Principal Amira Mogaji: Guiding Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Principal Amira Mogaji.
Principal Mogaji was working as the CEO/Head of School at a Montessori school in her hometown of Philadelphia when she was recruited by Kalamazoo Public Schools to lead its Northglade Montessori Magnet School. Now in her eighth year as principal, she says, “I love making a difference here and helping our students achieve the Kalamazoo Promise.”

Principal Mogaji serves on the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism (ABAR) committee at both the school and district level. Her leadership extends beyond the district as she is a board member for Montessori for Social Justice as well as the American Montessori Society (AMS), the national board governing body for American Montessori schools in the U.S. and abroad.

She and her husband, Olatubosun, have six children at home. This includes: one KPS graduate who is in WMU’s aviation flight science program, two who attend Northglade, and three “little, little people,” including two-year-old twin girls.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough, she is also working towards completing her dissertation for a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Management.

We met in the school’s Peace Room. Peace education is an essential component that is infused throughout a child’s Montessori education. Mogaji’s own passion for engaging in peace and justice work flows through her work, home, and community life. Peace and justice isn’t something that just happens. It is challenging, hard work and, as you will discover, Mogaji doesn’t take the easy way out when conflicts arise. Instead of choosing to disengage or yell back with an unkind remark, Mogaji, always mindful of the example she is setting, responds from a place of peace.

Alright, Principal Mogaji: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

You clearly enjoy welcoming students in the morning, don’t you?

Greeting kids in the morning is my favorite part of the day. I love to see their faces and feel their energy coming into the building. I can quickly discover if someone is struggling and it’s an opportunity to check in with parents, too.

Two days a month I’m not here as I have meetings and I miss it. Otherwise, I’m out there in rain, snow, monsoon, you name it. Everybody deserves a hello and it may turn somebody’s day around. It’s important how you come into the building.

I’m always struck by the sense of peace and zen-like atmosphere of your school. As the leader of the building, I’m sure you have a hand in creating this environment. You seem to radiate peace.

Thank you. I’m not always zen, as my kids can attest to when I am trying to get ready for school each morning. [She laughs.] Hurry up, we can’t be late! For the most part, though, things don’t ruffle me.

What does ruffles you?

Dishonesty bothers me a lot, to the point that I have to manage how I manage that feeling. In my personal life, if I find you to be dishonest, I’m not going to bother with you. I’m a bubbly person and I love everybody until I find you to be dishonest. That said, when it comes to my work, I don’t have the right to not give 100 percent of myself. I must be intentional and give everybody the same support.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

When twins learn how to, one: get out of their cribs and, two: open the door, your life changes forever. Life as you know it, is over. [She laughs heartily.] I haven’t slept since Wednesday!

What are you currently reading?

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been reading a lot of articles about it [like this one].

It’s nice for this book to come out; some things can’t come from people of color. [The author and anti-racist educator, Robin DiAngelo, is white.]

It helps to explain the difficulty of doing anti-bias/anti-racism work. People who want to do this work—and I believe everybody has good will—but you find people automatically start blocking things and they become defensive. I see it all the time. They want to do the work and then they get stalled. The book helps explain this.

Anti-bias/Anti-racism work is not something that is not done to people. But rather, it is what you do with yourself, in your own journey of self-transformation. All of us need to go through it and become the best we can be. This book can help with that. I have friends who are white who love the book and it is helping them on their journey and I have friends of color who love it as well. It’s helping them, too.

May I ask what, as a Muslim woman, has been your own experience with bias and racism?

I’m always randomly selected at airports. I have been yelled at and told to get out of this country and go back home. My car has been vandalized in the Walmart parking lot. I was in the doctor’s office with my children and in the waiting area we were yelled at and called terrorists. Unfortunately, over the past few years these kinds of things have been happening more often.

That is stressful. How do you handle that?

I carry my passport at all times. And when it comes to flying, since I’m always randomly selected I have to add an additional hour and a half or more to my schedule so I won’t miss my flight…

Honestly, it stresses me out to think that some people are afraid of me… My self-care is walking around Walmart and buying things I don’t need [laughs heartily]. In fact, I was there recently and one of the ladies who worked there informed me she was okay with me being covered. This I can handle, she said. But if you had all black on, I wouldn’t like that. I’d be afraid of you. A lady who worked at Walmart felt she could say that to me, in front of other people.

