The first graders in Jill Turley's class at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Cherry Hill love to write letters to their principal. They share goals such as "I want to be a teacher" and observations such as, "You and I have the same haircut."
Turley delivers those letters to Kwame Morton, and "the sweetest thing is, he writes them back," she said. "He acknowledges those children."
Greeted with hugs and high-fives when he steps into the hallways, Morton likely won't be the object of as many displays of youthful affection next year, when he will oversee teenagers as the principal at Cherry Hill High School West.
The school board on Tuesday appointed Morton to replace Joseph Meloche, who is stepping down as the head of West to become the district's director of curriculum.
Morton will be the district's first African American high school principal in their recollection, school officials said.
While the children he oversees will be older and more numerous - West has 1,500 students, Kilmer 450 - Morton is unlikely to change his leadership style. His focus, he said, has always been on forming relationships.
"I found," he said, "what you gave out to the kids is what you got back."
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who started his teaching career near where he grew up on Coney Island, Morton, 40, spent 10 years as a teacher and an assistant principal in the New York City School District before moving to Gloucester County seven years ago.
By then, he and his wife had seven children, and "we wanted better for our family," Morton said. (They now have 10 children - "none of them twins, either," he said.)
He became assistant principal at the now-closed Thomas FitzSimons High School in North Philadelphia, but was soon tapped to be the principal at Frederick Douglass, also in North Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School District assigned Morton to the school as a "turnaround specialist," trained through a University of Virginia program to improve low-performing schools.
"Philly's a tough district. It's a very, very tough district," Morton said. Children in his schools were angry and acting out, often because they "felt they didn't have a voice."
Building their trust was key to boosting the school academically, "more so even than the academic stuff," Morton said.
He left the school five years ago, becoming the principal of Kilmer in 2008.
The new job had some similarities. At Douglass, five principals had come and gone in as many years; the same was true at Kilmer, Morton said.
There was "a little sense of, 'We need some stability brought to the building,' " he said.
Kilmer has one of the district's most diverse populations. About 48 percent of students are white, a quarter are Asian, 12 percent are black, and another 12 percent are Hispanic, according to the district.
Not all of their parents speak English, Morton found.
He started an "English is easy" program to help them - an initiative influenced by his memory of being unable to speak Spanish in Venezuela, where he briefly played professional basketball after graduating from Clarion University.
Morton remembers riding a bus and not understanding a driver who was telling him to sit down. "Everyone was giggling and laughing under their breath," he said. "I said, 'I can imagine how the families must feel.' "
He has also supported mentoring programs. A group of Cherry Hill firefighters regularly visits Kilmer after school, and Cherry Hill high schoolers also work with students.
"You need to utilize the community at large," Morton said.
While it won't be easy for him to leave Kilmer behind, moving to West - not far up the road on Chapel Avenue - will "allow me to stay within this community," he said.
School officials said Morton's selection as principal would ensure continuity at West, where Meloche was leaving after seven years as principal.
Morton - who has a master's degree in education from the College of St. Rose and a doctorate in education from Northcentral University - and Meloche are analytical decision-makers, and both have a visible presence in their schools, said Superintendent Maureen Reusche.
In focus groups, West staff members and parents said they admired those qualities in Meloche, and "we see that" with Morton, Reusche said. "We know that Dr. Morton walks the talk."
On Wednesday morning, as he left his office, Morton stopped to meet students lined up in the hallway and slapping hands to a chorus of "Hi, Dr. Morton."
Staff members watching said Morton knew every child's name. "He really, really cares about the kids," said Kathy Ricchezza, an educational support professional, who has worked at the school since 1999.
Since then, "this is principal number six," Ricchezza said. "I am so, so sad. . . . He rocks our world here at Kilmer. We wish he had a duplicate."
His departure was also on the minds of students.
"Are you leaving tomorrow?" a girl asked Morton as students surrounded him outside at recess, hugging his legs and handing him notes written on Post-its.
"No, not tomorrow," Morton said. Not until the end of the year, he assured them.
"Dr. Morton, I love you. I'll miss you when you leave," a boy announced. One girl pointed to another and informed Morton, "She didn't hug you!"
Morton noticed a girl nearby who hadn't said anything.
"Oh, I got your letter, and I loved it so much," he told the girl, who has siblings at West. "And I cannot wait to see your brother and sister."
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