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6 takeaways from interviews with the Cleveland schools CEO finalists

Ricardo "Rocky" Torres, left, and Warren Morgan, right.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Ricardo "Rocky" Torres, left, and Warren Morgan, right.

The two finalist candidates for CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) were interviewed Monday by panels made up of students and parents, which were livestreamed.

Here are six takeaways from those interviews and from the biographical information of finalists Warren Morgan and Ricardo “Rocky” Torres, made available by the district last week. You can also watch those interviews with each candidate, and provide feedback on each candidate to the school district, on the district's website.

Who are the finalists?

Morgan, currently chief academic officer for Indianapolis Public Schools, grew up on Chicago’s south side. He was an academic superintendent and administrator at CMSD schools from 2014 to 2016; prior to that, he was a principal at Chicago Public Schools for roughly four years, and prior to that, a teacher and corps member at the Teach for America nonprofit, according to his LinkedIn page.

He was also executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis for three years, and most prominently, a White House Fellow for Presidents Barrack Obama and Donald Trump.

“Strong teachers, quality educational programs and family support changed the trajectory of his life,” Morgan said in his bio. “Which is why he has dedicated his life to ensuring that a student’s race, identity, economic status nor zip code determines life outcomes.”

Torres, currently assistant superintendent for student services at Seattle Public Schools, grew up on Cleveland’s west side between the Ohio City and West Park neighborhoods. He began his career as a bilingual special education teacher in New York City (he's bilingual in English/Spanish), then returned to CMSD to work as an administrator and principal from 2014 to 2019.

“Dr. Torres has coached educators and provided numerous professional development sessions focused on curriculum, equity, mindset, Restorative Practices, instruction, and community voice,” his bio reads. “Throughout his career, he has worked with diverse learners and demonstrated the ability to meet goal targets to consistently increase student achievement, particularly for those traditionally most marginalized.”

How they bring past experience at CMSD and Cleveland to the mix

Torres noted his Cleveland roots in the interviews, explaining his father is a retired Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus driver, and recalled spending time learning to swim at the pool at the Michael Zone Recreation Center and learning to read at the Carnegie Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

In terms of his experience as a principal at the Luis Muñoz Marín Dual Language Academy in Cleveland, Torres had multiple highlights. He said the school’s students were struggling academically when he first started working there. Student behavioral issues like fights were common and there was a significantly high level of teacher absences.

Torres said plans put together by his team, with extensive input from parents, students, teachers and union leadership resulted in a significant, system-level improvement at that school on all of those fronts, going from 80% of students promoted from third grade to fourth grade to 100%, for example.

One of the things we did was a restorative-practices, whole change model to try to work on the cultures, to do work on the culture between students and teachers, students and students and teachers and teachers, and do something differently,” Torres said.

Morgan said he has family in Cleveland, and during his two years in the city he became close with fraternity brothers (he’s a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity) and members of his church.

“I was out this morning doing my same running path I used to do in the morning," he said.

Morgan said during his time supervising schools in Cleveland, he instituted performance management sessions for all CMSD principals, something he’s carried with him to Indianapolis. He said it’s an important goal- and priority-setting metric that sets people up well for the rest of the year.

He also instituted a student advisory council, similar to outgoing CMSD CEO Eric Gordon, while he was in Cleveland and Chicago schools, which he said has helped him remember to center student needs in everything he does.

What they got done at other institutions

Morgan noted Indianapolis Public Schools has had some of the biggest gains in the state of Indiana after the pandemic-era school closures ended, with the school district being “number one in the state” in terms of its growth in English language arts scores and in math.

“We were the only district to surpass where we were pre-pandemic,” he said.

Morgan said one of the biggest initiatives in Indianapolis he’s worked on has been its Rebuilding Stronger Plan, a massive overhaul to make sure there’s equitable access across all school buildings to a “high-quality curriculum." That’s a common complaint in big cities, including in Cleveland – that wealthier parts of the city have better school amenities and course offerings than those in poorer parts of the city.

“We make sure that all students within eighth grade will have access to Algebra One, making sure that all students have access to foreign language and also that music is there,” he said.

Morgan said throughout his career he’s been grappling with student-based budgeting models which provide schools with more funding based on how many students attend the school, and is working with the finance team at Indianapolis schools currently to rework that model.

