of the Bibb administration’s privatized sort of agenda into CMSD, it might pose sort of an issue on a larger scale,” he said, referencing the city’s collaboration with Goldman Sachs to reinvest into businesses on the South East Side.
“CMSD kids are not a privatized industry,” he said. “Kids cannot handle privatized industry techniques. It’s a public system.”
A parent perspective
Cissy Watkins, a district parent and a former parent ambassador at Tremont Montessori, said she appreciates the experience that Morgan brings to the table.
Watkins attended the community meetings that helped design the CEO job position and participated in surveys that informed the interview process. She said she wants to see more of those kinds of conversations going forward. Watkins said she has had trouble finding information about meetings and hopes Morgan’s administration will offer more transparency.
She said other parents have told her they want to see more communication at the school level. She said she gets a majority of her information from teachers, but principals aren’t engaging enough with parents to let them know what is going on at schools.
Watkins, who served on the district-wide Parent Advisory Committee, told Signal Cleveland she likes Morgan’s commitment to equitably distribute resources across schools.
“I would love to see him tackle some of the…discrepancies between funding in each building,” he said. “Not all the buildings have the same AC or heating. Some schools are nicer than others.“
She said she understands the burdens of the district; after all, Cleveland has many families in need.
“But [that] doesn’t mean [our] kids are less deserving than kids in Lakewood or Westlake,” she said.
Morgan’s top priorities
This isn’t Morgan’s first time working in Cleveland schools.
In 2014, CMSD hired him as network leader for the district’s Phase 2 Investment schools plan – a plan to help underperforming schools make major improvements quickly.
The 39-year-old educator’s experience also includes serving as the executive director of Teach For America–St. Louis and as a principal in Chicago Public Schools.
From behind the CMSD-branded podium on Tuesday, Morgan said his aim is to make sure that the district provides students with the resources and support that he needed when he was a kid. He said that during his junior year of high school, his family experienced a house fire and lost everything. He said he also struggled in his first few years of college, facing discrimination at a majority white school.
The support of caring professors and school programs that provided community gave him what he needed to succeed. He even became student body president his senior year at Butler University.
“There are some kids here in Cleveland that feel a sense of connection and belonging in school, but I know there are far too many kids, like I was, who are facing personal challenges at home and feel ostracized at school,” he said. “If we do not provide a high-quality education and ensure that our students feel safe, seen, heard and valued, we will lose them and they will not be successful.”
Passing the baton
Gordon said that Morgan has the talent for the job and “professional humility” to know that there is not an easy solution to every problem.
“That to me is the right combination to be the successful, thriving, next CEO,” he said.
Gordon said he has confidence in Morgan, whom he hired in 2014 to work for the district. He said he’s watched him grow and succeed in his career since then.
Building on his metaphor that the CEO transition is like passing a baton in a relay race, Gordon pulled a baton from a bag and handed it to Morgan.
Gordon, who leaves office June 30 after 11 years leading the district through many key academic transitions, said now is the time for a strong handoff.