Incredible. How do you respond to something like that?

The way I see it, my job as a person—as a covered, black, woman—is to set the best example I can so that when situations like that occur, people will think, Oh, that was a nice lady. You need to set a good example and give a good experience to people. You may be the only contact they’ve ever had with a Muslim.

Where else, besides Walmart, do you like to frequent in the community?

The public library. Always!

What is your favorite word right now?

Intentional. I try to be intentional in everything I do. My second favorite word is kindness.

Can you tell us, from your perspective as a principal, what it is like to have CIS in your building?

I love CIS! My experience has been very positive. Over the years, we’ve had a few staff and they have all been strong people. I’ve been most appreciative about the people and the way in which Pam [Kingery] and those helping with staffing Northglade do this. CIS understands that we are a unique school. All schools are unique, but we are really unique and CIS takes that into consideration. They have always invited me to come in and participate in interviews.

The way CIS operates in the building, whether it’s during the day [post about CIS Site Coordinator Steve Brewer here] or when Ashley [Serio] is running the after school program, it doesn’t feel like a separate entity. We’re working together to support kids. I laugh with the CIS staff every day. We have fun! It’s those relationships that children see—between CIS staff and the teachers and administration—and how we are all here together. We’re a family. Children can’t go to mom because they don’t like what dad says. We are one, collective voice.

CIS really remove barriers for children. It’s just a wonderful program!

What drew you to Montessori?

I knew of it when I was a student at Chestnut Hill College and had learned some about the philosophy having taken a Montessori class in elementary education. But I fully appreciated the beauty of it when I was a CEO/Head of School in a Montessori school in Philadelphia. It was in a very poor area with a high percentage of socio-economically disadvantaged students. It was awesome working there…

Montessori is a great way to educate children in an urban setting. That is the reason why I’m here: on the northside of Kalamazoo, in a Title I, American Montessori Society accredited Montessori public school, providing high quality Montessori education to children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to have it.

We have one of the lowest behavioral referrals in the district.

Why do you think that is?

There is a level of respect children have for each other here. That is because Montessori emphasizes respect for self, for others, and for the environment. We focus on the whole child and our children have opportunities to meet Montessori outcomes which are not all academic, such things as responsibility, global citizenship, and self-regulation. They learn to walk to the bathroom without the whole class—in kindergarten they are learning that. They have freedom within limits and as self-directed learners, they are figuring out how to prioritize their work, a skill some students may not learn until college! So while our children are learning to read, write and do math, it is also important to learn things like, How do you care for others? How do you help someone in need? What if someone is hungry?

We all recently learned that one in six children in Kalamazoo go hungry. We know this because the upper elementary students researched hunger, they wrote persuasive essays, and went from class to class sharing what they learned. Hunger, they said, is not justice. The children collected food and donated it to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A Montessori education provides opportunities for those kind of conversations to exist. We support the children in what they want to learn more about—whatever that is. We all have a place in the world and it’s our job to find out what our responsibility is in it.

My husband says Islam is a way of life. It’s not about ‘when do you pray?’ It’s more about what kind a person you are. It’s about giving back to the world. The same is true for Montessori. It is a way of life. It’s about how you treat children, giving them opportunities, and meeting them where they are at—that is very important. Follow the child. That is a famous Montessori quote: Follow the child.

Not necessarily an easy thing to do.

When children do get off task, we have conversations, reflecting on how can you be respectful to yourself? Others? Your environment? You are not getting all you need because you are not doing your work. So what do you need? What is it you are not getting? These are the conversations we have with each other and that is the beauty of it.

With Montessori, we’re offering children options in their learning environment. Today, do I want to read sitting in a chair or work on the chalkie [a moveable table] or floor? That’s one less argument to have. We don’t have to be on their backs all day.

I happen to think we have the most wonderful children in the world!

What’s your philosophy of leadership?

