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Morgan is Person of the Year

The Herald-Mail honors schools superintendent

The Herald-Mail honors schools superintendent

January 01, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY - She faced almost instant criticism when she arrived in Washington County. She was called an "outsider" and suffered some initial pain as she worked to prove that she was a good fit for Washington County Public Schools.

Six years later, those comments have all but disappeared. Teachers say morale has improved. Students are learning more and performing better on state tests. Most of the county's high schools have earned national press for being the "best in the nation."

But Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said she doesn't see these strides as proving her critics wrong. It's not about that. It's about focusing on students and giving them the best education possible, she said.

"I think I've gotten people on my team," she said. "I've earned their trust."

She'll point to higher test scores, and state and even national recognition as indications that the Washington County Public Schools system is on the right track, but is hesitant to take much of the credit. It's the teachers, she said, and the students, who are doing the tough work and getting the job done.

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"I brought some enthusiasm and some ideas," said Morgan, 64. "I don't think I can take credit for much more than that."

It was that enthusiasm and dedication to children, and her ideas on how to propel Washington County Public Schools from "good to great," that made her the 2007 Herald-Mail Person of the Year.

An advocate

Morgan was born and raised in New York City, and lived for some time in Mexico. Her mother was Mexican, and her father was Hungarian with an Austrian background.

Morgan is a first-generation American, and said that growing up she spoke English, Spanish and French. She is still fluent in Spanish, but admitted her French is a bit rusty.

Paula Moore, a mentor resource teacher, said Morgan made an impression on her almost immediately.

"She ate lunch with all of the teachers," said Moore, a former Washington County Teacher of the Year. "She spoke French to me and had a conversation in Spanish with a Spanish teacher there."

Moore said she wasn't expecting the new superintendent to be eating in a school cafeteria, and especially wasn't expecting her to have conversations in three languages.

Morgan said her background, and perhaps the way she was raised, left her with a natural affinity for children who "don't really fit in." She works on behalf of all students, but said she has a sensitivity for minority students and those living in poverty.

Her parents came from a working-class background, and she said her family was not privileged.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for kids who don't always have the advantages," Morgan said. " ... I have to watch out for them when they don't have others to be their advocate."

Over the years, Morgan has quietly mentored a student or two who is struggling.

"I let them know about the opportunities that are available to them in life," she said.

The student she most recently reached out to was a senior at Washington County Technical High School. She said he was struggling to graduate. Morgan and the student wrote down his goal, then the steps he would need to take to reach that goal.

"Kids need safety nets," she said. "They can easily fall. So, I gave him a safety net so he would graduate."

And he did.

Many teachers say Morgan treats the students in Washington County Public Schools as if they are her own.

"I don't want anything less for anyone else's kids than I would want for my own," she said.

Even her iPod playlist offers hints of a woman who cares about those who don't have an easy road to travel. She lists The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Chieftains among her favorite artists, and said that the Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind" appeals to her.

"Just those lyrics," she said. "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man ... Those words, to this day, have a lot of meaning to me. It speaks to the injustice."

It was teachers who made a difference in Morgan's life. She credits dedicated teachers in her youth for what she has accomplished in life.

"Teachers always made an impact on me," she said.

Yet that wasn't always the career she wanted. While Morgan was growing up, her mother was a dancer, and the young Morgan took it up as well, thinking she might pursue it as a career.

"My parents really discouraged that," she said. "At the time, you couldn't make a good living doing that."

These days, Morgan said, graduates of a new performing arts school that will open in downtown Hagerstown in 2009 will have many career opportunities. She has supported the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts since its inception.

Philosophy

Morgan said her career has been focused on affecting students' education, which she said she views as "mission work."

"It's transforming the lives of kids," she said.

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