© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Q&A: New Cleveland schools CEO Morgan talks past experience and future priorities

Cleveland schools CEO Warren Morgan sits down for an interview in his office on the 18th floor of Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland schools CEO Warren Morgan sits down for an interview in his office on the 18th floor of Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools are back in session, with a new CEO at the helm for the first time in more than a decade.

Warren Morgan, the new chief, just completed his first month on the job. He's visited many schools already and has just started a listening tour to hear more from community members about the state of the city's schools.

Ideastream Public Media sat down with Morgan Wednesday to learn more about him and his priorities for one of the largest school districts in Ohio. He came to Cleveland from Indianapolis Public Schools where he was chief academic officer. He also worked at CMSD as an academic superintendent from 2014 to 2016 and served as a White House Fellow for presidents Barrack Obama and Donald Trump.

Morgan's responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve kicked off a listening tour recently. Have you learned anything interesting about the school district or about the folks who live here or work here?

The biggest thing I've learned so far is just how passionate everyone is about the community. We had our first coffee chat yesterday and there were so many people that were there and everyone wanting to improve the system. Everyone talking about the kids, whether they had kids in the system or not. There's a lot of investment. And so that's really exciting. It's exciting not only to know as the leader that there are so many allies and supporters, but that our kids have that many allies and supporters.

Schools increasingly are becoming hubs of sorts for social services, helping students with needs around food, counseling and health care. Where do you see CMSD in terms of fitting into this picture?

My mom's a school nurse, so that's always near and dear to my heart. And I feel like if our kids are not well and whole, we can't get to the academic progress. So it is definitely something that is really important. And thankfully, you know, due to ESSER (pandemic relief) dollars and a lot of collaboration, we've been able to provide the level of support and do expansions on that over the past few years. And so I know that as ESSER is coming to an end, there will be some decisions that we'll have to make, but there are ways that we can really get this work done and really prioritize the well-being and health of our kids. Even if some of the programs are not the same. And so it is a top priority of mine.

Why do you think schools are being placed in this role? Indianapolis is similar to Cleveland in some ways, lots of families struggling with poverty. Why do you think that burden is falling more on schools? Or is it?

I don't know if it's necessarily falling more on schools. I know we feel it because a lot of times we have the kids longer than the parents do. And so, we feel so much throughout the day, and we feel and see all the different needs that are happening. And because educators care so much about the kids, sometimes there's a false sense that we need to save the world and do it all, and we don't. That's why we have some so many amazing partners here in the city. There's been so many investments that have happened. And so, a big part of my role and a big part of a lot of our roles here at the central office is really finding out where are those resources, where can we make those connections? And that's one of the things the district has done very well over time, really a lot of robust partnerships. So there's an abundance of resources out there now. It's a matter of like making sure that they are connected for the level of impact we need to see in the school.

In your listening so far that you've done, have there been any common issues that have been rising to the top that you want to focus on?

Yeah, academic progress, safety and security of our kids, mental health of students and educators. Those have probably been the things coming up top of mind.

I believe there were 12 students that were shot and killed during the school year last year. The district is not the police; It has its own security, of course. But is there anything more that you feel like the school district should be doing on that front?

You’re absolutely right. You know, one of the things we did a couple of weeks ago is we brought all of our safety and security officers together for a cross-crisis training with members of the city Cleveland Police Department. We had members of the (Greater Cleveland) RTA, and members of the health system all coming together to think about, what do those collaborative resources look like so that kids are not only safe and secure in buildings, but also to and from buildings. So our job is to make sure kids are safe when they come into school. And we've been working really hard to make sure that that happens. Even through this year, I've been very happy already about the interventions that our Safety and Security Department has put in place that have kept things from happening. And so they're doing their job when things are prevented or things are stopped, that's how you know that they're absolutely doing their job. But in order to make sure kids are safe in the evening hours or when they're not around us, it takes that that larger community effort of all of us working together.

And working with Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, obviously?

Yeah, that's a huge priority of his, and so that being a big priority of the district and a huge priority of the mayor's office, coming together to just make sure that that happens for our kids, is top of mind.