A leader is there to serve, and to serve everyone. Leaders set a good example and model the expectation…We have lots of leaders here—students and teachers—and my job is to grow the leaders in this building.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

Obviously, my parents. And I have a really wonderful and supportive husband who gives me the strength I need to take risks. I trust him and he’s wise. He doesn’t just say, Go for it. He says, You should do this because of a, b, and c reasons. Take, for example, my being on the board of directors for the American Montessori Society. I never would have submitted my application and run, except for his encouragement. While I wasn’t sure about it, he pointed out that they contacted me about running. They’re reaching out to you about doing this because you are the best, he’d said.

I never would have put myself out there like that, in that arena of running for an elected position, without his support. He really has been most influential in my life. We’re partners in everything.

I have to add that my children make me want to be my best self. While they don’t say it, we are models for our children… If I see them fussing or not being kind—of course, sometimes it may be a developmental stage—but I can’t help but wonder, what in the environment is causing the child to act this way? Have I been fussy lately? Do I need to adjust myself? That’s a Montessori way of thinking.

Thank you, Principal Mogaji, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

In the weeks to come we’ll be featuring Ashley Serio, a graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools and Northglade Montessori’s CIS After School Coordinator. In the meantime, practice peace with yourself, your neighbors, friends, and strangers at Walmart.

Jennifer Johnson: Ever Moving Towards the Possibilities

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, Jennifer grew up in northern Michigan. “People won’t like to know that I love snow,” she laughs. “But I grew up with snow! I love it!”

Jennifer attended Central Michigan University, double majored in psychology and English and then obtained her Masters in English, Language and Literature. “When people learn I have an English degree, they’ll often ask, What makes you qualified to do this? I tell them I’m annoying,” says Jennifer. “And I ask questions.”

We’d describe Jennifer not as annoying but rather, persistent, focused, and curious, always looking for possibilities and moving not just her and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes towards them, but the whole Kalamazoo community.

Alright, Jennifer Johnson: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

When we talk about hunger these days, we often hear the term, ‘food insecure.’

That is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger.

What is your definition of food insecurity?

People need enough food to lead a healthy active life. They need food that counts nutritionally. A person may be eating food, but not the right food. They may be taking in calories, but not the right calories. The reality is that some people don’t have enough money to buy the right food, or perhaps they have enough money but they live in a food desert. Their only access to food is the local Family Dollar or corner store that doesn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables; the foods they need to grow health and strong.

Hunger presents itself in many different ways. Teachers see it in the form of concentration problems and behavioral issues. For kids themselves it is more of an out loud thing, literally. My stomach is growling! My daughter’s teacher, like a lot of teachers, has a snack drawer in her classroom. We see the holes and we’re all trying to fill them.

Speaking of filling a need, let’s talk Friday Food packs! We are so grateful to you and all those at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for your commitment to this program. As you know, since 2005, your food packs have been one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students.

In the early days with the program, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes saw the food packs as merely a bridge, a bridge to more things. It was, and still is, helpful for us that CIS site coordinators, working with teachers and administrators, identify students who need that little extra help on weekends from Loaves & Fishes. Identifying the kids has been a way to help us reach the families. We want to feed the whole family as well as the child.

So the Friday Food Packs has helped bridge that end?

It has helped with that, yes… I’d add that we are limited by the number of packs we can provide. Around 6,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. The number of food packs provided are small in proportion to the need. We know how tough it is for CIS site coordinators to prioritize what students will receive the packs.

You’ve been with KLF for eleven years, serving these last four years as executive director [and prior to that, as resource development and public relations director]. When it comes to feeding hungry people and engaging our community in the fight to end hunger, what is one of the biggest changes you’ve noticed over the years?

One of the most recent things I learned was from talking with Deb Yarbrough, the CIS site coordinator at Kalamazoo Central. She’s been there a long time and really knows the kids. So I asked her, “When it comes to hunger in the high school, what’s changed?” She said that it’s changed a lot. Kids, she said, are more responsible than they’ve ever had to be for their food, their sibling’s food, as well as accessing food for their household.

