Warren Morgan’s first week on the job as principal at CPS Manley High School was marked by students banging down his door to seek answers to their demands.
Their ultimatum? Make school uniforms mandatory.
“And I said, ‘Woah, this is my first week here!’” said Morgan, a graduate of the College’s EdD Urban Education leadership program.
In the slightly less eventful second week, Morgan posted applications for a new principal’s advisory board at Manley, and the same three students with the audacity to stroll in to his office during his first week marched right on to the advisory board. A few months later, a previously skeptical student body was practically refusing to wear anything other than a uniform.
That’s just one success story of the student leadership emphasis Morgan has brought to the west side school. His emphasis on giving students free reign to solve the school’s internal cultural problems has aided in transforming a level three school marked by 16 years of probation, less than 2/3 daily attendance and less than five percent of students meeting state standards before his arrival.
“One of the things that was really invested in me in high school was leadership development,” Morgan said. “We had a band camp, and in that camp not only were we learning how to lead and run marching band, we were learning how it takes a servant leader’s mindset to lead others and how you lead by your actions. That is the work I want to invest in these students.”
That investment starts the moment students walk through Manley’s doors. Freshmen have the opportunity to join a freshman delegation led by a seminar teacher that explores issues of adolescence, culture and race. Sophomores can join a group called 20/20 Visionaries, a leadership group run by a community partner sending sophomore students into freshman classes to teach life coping skills. At the junior and senior level, students have the chance to join the principal’s advisory board.
Morgan led the board through methodical decision-making processes. In the case of the school uniform question, Morgan encouraged the uniform enthusiasts to hold off for one year to ensure implementation of the plan went correctly. The board chose a different shirt color for each class level and devised policies and consequences for abstaining from wearing the uniform.
The board brought a second request to Morgan: create lounge spaces so students have an area to hang out besides the cafeteria. Morgan sent his board members out to engage in social-emotional learning, leading focus groups of students to chart their negative experiences in the cafeteria, taking pictures and interviewing staff members. Morgan then led the students through discussions to start making connections and recommendations from their observations. The result was the creation of a lounge space with donated furniture, televisions and games. Using additional physical space to break up the time spent in the cafeteria has led to a culture shift in behavior in the cafeteria.
The students on the board are in tune with the rhythm of everyday life in the school to a degree that Morgan could never achieve. As a result, these students serve as a unique sounding board to highlight issues simmering beneath the surface of the school’s culture. Following the cafeteria plan, the board announced the next task they wanted to tackle was school bullying, an issue taking greater prominence in students’ lives than Morgan had imagined.
Providing students with an outlet to problem-solve, or even a forum to pour their energy to address something negative, has proven a successful tactic in siphoning off the emotions and stresses students living in low-income areas can bring to the classroom. Two girls on the board who graduated in 2014 were practically sworn enemies before joining the board, constantly butting heads and facing disciplinary procedures. Joining the board channeled their feisty energy away from each other and on to the problems at hand. Both headed off to four-year colleges in 2014.
Morgan says buy-in from teachers was crucial to make a student-led board a success.
“As a building principal, I don’t have time weekly to teach a full class on these types of things, to do this right or to build a vision up on my own,” Morgan said. “That type of work takes a deep level of involvement throughout the building.”
In early 2014, a delegation of school leaders from Nashville visited Manley to learn about the school’s restorative justice and student leadership practices. Meeting with the principal advisory board members, Morgan was stunned to hear their unprompted remarks.
“They said, ‘When Mr. Morgan became our leader, it was the first time there were expectations, the first time people really believed we can move this school,’” Morgan said. “To hear students say that, to let me know that as a school we’re doing something right, it pushes me to do more.”