Pieces are in place to improve test scores, new ESL principal says

At East St. Louis Senior High School, most students have been struggling to meet state testing standards.

Justin Moore, the school’s new principal, acknowledges that there are challenges ahead to improve the academic performance there. But he says many of the pieces are already in place to help make that happen.

“When you look at the state testing data, you would think that you’re walking into an abyss. I’m just going to be honest,” Moore said. “... So I was really taken aback when I walked into the facility because I had not toured the school before I came and saw that the school is fabulous.”

East St. Louis District 189 completed a renovation and expansion of the high school about four years ago.

Moore has also learned that the school is working to integrate technology into the classrooms. There will be a Chromebook laptop for every high school student to use in class starting in the fall, he said. Previously, East St. Louis schools had one computer for about every five students.

“The answer I keep hearing is, ‘We have that. We have that,’” Moore said.

Moore, 40, started working at the school in June. But his career began in Rantoul near his hometown of Champaign. He worked as a high school social studies teacher and coach for both the football and wrestling teams.

During his 18 years in education, he has also taught and worked as an administrator in Chicago and, most recently, St. Louis schools.

“I’m used to not having. I’m used to old, crumbling facilities that were put together with Duct Tape and Band-Aids,” Moore said. “... So I think that there’s a lot to build off of (in East St. Louis). So my just general expectations of coming into an under-performing school and normally what that entails, we’re 180 degrees from where you normally are when you walk into these situations.”

Moore is replacing Marcus Wright, who started working as East St. Louis Senior High’s principal in 2015. But Wright’s reason for leaving the school is unclear. He couldn’t be reached for comment, and District 189 Spokeswoman Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said the district doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

Alonzo Nelson had been working as interim principal until Moore took over. Nelson will return to his role as principal of Wyvetter Younge Alternative Center in the upcoming school year, according to Stigge-Kaufman.

East St. Louis Senior High has had four different principals from 2010 to 2016, according to state data. Over the same time period, the average turnover rate in Illinois was two principals at the same school.

Moore said he plans to stick around.

“To take over a school and move into a community, it’s way too much work and it’s way too much effort to come and leave after a year or two,” he said. “... The plan is to be here for a while and see what we can do to help the kids in the community of East St. Louis.”

When Moore decided to move from teaching to administrative positions, he said it was because he, too, was seeing principal turnover.

“I had three new principals my first three years teaching. Then when I moved to Chicago, I had another three principals the first three years I was there,” Moore said. “So my first six years, I had six new leaders. ... Basically, I thought I could do a better job than what I was used to.”

Moore said he was also interested in helping an entire building of students rather than just a few classrooms each year. He plans to be a presence in the hallways and cafeteria at East St. Louis Senior High to build relationships with the students, he said.

“Sometimes it takes them aback when the guy in the tie just walks up to them and says, ‘Hey, man. How’s it goin?’ But I was the ‘cool, fun teacher,’ so it was a step back for me to be the guy in the tie, and kids shy away and halfway act scared because you’re in the office and you’re so important. I’m not that important,” Moore said. “... I’m in it for the kids.”

When students return to school in August, Moore said he will be in classrooms, too, watching them interact with teachers. He wants to see what teachers are doing to engage students in the lessons and measure their progress.

“What are we doing when they don’t know it? Are we going back and remediating that?” Moore said. “And then, what are we doing for acceleration for our students that do know it?”

A district news release stated that Moore was also hired to “expand and accelerate the positive trends,” including a 10 percent increase in the school’s graduation rate. The rate has grown from nearly 63 percent in 2012 to 73 percent last year, according to numbers provided by the district.

District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver has expressed confidence in Moore.

“Justin brings a wealth of experiences and a proven track record in improving instructional practices, providing consistent discipline and improvements to school climate and making gains in student achievement,” Culver stated in the release. “We believe his leadership will help students and staff reach their full potential.”

Moore, a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, lives in St. Louis today. With his background playing sports and coaching, Moore said he’s looking forward to East St. Louis’ athletics, too.

“I’ll be the loudest guy at the games, and I’ll have to control myself because I just really like watching kids compete and do well,” he said.

Other than teaching, there were two paths Moore said he saw himself taking: playing professional football or wrestling. But he describes education as “a calling.”

“And it’s what I’m good at,” he said. “I don’t think I could sell much. I’m not a good builder. Any home projects I have are kind of disasters. Helping kids learn and building schools is what I’m good at.”

There were nearly 1,600 students at East St. Louis Senior High in 2016, the latest state data available, and about 311 teachers. Moore’s annual salary as the school’s new leader will be $135,000, according to the district.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

New principals

The following are East St. Louis District 189’s other “new” principals, who are existing employees moving into different schools:

  • Kiaundra Smith will serve as the new principal of Dr. Katie Harper Wright Elementary School. She previously worked as one of the assistant principals at Lincoln Middle School.
  • Maria White-Burton is taking over as principal at Lincoln Middle School. She previously served as Wright Elementary’s principal.
  • Tifani Brown was selected to serve as the leader of Vivian Adams Early Childhood Center. She is transitioning from Officer Elementary School, where she was the assistant principal.

At a glance

District 189 is having two “Meet the Principal” events at the following schools:

  • Dr. Katie Harper Wright Elementary: 1-3 p.m. June 29 at 7710 State St. in East St. Louis. Free refreshments will be provided by Pirtle’s Ice Cream.
  • Lincoln Middle School: 9:30 to 11 a.m. for fifth-grade families and 1-3 p.m. for sixth- through eighth-grade families Aug 9 at 12 South 10th St. in East St. Louis.