On November 5, 2018, Cassie Schwerner became Morningside Center’s new Executive Director, picking up the baton from Tom Roderick, who had led the organization for 35 years. Cassie comes to Morningside Center from The Schott Foundation for Public Education, where she worked to promote racial justice in education. We asked Cassie to tell us how these first months have been, and where she sees us going in the months and years ahead.
Cassie Schwerner visits our PAZ After-School Program at PS 24
How has it been to step into the job of Morningside Center’s first new executive director since 1983? Be honest!
You know, a lot of people have compared Tom to Mr. Rogers, the gentle host of PBS’s program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. So, all you have to do is imagine me trying to take over as host after Fred Rogers. It was daunting to think of the shoes (and sweater!) I was stepping into. So, rather than thinking of it that way, I decided to take a different approach. I spent my first few months at Morningside listening. Listening to staff (including staff developers), the board, funders, and other key stakeholders to see what was essential to Morningside’s success and what we might need to change in order to grow into our next phase of work.
What brought you to Morningside Center?
I loved my work at The Schott Foundation for Public Education – especially the amazing staff, board, and the organizers, parents, and teachers from across the country that I had the privilege of working with. But I was also craving a change. I wanted to develop the muscles and skills needed to lead an organization. I thought Morningside Center was the perfect place for me because our work is at the nexus of educational equity and racial justice, and everything we do fits in the context of a larger vision of social change. Then, when I met the staff at Morningside, I knew I had found the right next home!
What has surprised you most since you got to Morningside Center?
What has surprised me the most is the way that the teachers and other staff in the schools we work with really want to embrace the often-difficult conversation about race – or, borrowing from Glenn Singleton, “courageous conversations” about race. I have always believed that teachers go into the profession for the best reasons – to make their best contribution to children’s lives and to society – but that they often end up in an endless and unrewarding struggle over “classroom management.” And that power struggle, as we know, can lead to punitive discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve been gratified to see so many educators hungry for new strategies and tools that move us away from that old model – including using restorative practices in their classrooms.
What do you wish everyone knew about our work?
I wish everyone had the opportunity to see our staff and staff developers in action. These are some of the most talented and thoughtful educators I’ve seen in my over 30-year career in education. Our approach to educational equity is putting the adults and students in the school building at the center of change. And that is incredibly challenging work, because the profound needs of educators and young people are not always aligned. I have witnessed how our staff work to bring adults and students together as a community, and it is both powerful and joyous to watch. But it’s not easy. This work cannot be done in a one-off workshop. At its core, the work we do is about creating a classroom community, a place where everyone is valued – because that’s where teaching and learning can happen. And that’s something I wish more teachers, principals, education department leaders, and elected officials could see in action.
What excites you about what’s happening in education right now, including in NYC public schools? Is there promise in this moment?
What I think is promising about this moment we’re in right now, especially in New York City under the leadership of Chancellor Carranza, is that we’re really grappling with what we mean by educational equity. I think it’s exciting that we are finally examining the enormous structural issues we face and what to do about them. I’m talking about things like school integration, how we achieve equitable school funding, high-quality early education opportunities, and what a culturally responsive curriculum looks like. That’s powerful.
Another aspect of the current moment that I find exciting is the growing support for bringing joy and play back into education. I have been alarmed for some time now about how all the fun has been sucked out of education because of the exclusive focus on “standards” and testing. If we want young learners to develop a deep love of learning, we’ve got to let them play! When I think about schools where laughing in class can get you suspended, it breaks my heart. So, I am all for deep learning and academic attainment, but I don’t think our culture of testing will get us there.
How can Morningside Center help realize the promise of this moment? What is our unique contribution?
I think Morningside is in a very unusual position at this moment. First, over the years we’ve developed a powerful combination of approaches that we can deliver through engaging workshops and skillful coaching – approaches that interweave social emotional learning, restorative practices, and courageous conversations about race. Taken together, these strategies can create the space that young people need to feel safe, to belong, to have a voice – and to be able to thrive in school, socially and academically. Schools and school districts are now realizing that this is the kind of connection and community they need to build, and Morningside Center has a key set of tools for doing it.
Second, Morningside has very strong relationships with the Department of Education and other city agencies, and with teachers and school leaders. Having the support of these powerful stakeholders is key. Morningside is poised to bring these strategies to even more schools in the future, including to school systems beyond New York City.
Third, Morningside Center brings to the work a deep vision of social justice. Our work is part of the larger effort to build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. At this moment in history, we all need to see ourselves as part of that wider movement, to feel hopeful and connected, and make our best contribution.
Read the rest of the 2018 Annual Report