Torres, in his previous role as executive director of special education at Seattle Public schools, said he undertook a big listening tour with students and families who received those special education services who had complaints about that system. That lead to rewriting the district’s instructional policies, special professional development for teachers and increased language interpretation services when families needed one-on-one help with a school staffer.

He also helped create a taskforce to examine inequity around special-education programs based on students’ race.

Torres said he tries to go into buildings to hear from students and staff directly.

“If you were to see my calendar and my schedule, there is time where I go into different schools all over the city, from pre-K-through-eight schools to high schools to dual language schools,” Torres said.

Neither candidate is coming from a school district without its own blemishes during their tenures. The Washington State Department of Education ordered fixes at Seattle Public Schools to make up for what it called "excessive delays to in-person instruction" for students with special needs during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Rebuilding Stronger Plan at Indianapolis Public Schools touted by Morgan isproving controversial and facing delays due to an associated push for significant tax increases. Both public school systems face enrollment declines, like many other large urban school districts, and the prospect of closing buildings and consolidating schools along with them. And both schools, like CMSD, face serious race-based achievement gaps for students.

What’s their number one priority? And what would they change?

The students who interviewed the finalist candidates asked them what they would most like to change about CMSD.

Torres said he wanted to boost students’ academic outcomes, noting he’s long wondered about what the “missing piece” is in CMSD that could lead to boosted achievement.

Morgan said he wanted to create a sense of optimism and hope in the community, while also ensuring that there are high-quality offerings at every CMSD building.

The parent interviewers, meanwhile, asked the finalists what they would do first if they get the job. Both Morgan and Torres said they wanted to do a significant listening tour with all stakeholders, from students to parents to staff.

What about school safety?

One of the biggest concerns of parents, students and others in the CMSD community that was shared with the district in surveys and other community engagement earlier this year was safety, both inside school and outside school.

Both Torres and Morgan said they shared that concern.

Morgan noted that when he was a principal in Chicago, students had challenges getting to school safely, with him witnessing “drugs visibly being sold on the corner” and students having to walk through a “gang zone.”

He said he took those concerns and some students from his student advisory group to a forum with Chicago’s mayor and police chief and that helped lead to a “reform effort to think about safe passage” to schools.

If hired at CMSD, he said he would like to do a safety audit of buildings and walk students’ routes to school, in addition to adequate school resource officers and ensuring they have good relationships with the students.

“I take it very serious to make sure that we protect our babies when they’re under our care,” he said.

Torres recalled a time when a student was shot and killed at a school in Seattle last year. He said he helped coordinate a team that went to the school to provide support to students and staff for several months after the shooting.

He said he said he’s heard from students who want a balance of increased security while not wanting schools to “feel like a jail” with security officers everywhere.

Torres said a renewed focus on social-emotional learning supports and “restorative practices” helped his school in Cleveland when they were struggling with fights and bad behavior, which eventually led to a safer-feeling environment for all inside the school.

“We drastically reduced our suspension rates, and then for me, the big data point was when we talked about the staff, people were actually showing up; people wanted to be there,” he said.

Other notes

Both Morgan and Torres have reportedly been seeking employment elsewhere for an undetermined amount of time. Morgan was listed as a finalist for New Haven Public Schools’ superintendent position in Connecticut in March but was not chosen. Meanwhile, Torres was chosen as the next superintendent for Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s school district in February but withdrew due to “unsuccessful contract negotiations.”

Morgan’s background working with Teach for America also aligns with the past experience of Holly Trifiro, chief education officer for Bibb, who was the executive director of Teach for America in Ohio and for Greater Cleveland.

Torres, who said his family came to Cleveland from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and 1950s in a video provided CMSD, said he was tapped by the U.S. Government to go to Puerto Rico in May to do an audit of the Puerto Rico Department of Education and their special education programming.

Once the students and parents finished with their interview questions, both Torres and Morgan had the opportunity to ask questions of their interviewers.

Morgan asked the students what about CMSD were most proud of, while Torres asked what at the school district brought them joy. Students listed things like Cleveland’s Say Yes scholarship program, the superintendent’s student-advisory council, the extracurricular activities available to them, and staff and teachers who really seemed to care about them.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.