What a responsibility that puts on our children’s shoulders! Now, there are lots of reasons for this, one being that a parent may be working at night. Whatever the case, the level of responsibility that has been put on kids in the last few years has greatly increased…I grew up as a latch key kid, but it was different then. It’s not the same thing.

If you could feed us one statistic on hunger, what would it be?

In our community, there are 40,000 food insecure people. That means in Kalamazoo County there are people living right on the edge and there are also people living deeply in poverty. It’s the whole spectrum.

One of the thing people don’t realize is that just because you have a couple of jobs doesn’t mean you have all the bases covered. Imagine, you have two part time jobs, no benefits, and something happens where you have medical bills. Or maybe your car dies and you don’t have the dollars to fix it. You need groceries, but don’t have a vehicle. Life is complicated for many people. Holes and gaps hamper their success and their children’s success. At Loaves & Fishes, we live with that every day and work to create as many access points as possible to help kids and the surrounding community.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you “love the possibilities” as seen through your daughter, her friends, and this community. What possibilities have you been noticing recently?

It’s hard to see them sometimes. It’s easy to get bogged down by external things, like what’s going on in the environment, the media, the world. It’s hard to not be negative. I encourage everyone to push all these distractions out of the way to see the possibilities. They are there! We believe at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes—we believe to our core—that we can create a hunger free community. That is an immense task, but it is possible! And CIS is an integral part of that task.

How so?

Your CIS people are incredible connectors. We couldn’t do this work without CIS. CIS site coordinators are on the ground and in the schools. They see and can help identify a child in need and that helps us know where our food needs to be. CIS is one of many agencies that are helping us do that throughout the community.

We love partnering with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes in the Kalamazoo Public Schools! Your organization really has an open mind set. Back in 2003, when we came to you and sought out your expertise about kids coming to school hungry, especially on Monday mornings, KLF was quick to say, Let’s figure something out! Soon after, the Friday Food packs was born.

Sometimes, possibilities are stopped by a system. We adhere too strictly to boundaries or the way things have always been done. When we open ourselves up to looking at ways systems can be stretched, that’s when possibilities can happen and we can leverage things like breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs to their fullest.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Systemic change is hard. Real change takes work! We’re all busy and it’s hard to stop, to take the time and figure out better and new ways to do something. But if we can stop and focus—together— and say, I know this isn’t easy work, but let’s take the time to figure this out, together, we can make things better.

Do you have a favorite condiment?

I’m anti-condiment. I don’t like condiments, and that includes salad dressing. I’m boring, I know. That will be the theme of this blog interview! I’m boring.

Far from it! So, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? What one food item is a “must have” in your own home?

We love fruits and vegetables. Mostly fruits, if you ask my daughter.

My best meal? Probably the home-made pizza I made with my daughter. I love baking and cooking with my daughter. Growing up, I cooked with my mom and grandmother and I am trying to instill that love of cooking with my eight-year-old daughter. We recently made spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Not the noodles, though. We don’t have a noodle maker. But my daughter helped with the meal. She squished and formed the meatballs with her hands…I know how much it meant to me to bake with my mom and knowing I can do that with my daughter, well it’s thrilling to have that experience with her. Cooking and baking together is an important part of our life.

Favorite word?

Possibilities. That’s been one of my favorite words for a very long time. I can trace my thinking on possibilities back to Zora Neale Hurston and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That book taught me a lot about possibilities. It really made me think beyond my own life. When you think there is no other way to go, nowhere to turn, there is. You just need to stop, collaborate, and take a different road.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.

Loved that book, though it was a lot of pages.

God Bless America, that was a long book! But it was so good. I really enjoyed reading about Graham’s growth as a woman, her running the Washington Post, and working in a male-dominated industry. I found it inspirational and relatable for our times: don’t give up! Oh, and I’m just starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. To think about the contributions to the world both of these women made, and in completely different ways. It’s inspiring.

Did you know that the librarian [Jermaine Jackson] at the Alma Powell Branch Library is related to Henrietta Lacks?

Yes, there are several of her descendants living in our community. That is exciting.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

I’ve had several. Both my parents have been my caring adults. I lost my dad four years ago. My mom is still here. My mom was my baker, teacher, and challenger. So was my dad. I’d go to Rotary with him, we’d collect for UNICEF together. I learned to give back at a very young age.

