Warren Morgan likes coffee. Like, really likes it. 

The new CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District estimates he drinks about four cups a day. The order’s pretty basic: no cream, no sugar, and no fancy syrups, though he prefers hazelnut-brewed beans. 

All that caffeine might come in handy. After all, Morgan has an important job. He’s in charge of overseeing the district’s roughly 35,000 students. Morgan took over that position from former CEO Eric Gordon last month after a lengthy search process

Morgan’s new responsibilities, in part, include making sure students are prepared to navigate life after high school. It’s something the district’s graduates could do better, at least according to metrics on the state report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education. 

Out of the members of CMSD’s graduating class of 2015 who went on to attend a state college or university, only about 11% graduated from college within six years of earning their high school diploma, per the most recent data available. 

As Morgan highlighted in this conversation with Signal Cleveland, though, a four-year college isn’t the only path for young people to take after high school. Read more in the Q&A session below. The chat was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Your plan for your first 100 days included wanting to learn whether parents and community members have the same goals as the district when it comes to what students do after they graduate from high school, especially given the district’s investment in the Say Yes to Education college promise program. What made that a point of note for you? 

Everyone has the goal that we want our kids to do something great after high school. But how we get there, sometimes, is a little nuanced. I want to make sure I’m listening to the voices of our families and our community, specifically to hear what does success look like, what does a livable, successful wage look like for all of our students in our district, and bring those messages to the Say Yes committee meetings. 

Since Say Yes has been around now for four years…I really want to make sure we’re really getting the return on investment for it.

Warren Morgan

Also, since Say Yes has been around now for four years, and it’s an incredible program, I really want to make sure we’re really getting the return on investment for it. There’s already been so many great results with it. I think we can get more kids across the finish line, get them into college, get them to complete a FAFSA [federal financial aid form], or get kids into a trade of their choice that [provides] a livable wage.  

I know that those are all the goals within Say Yes, but now it’s just a matter of making all the connections and making it happen.

That 100 day plan also mentioned wanting to partner with businesses and higher ed institutions beginning as early as in middle school. Have you had any of those conversations yet with leaders at universities or businesses?

We have, but not in a direct form. 

I have talked to several business leaders, civic leaders, many of our elected officials who are really interested in thinking about getting our kids involved and what that could look like. I think the roadmap is there. 

Even when you talk to kids, they’re saying, ‘We want to do something more experiential, more hands on.’ Now, it’s a matter of how do we put those programs in place.

We also need to build the capacity here within our system to make sure we have the leaders who understand the programs enough to make that come alive. I’m in the very early stages of not only listening to the community, but also doing my rounds of listening to our team here. I’m hiring for four positions. It’s startup thinking about all these pieces of the puzzle coming together. 

Do people really use the phrase “career and college readiness” in those conversations? 

It doesn’t come up in those terms. I was talking to another person about why is it that schools on the East Side do not have some of the programs that the downtown schools or the West Side schools have in terms of engineering and aviation. 

I was [also] chatting with my barber. He was just like, ‘Man, there’s so many great fields and avenues that I’ve been able to explore in terms of cosmetology,’ and we [CMSD] don’t have those programs anymore. These are the things you’re hearing people talk about. 

You’re hearing kids talk about wanting to take college courses while in high school to get a jumpstart. That’s dual enrollment. So people may not have the “education speak,” but they’re talking about it.  

Winding down here, you’re undoubtedly juggling lots of priorities: school and student safety, graduation rates, literacy. It’s a lot. Where does making sure CMSD’s graduates are ready for college and careers fall on that list?  

That’s something I’ve been wrestling with. What I feel really good about is I’ve been going out into the community, doing the listening tours, and I’ve been hearing so much. And now I’m like, ‘OK, you’re hearing this, what is the plan, and how do we prioritize that?’

I’m having a retreat with my cabinet tomorrow. A big part of that is actually saying, ‘Let’s look at the strategic plan.’ I asked them a couple of weeks ago, I said, ‘I’m not changing what the strategic plan was under [former district CEO] Mr. [Eric] Gordon, but I want to see what the goals were.’

What we’re doing in this retreat is actually making sure we have clear focus, and college and career readiness is under there, and when we get that clarity and also put some goals behind it, it will help with the prioritization. Otherwise, it just feels like stuff, and that can feel really overwhelming. I want to make sure we’re really strategic in the bets we’re making.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.