Dr. Kalisha Morgan, the newly instated interim principal at Columbia High School (CHS), held the second of two question and answer sessions Wednesday evening to introduce herself to South Orange-Maplewood residents. To an audience of roughly 50, Morgan described her educational philosophies, leadership style and plans for the high school.
Supt. Dr. Thomas Ficarra announced in an administrative shake-up this June that he was reassigning Principal Elizabeth Aaron after her four years at the helm and appointing Morgan, who had previously served as Director of Planning and Assessment for a year and a half.
Before coming to SOMSD, Morgan, a career educator of 23 years, taught kindergarten directly out of Kean University, where she majored in education. She worked her way up through different grades, and eventually as a staff director, an elementary principal, and then a high school principal at Orange High School (OHS).
Although Morgan’s appointment was initially met with an outcry from many in the community, she showed a warm and confident demeanor on Wednesday, noting that she wanted to keep the Q&A shorter so she could mingle with the crowd and speak one-on-one to attendees.
“My main goal is to assess what’s really happening at Columbia,” explained Morgan in an interview with The Village Green before the meeting began. “Everyone has a different opinion … but I just want to go in and fix what’s wrong, if anything’s wrong.”
Throughout her tenure at OHS, Morgan worked with students with Integrated Education Plans and 504s, added more AP classes to the curriculum and helped the graduation rate increase from 68 to 92 percent. She attributes much of that to forming relationships with students, which will continue to be one of her top priorities at CHS.
This philosophy shaped one of Morgan’s most ambitious goals for the school year: to block out two hours in her daily schedule where she is free to walk around CHS, strike up conversations with students to hear feedback straight from the source and perform observational walkthroughs, also known as instructional rounds, in classrooms.
“Relationships are key in everything we do in education,” began Morgan in her speech to the audience. She shared a story in which an OHS student approached her and asked if AP bio could be added to the curriculum — and Morgan made it happen. “Every student must have at least one person in the building that they can go and talk to,” she explained. “I always make sure to talk to the students … hearing what they have to say, and seeing what’s going on in classrooms.”
Morgan cites her experience in many levels of education, including with special education students, as a reason for her confidence. “I’ve worked my way up through every level … so I can speak on every level, like ‘if that were me, this is what I would do.’”
CHS in the past drawn criticism in the past for racially discriminatory policies, and Morgan said she will look at reducing the number of suspensions in the school, which have historically been disproportionately applied to minorities. “Not everything deserves a suspension,” she said. “Every suspension is a loss of learning time … and we have to be humane about discipline.”
During the question and answer session, resident Elissa Malespina asked how the school plans to handle the condensation of levels, part of the new STEM realignment, for special education students. “How are they going to be able to make it in the new levels without support?” asked Malespina.
“There will be science and math labs set up,” explained Morgan. “When you want children to take higher level classes … it can be done. You have to tell them they can do it. Teachers have to do that.” Morgan is also exploring the implementation of an advisory period into the schedule where students can have productive one-on-one conversations with teachers. Furthermore, she said the support of the “phenomenal” new Special Education director, Dr. Laura Morana, will be key.
Another parent asked Morgan what would happen when her one-year term is over, and a permanent principal is hired. Morgan said she had asked Dr. Ficarra if she could have a say in the hiring. In terms of any initiatives she puts in place during her tenure, “I’ll do my best to make sure things stick around,” said Morgan. “I hope the next person … doesn’t wipe everything out just because they’re the new sheriff in town.” She noted that there were initiatives of Aaron’s that she admired and wanted to keep.
Morgan said she does not plan to throw her hat in the ring to be the permanent principal; rather her goal is to work in the central office and eventually, to become a superintendent in a district. But “I need to learn how things work first.”
Another resident asked what parents should do to best help their children succeed under the new administration. “On the first day of school, email every teacher and let him or her know what your expectations are,” began Morgan. “Come to back to school night and let them know who you are. Then monitor, monitor, monitor in PowerSchool.” In the event of any problems? “Call the teacher, then call the guidance counselor, then call me,” she said.
“Be that parent,” said Morgan. “I’m that parent! I’m holding [teachers] accountable. Hold me accountable. Hold us accountable.”