It takes a powerful leader to turn around a troubled school and Burroughs Elementary School is home to a principal who stands up for his kids and community. Richard Morris is the longest serving principal in the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, and has been a partner with United Way since 2003. Before becoming a principal, he taught special education in Woodlawn, on Chicago’s South Side. Morris said he never seriously considered becoming a principal however, after continuing his education and having his first child he interviewed for a position at Burroughs Elementary. At that time, Morris didn’t think he’d actually be considered for the role. He says he considered the interview practice for a future opportunity. When he found out the job was his, he was shocked. “I remember having a conversation with my wife, and she said ‘do you have any idea what you’re doing’? I told her I have no idea… But I’m the only one who knows that, so that’s all that matters.” Fast forward 28 years, Burroughs has a solid report card from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) boasting scores above average in reading with a score in the 77th percentile and math in the 75th percentile.
Morris took the challenge of starting a new career head on. Instead of spending time in his office, he would greet the children and their parents when they arrived. His goal was to connect parents to the education process. At a parent teacher meeting he told them “The school belongs to the community. It does not belong to CPS or the Mayor. It belongs to you.” Morris coined this concept a “Community School,” meaning the school works for the parents, they are the customers.
Creating a sense of community with the school faculty is important to Morris and shapes his leadership style. “I don’t like hierarchies,” Morris said. “If there is any one person in the entire building that is not doing their job, from the cook, to the janitorial staff, to the teachers, it will adversely affect the entire operation.” It’s this practice that Morris believes has kept his staff working at Burroughs. “Many of the people that work here have only worked here. I have a phenomenal group of teachers who are committed and believe in the community school model.”
United Way of Metro Chicago believes that educated children and youth are the future. By helping children build a strong foundation in education and empowering parents to support their learning and development, we can ensure that kids have the skills to be successful in school and in life. United Way’s Stronger Neighborhood for a Stronger Chicago investment plan supports schools like Burroughs Elementary School through its membership in the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network. There are 9 schools in the network all of which are following the community school model. If you want a world class city, you need great schools and it takes a strong principal to make it happen.