DC Oakes principal identifies with the students he serves
CASTLE ROCK – Mark Morgan’s route to the principal’s desk wasn’t traditional, but perhaps that is what makes him such a great fit with the students he leads at DC Oakes High School.
Like his students, Morgan’s experience in public schools was anything but smooth.
“I wasn’t the best student and had some troubles myself in junior high and high school,” he explained. “So I just always felt that I fit in better with this crowd—and that we understand each other.”
Morgan, now a seasoned administrator, gleams with pride when talking about the amazing achievements he has seen at his building, with staff and his students, who are seeking an alternative route to a high school diploma. Today it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else, but as it turns out, education wasn’t his first career.
Born and raised in Denver, Morgan attended Colorado State University and thought a journalism path was best for him. He was active in the school newspaper, radio station and athletic media relations department, all while being a volunteer soccer and baseball coach with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.
“I always had that sports background and that’s what really interested me,” he said. “So when I got out of CSU that was where I was headed.”
He was headed for the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), where he landed the assistant media relations director position. His career took off as he traveled across the United States and Europe, serving the press and meeting influential writers and photographers from various publications.
He described one remarkable event when he had the opportunity to attend a Chicago Bulls basketball game in the late 1980’s with a writer and photographer from Sports Illustrated.
“I got to take some amazing photographs of Scotty Pippin and Michael Jordan when they were really young, just starting out,” he described. “So I really got to do some cool stuff.”
Shortly thereafter; however, Morgan experienced a wake-up call.
In July of 1989, two of his CBA bosses were on the fatal plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa. Jerry Schemmel, deputy commissioner and general legal counsel survived, but commissioner, and friend, Jay Ramsdell did not.
“It changed the way I perceived some things,” he remembered. “I did a bit of reflection on what I wanted to do. I was working a lot at that point and I had to quit my affiliation with Big Brothers because I was gone all of the time traveling.”
“I did a life inventory and decided what I enjoyed most was when I was around kids and working with them,” he concluded.
He quit his job, got married, and went back to school at Metro State University in Denver to get his teaching credentials and “got back into coaching and some of the fun things I wanted to do,” he said.
His first teaching job opened up at a middle school in Elizabeth, where he taught sixth and seventh-grade social studies.
“I was very much drawn to a smaller community,” he explained. “I had opportunities to coach right away and get really involved with the kids and the community right away and that was appealing to me.”
His first glimpse into teaching struggling learners also occurred there. He volunteered to teach a course at the end of the day for students who were academically having problems.
“My job was to coach and mentor these kids and try and get them to pass their classes,” he explained. “It was a mix of calling home, helping out with homework, trying to build resiliency—working with them on everything from attendance to academic performance to attitude.”
“So while I was working with the struggling learners at Elizabeth Middle School (for eight years), that ended up being something that I looked forward to at the end of the day,” he added.
During that time, he was working towards his administrator credential and eventually became an assistant principal at the two elementary schools in Elizabeth. Just one year later, he was encouraged to apply for the principal position at Elizabeth’s alternative high school called Frontier.
“I visited the school to put my toe in the water and when I interviewed, all of my wonderful struggling learners who I had taught in 6th and 7th grade were now at that alternative school,” he said with a smile. “So luckily I got the job and spent two years as the principal there having already known most of the families and all of the kids.”
He then transitioned into the principalship at Elizabeth Middle School, assuming he would be well suited for it due to his history there.
Still, something was missing.
“I realized a big part of my heart and why I got into education was that connection to at-risk learners and I was just yearning to go back,” he said. “I needed to get back into alternative education because that’s really where I feel I best belong.
He proceeded to pinpoint a few alternative schools across the Front Range and the Western Slope, looking for “the cream of the crop in the state of Colorado to work in, and DC Oakes was one of those schools,” he said.
The very first day the DC Oakes principal position was posted, Morgan was calling over and over asking to visit and “just chomping at the bit wanting to be here,” he said.
When he finally got an interview, he found the process in which staff is hired is quite different from that of traditional schools. The students are an integral part in the decision-making process, and every candidate must spend an hour interviewing with the students themselves.
“(There was) an immediate connection,” Morgan explained, “We all spoke the same language and I could tell from the interview that we all understood each other. So I was very fortunate to be offered the job and I snatched it up in a heartbeat.”
“As an administrator (at DC Oakes) I get to do the things that I value the most—be with the kids and kind of be a counselor, teacher and an administrator at the same time, and I feel like I connect more with these kids,” he continued.
Now into his ninth year in the building, Morgan is simply trying to grow the amazing things the school already set in place.
“DC Oakes already had a wonderful, experiential Outdoor Education program that I was very much bought into,” he said. “A wonderful theatre program that I felt connected kids so much, and we’re always trying to find ways to build community, like with our big canned food drive.”
“I think our big focus is really trying to give our kids a more student-centered experience while they’re here so they feel like they have more control over things,” he added.
Morgan is also extremely proud and appreciative of, how he puts it, his “amazing staff.” They are actively involved in school plays, activities like the Fish Club, and outdoor education trips.
“I’m very proud of DC Oakes kind of becoming a destination spot for people who are teaching,” he said. “I am very fortunate to have a staff of veteran teachers who are wanting to have a different impact on kids.”
The kids are not guaranteed a spot nor are they forced to stay at DC Oakes. They must go through an interview process, often are put on a waiting list until the next quarter, and must prove to administration that they want to be there, abiding by a strict attendance policy and maintaining an A, B, or C grade in each of their classes.
And when they do graduate, each student gets a chance to address their teachers, parents, and mentors in a very personal, emotional graduation ceremony.
“It really gives people a glimpse of what goes on here,” Morgan describes. “The kids here are so friendly, so welcoming, and it’s a great opportunity to change people’s minds about education and really stamp down that you’re not a bad kid just because you seek an alternative education.”
“I feel like what it really shows is the maturity level of a 16 or 17 year old to say ‘Wow, this isn’t working for me and if I really want a diploma I have to seek something different’,” he added.
Morgan is thrilled that DC Oakes has achieved the highest performance rating the state offers for alternative schools, holds an 80 percent graduation rate, and exceeds the norms on both ACT scores as well as work preparedness scores.
But if you ask him what he’s most proud of, Morgan will emphasize the word “we” and tout the common vision the school’s students, staff and community all share.
“I really believe what makes this place really unique is that we have this common vision and understanding of education and knowing that truly educating the whole child is the key to building resiliency–is the key to catapulting our kids to success,” he professed.
“We believe in trying to get them bought into something a little bit bigger than them, and bought into a community that they can be proud of, that gives back and that gives to them.”
The winter DC Oakes graduation ceremony will be held on Thursday, December 12. You can see the ceremony live via Douglas County School District’s livestream at www.livestream.com/dcsdk12