The last CEO was a white man. You are a Black man, and this is a majority-Black school district. Is that important? And do you feel like representation at the top is key for this school district?

I would say it's important for a different reason. Leadership, it shouldn't matter who the race of the person, gender identity. There are great leaders in all shapes, forms and sizes. As long as you care for the kids and you make an impact, that's all that matters. And from knowing Eric (Gordon) - he gave me my first central office job - I know he did exactly that. So that does not matter.

But why it's important in terms of representation? Representation does matter. When I'm out in the community and making those connections with our kids, I want our kids to see themselves. And when they look at me, I see myself when I look at them. And so I think that's really important. But then I think it's also important for our business community and the partners that we have, which, many of our partners and our leaders are not people of color. And so I think as we partner together, it's really important to make sure that the partnerships and the investments that we've had over time in the district stay the same and that they know that, hey, if we were all working together under Mr. Gordon's leadership, I'm rolling up my sleeves and we can all work together and that partnership can continue. So that's why it's also important.

Coming to Cleveland from Indianapolis Public Schools, are there any significant experiences or lessons in that last job that you've brought with you?

There was a lot that prepared me for (this role), but there’s a lot that’s so different now that I have the seat. I talk to my old boss now who is the superintendent in Indianapolis, and a lot of times I tell her, "Oh my goodness, as close as I was to you in this job, it is so different. I would have never imagined how different it would be."

But the things that are the same and that prepared me are really working on moving instruction at such a large scale. We had 31,000 students in Indianapolis Public Schools, and I was fortunate enough to work with the team to make sure that academic excellence in both ELA (English Language Arts), math, science, and social studies, as well as in our postsecondary readiness areas, were growing under the system. And due to the hard work that we did as a team, collectively, we made incredible gains. And so, there are many lessons that I learned there that I would love to bring here.

But they are different systems, and so it's important for me to recognize the similarities in urban systems but never treat it as a plug-and-chug. You know, "if we could just plug it in." It is different. And so that's why this listening tour is so important. I need to really understand what's happening, respect the past, and then, where possible, make those connections where I can bring things over.

One similarity between Cleveland and Indianapolis is some folks feel like there is a difference in quality of schools based on where you are in the city. Could you talk a little bit about that?

So, there's already a facilities plan under way here in the district. A big part of my work in the early days is just learning as much as possible about what happened with facilities. Learning as much as possible about our budget. A high-level goal that I have and that I would like to see our district do is really make sure that there are high quality options, no matter where a kid lives in the city, so that our city is really accessible and the programs are accessible, and kids don't have to drive so far across town if they want to get a certain program.

I think there are some connections there in terms of some of the work that we did in Indianapolis. But once again, every city is really different. I would also say a big part of the work, not only my work, but I think one of the challenges for urban education superintendents right now, is that the footprint of our cities is really different right now, meaning the number of buildings and how large the buildings were, they were built for a demographic that is different than what we're faced with now. And we're all faced now with really thinking about, what does the right size of the district look like? What does the footprint in landscape look like?

Are there any challenges as you look forward here that you really think are critical for the school district to address?

Priorities (are) connecting with the community, that's what the listening tour is all about. Academic progress, aligning everything to that instructional core. That's what I've been talking to our community and all of our educators about. And a third area around high-quality options and accessibility, whether that is from the culture and climate lens, whether it's from the post-secondary readiness lens, those are the the top-line priorities. Now getting there, there's many different pathways to get there. There are many different things we need to consider in terms of the team that we have. I'm in the process of hiring some executive leaders and so, yeah, really excited to get those things underway, and I'm just really excited to get the work done.

Anything that you're excited for as you look forward here?

The job is a dream job. Even though it is tiring, like this week alone, every day, I’m in the office really early. You know, I'm here to sometimes 9 to 10 o’clock at night, so it's really draining. It takes a lot out of you, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It just feels, every time I go into a building and not only see the kids, see our educators, I just am so grateful and fortunate to be afforded this opportunity. I take it with a huge sense of responsibility. And so that's what I'm really excited for and just excited for all the possibilities we have in front of us.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.