I’d also have to say my English teacher was very influential. I didn’t like school, didn’t find it very challenging. She changed my life by showing me books I should read. In college, I even ended up going into English Language and Literature.

Without a doubt, another caring adult in my life is Anne Lipsey. She became a friend but she is also my mentor, having been my boss for years. I’ve learned so much from her, how the voice of the people we serve must be heard and how we must stand up for them, particularly during these judgemental times. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from her. She is just amazing.

We’re so grateful to the KLF staff and board for your on-going commitment to helping hungry kids in the schools and for all you do to end hunger throughout our community. We know there are many volunteers who work behind the scenes to make your work, such as food packs and school pantries, possible. What is the size of your volunteer force?

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes would not exist without volunteer support. On a weekly basis, it takes 300 to 400 volunteers to do what we do. That’s a massive amount of people! From front desk people volunteering, helping us answer the phone, escorting people through the building, to drivers who pick up and deliver our food, and those volunteers who deliver those food packs to schools. [If you would like to learn how you can volunteer with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, go here.]

Thank you, Jennifer, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Caring Adult Series: Mr. Blink

Johnny featured with some caring adults. Back,from left: CIS After School Coordinator Stacy Salters, KPS Principal Julie McDonald, KPS Teacher Chad Chambless.
Johnny featured with some caring adults. Back,from left: CIS After School Coordinator Stacy Salters, KPS Principal Julie McDonald, KPS Teacher Chad Chambless.

If you follow our blog, you know that CIS has been asking caring adults to think back to when they were young and in school and recall that caring adult they felt especially connected to. Maybe it was in elementary school, or perhaps it was middle or high school. Who is that special person, that, even after all these years, they still carry within their hearts?

Members of the CIS team at Edison Environmental Science Academy were up to the challenge and in the weeks to come, we’ll find out who their caring adults are as we will publish each of their letters.

Today, we are excited to share a letter written by one member of the passionate, talented, and dedicated team who infuse Edison Environmental Science Academy with hope, love, and learning.

 

Dear Mr. Blink,

Many people do not believe I was ever a shy person.  Thirty six years ago, you had that shy 7th grader in your social studies classroom and on your volleyball team.  My brother was a star football player at the high school, breaking all sorts of records.  I was known as “Dean’s little sister” or “little Sharick.”  I was 12, trying to figure out who I was, what I stood for, and who my friends were.

Honestly, I don’t remember you doing anything particularly special just for me, but you made me feel special, gave me my own voice and always called me by my first name.  You allowed me to be a typical 7th grade girl – moody and well, a 7th grade girl.   You would talk about choosing friends wisely and being true to yourself.  As an adult and an educator, I now see that you took every advantage of “teachable moments.” By the time I started 8th grade, I was a new person, no longer as shy, knowing who I was (at least as much as a teenager can), and chose my friends wisely.  Most of my best friends are friends of 30+ years!

Thank you for taking this shy, 12 year old under your wing and allowing me to fly.  You were an integral part of my decision to become a teacher.  I hope I have made a difference in my students’ lives just as you have mine.

Thank you so much,

Julie (Sharick) McDonald, M.A.

Principal
Edison Environmental Science Academy
Kalamazoo Public Schools
 
 

Who is your Mr. Blink? If you are up to the challenge of reflecting on and writing a letter to your caring adult, email it to me at jclark@ciskalamazoo.org and we just might publish it!

And, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read the Story of Success within our freshly published annual report, take a few minutes to learn how KPS Principal Julie McDonald, her fabulous teaching staff, CIS staff, and other caring adults are helping Johnny succeed. Hint: To address the needs of the whole child, it often takes more than one person, one organization or resource. Johnny identifies a number of caring adults that have empowered him and gives a special shout out to: The Kalamazoo Promise®, Friday Food Packs (made possible thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes), First Day Shoe Fund, the Edison School Based Health Center (staffed by Family Health Center), Open Roads, and WMU College of Aviation.  These last two resources are offered as part of CIS After School Programming funded through the Michigan Department of Education, 21st Century Community Learning Centers.