Adrian Morgan leads a network of six schools that serves 4,500 students from pre-K through high school in the historic Algiers area of New Orleans. His organization, the Algiers Charter School Association, is the largest charter school management organization in the Gulf, which includes Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
One of his schools, Martin Behrman Charter Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences, is led by Rene Lewis-Carter, Louisiana’s 2016 Middle School Principal of the Year.
I sat down recently with Mr. Morgan to discuss the challenges of running a system of post-Katrina schools. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You are something that’s rare, which is a black-led charter management organization. What’s the value-add to having an organization with black leadership in the charter world?
Morgan: You got to have the key commitment to the mission in terms of delivering to whomever it is that you’re serving, and that’s got to be what’s driving you. When that’s driving, race goes by the wayside.
Often, I’m in meetings with other charter school CEOs and I’m the only African American in the room. [I wish they could think] “This is how this is going to play out in the black community, so let’s think differently about this messaging. This is where those parents’ priorities are going to be, so let’s make sure we’re taking those into account while we’re trying to accomplish this other objective.”
It’s a two-way street, they have other ideas that they bring into the room that I may not think about because I have a different experience. I think it does end up being beneficial, but like any situation, you’ve got to take advantage of that diversity to do new, different and better, not just diversity for the sake of diversity.
A lot of the white reformers who are running charter management operations have a very deep focus on making sure that they make the grade in terms of high test scores. I can’t paint everybody with a broad brush, but there is an idea that as long as we’re getting the results, a lot of this other stuff is fluff.
Morgan: I just attended a parent forum last night, and I was hearing some comments similar to this from some of the panelists. What came to my mind was a recognition that there is this adversarial relationship that folks are creating around results versus relationships.
It’s a balance, and what we’ve got here is a very common phenomenon for a new entity, which is what charter schools are. The Recovery School District is only 10 years old, and there are so many things that have yet to be figured out. I think people don’t give it the full opportunity to develop into what it needs to be.
I think we’re just going through growing pains, in the sense that the pendulum was a bit too far to the relationship side previously and we weren’t getting the results that we wanted. Perhaps, now it’s too far on the result side, so we’re losing some of those relationships that we had. It’s going to swing back to the middle because that’s absolutely what needs to happen for the full level of effectiveness that we all want.
Do you feel that the community is sticking with the charter school project? Or do you feel like there may be some ground being lost?
Morgan: There are probably a segment of people who want us to go back to horses and carriages; we should get rid of automobiles. There are people who don’t believe in change.
Taking that setting out of the equation, what I hear fairly consistently, is that people have concerns about the governance of charter schools, access, hiring practices, the emphasis on results versus relationships, and so on and so forth.
But I don’t hear people saying, “Get rid of charter schools.” What I hear people asking is, “How do we get these charters to work for us?” And what I hear fairly consistently, often times grudgingly, is, “You’ve got to admit, it’s better than what it was.”
Let me push you on that a little bit, because the whole reform movement was built on urgency. “We’ve got to get this done now.” So we’re 10 years down the line, and the reform movement starts sounding a lot like the traditional system: “It takes time for change. Give us time! Be patient.”
Morgan: But let’s look at the amount of change that has happened in 10 years. What I can say in general is that the academic achievement that we are seeing, compared to what we used to see, has grown at a faster rate than just about anything else we’ve ever seen, not just in New Orleans, but in the rest of the country. In terms of transparency and equity, we are seeing gigantic progress in a way that we did not see 50 years prior.
You feel like that’s changed now? The rates of friends getting jobs within the schools and the systems?
Morgan: If you were the friend-of-the-friend, and you got the job, you liked the old system. If you were the family member of the registrar, and you knew your kids were going to get into the school, the old system worked for you.
Systems just don’t get created in the abstract. Sometimes people have bad intent, but most of the time, people are trying to make the best of whatever situation is presented in front of them. They’re just trying to look out for their own [interests], as are we all.
How do you deal with criticism of what you do? People are suspicious about where charters come from and what’s being done. Your integrity is often being called into question. Does that weigh on you?
Morgan: You can’t fully ignore it. I don’t think you can be a human being and fully distance yourself from it. I do think that on some level you’ve got to make peace with the fact that you’ve decided to do this work, and part of this work is this type of naysaying, and give it the place you need to give it. At some point, you just have to tune out the negativity, because you recognize that it’s not based on fact, it’s not based on objectivity.
What weighs heaviest on your mind?
Morgan: At the end of the day it’s about leadership. Education is a people business. There’s no two ways around it. From the board, to my seat, to my executive team, to the principals, the assistant principals, the teachers, the union janitor, you name, it, at the end of the day, somebody has to make a decision, and it’s literally thousands of decisions, every single day, about doing great work, or just doing okay work or not doing any work at all. Those thousands of decisions are (reflected) in the end product of whether we have students who are well-educated and effective in terms of contributing to society.
The last 10 years have been a lot about rebuilding the school system and starting something new. Over the next month, everybody’s going to have reflection fever. But the day is going to come and pass. What’s 2.0 for New Orleans’ public schools and charter schools? What would be your vision if you were in control?
Morgan: I do think charter schools, in principle, work. I do think there has got to be some oversight that goes around the individual boards of charter schools. There’s a lot of oversight that happens around the schools but not around the board itself, so I think that’s a big factor.
What I think the real innovation is for the next 50 years is being able to have truly individualized, personalized learning that happens, not because we have developed the most amazing software system, or the most amazing teaching tool or whatever the case may be, but because we just found a way that every single student gets what that individual student needs in order to be successful in the classroom.