Knox principal says he changed school for better

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Scott Jenkins
Gerald MoragneEl says Knox Middle School changed during his year as its principal. Some of that change is undeniably positive.
In the 2007-2008 academic year, the school met only 16 of 25 goals in the state’s end-of-grade testing program and did not make what the state considers adequate yearly progress on getting students’ test scores at or above grade level.
The state designated Knox a low-performing school and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction performed a needs assessment.
At the end of the 2008-2009 school year the numbers had improved, with Knox meeting 25 of 27 goals, making adequate yearly progress and moving up from low-performing to school of priority on the state’s list.
That was MoragneEl’s first year leading Knox. And it will be his last.
The principal tendered his resignation Tuesday to the Rowan-Salisbury School System. He says it’s because his wife and children moved back to Maryland and he wants to move there with them.
At a Parent Teacher Association meeting Thursday night, some parents were stunned and saddened to learn he was leaving, while others said that not everyone had been happy with MoragneEl, despite the rising test scores.
For his part, MoragneEl admitted that some parents and faculty members were less than thrilled with some of the changes he instituted at Knox. He said attention placed on him for that reason may have “hindered the school from moving forward” and that his stepping down may be best for the school.
“People have a hard time with change,” he said. “When you go into a place and want to enact reform … everybody is not happy with change. Sometimes the focus is not on the change, the focus is on you because you made the change.”
He maintained, however, that had no bearing on his decision to leave just weeks into his second year as principal.
“It was strictly me and my family’s decision,” he said.
MoragneEl came to Knox in September 2007 as an assistant principal under Susan Heaggans, who had led the school since July 2003. Heaggans left after the 2007-2008 school year, MoragneEl was appointed her successor in July 2008.
Among the alterations he made at Knox was requiring visitors to show identification before picking up or getting information about students. And when visitors come to the school, they arrive at a “reception and conference center” and are directed to their destinations from there, not at a “main office” to sign in.
“Wherever the teachers and students are, that’s the main part of the building,” he said.
MoragneEl renamed the auditorium the “cultural arts center” and changed other names around the campus to reflect his vision for the school.
Perhaps the biggest change was separating the school into academies by grade level. Each has its own administrator, guidance counselor and team of teachers. That structure minimized students’ movement around the school.
“That was quite a change,” he said. But he argues it “brought order to the school. We used to have bad disciplinary problems.”
“There are some people who thought the school was stricter,” he said. “But I call stricter ‘structure.’ ”
He called it all “just a normal part of any administration.” And he said some parents “were leery at first, but they saw the purpose and that it worked.”
Emily Rivers, whose daughter Robyn is an eighth-grader at Knox, said she believes MoragneEl’s methods “elevated” teachers and students.
Rivers said she learned of the principal’s resignation Friday when her daughter called from school upset. She was still upset Friday afternoon.
“I have a child here that’s crying and doesn’t want to go back if he leaves,” she said.
She said MoragneEl not only brought more structure to Knox, he encouraged students to look beyond that school and showed them and their parents he cared about their future. “He knew every child’s name. … I left there knowing that my child mattered and my concerns mattered.”
Rivers said she’s concerned about what will happen at Knox now.
“I just don’t believe there will be someone else that will come into this school, this community … and will genuinely care about our children enough to put their whole life in it and turn it around,” she said.
MoragneEl said his life is elsewhere now. He came to Rowan from Maryland and his wife remained there to complete college. After graduating in May, she moved to North Carolina, but decided to move back north.
“She just likes it there a little better,” he said. And their daughters, ages 3 and 5, returned to Maryland with their mother.
MoragneEl said he was in the second year of a two-year contract with the school. He said he didn’t think it would have been better for him to resign before the school year began because when he became principal last year, he had just a few weeks to get ready for teachers and students.
“Everything is done,” for the next school leader, he said. That will be Larry Brown, a retired administrator who will be interim principal at Knox until the school system hires a replacement for MoragneEl.