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Marina High Principal Morgan Smith earns statewide honor

Marina High Principal Morgan Smith was named the Assn. of California School Administrators Secondary Principal of the Year.
Marina High Principal Morgan Smith was recently named the Assn. of California School Administrators Secondary Principal of the Year. Smith initially earned the honor for Region 17 and was recently named the winner of the statewide accolades.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Marina High School Principal Morgan Smith has returned to the campus that launched his career in education two decades ago.

His first stint on campus, which started in 2002, lasted just more than a year. He was an art teacher and water polo coach, fresh out of college at Long Beach State.

“I still have a bit of nostalgia,” Smith said. “When you’re a first-year teacher, you remember the names and faces of all of your students. That was your first batch; those are your kids. The first thing I did [on returning to the campus] was pull up a yearbook from 2002. It feels so nice to be at Marina. It feels like I’m coming home.”

He may be in his first school year in charge as principal at Marina, but Smith, 44, is a seasoned administrator. He also served as assistant principal at Costa Mesa High for three years, principal at Dwyer Middle School for five years and, most recently, principal at Fountain Valley High from 2015 through 2021.

Now Smith has received a significant statewide honor, having been named the Assn. of California School Administrators for the state of California.

Smith will be honored at a state conference in San Diego in November. Smith, Huntington Beach Union High School District Supt. Clint Harwick and Special Education Administrator of the Year Doug Siembieda will first be recognized for ASCA District 17 honors at a dinner on May 9 at the Irvine Marriott.

Harwick, for one, couldn’t be happier to hear of Smith’s recognition.

“Morgan Smith is an outstanding principal who leads others with compassion and grace while empowering staff and students to be their best,” Harwick said. “He is a valuable member of the HBUHSD team and is a rising star in the administrative ranks.”

Still, since he heard he won the California accolade, Smith said he’s been feeling a bit of the imposter syndrome.

“Am I truly deserving, or is it just that I got lucky and they shone a spotlight on me at the right time?” he said. “I can say that as a district, I’m super proud that Huntington Beach had three people to represent Orange County. I think that proves the strength of this school district. I feel honored, because I feel like it’s not me that’s being celebrated, that it’s our school district that’s being celebrated. I was at Fountain Valley and now I’m at Marina, so it’s not just the Marina story and the Fountain Valley story, it’s the story of this district and what’s helped produce those results.”

Smith also served as an art and technology teacher at Back Bay High in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District after leaving Marina for the first time, becoming one of the first teachers in the state to teach 3D animation. It wasn’t the last time he would be an innovator.

Morgan Smith was recently named the American School Counselor Assn. California Secondary Principal of the Year.
Marina High Principal Morgan Smith was recently named the American School Counselor Assn. California Secondary Principal of the Year.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

When he was at Fountain Valley, he said, the school started the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) program. It targets students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs through tiered interventions and supports.

Each of the other high schools in the district, as well as Orange County as a whole, have since become champions of the MTSS system.

“It helps our teachers with best practices to reach students who struggle, which worked out to be the best thing headed into a pandemic,” Smith said. “We had kids that were disconnected, were struggling with their family dynamic and trying to maintain an academic load when they’re not even on-campus. At Fountain Valley, we did as much as we possibly could to connect the kids, find out what their needs are and support them, even at distance.”

Smith loved being a Baron, but Harwick came to him about an opening at Marina High, which had been without a principal for about a year and a half after the Vikings’ former principal transitioned to the district office. Smith’s plan was not to come in and immediately change everything.

“We built a team around their existing site leadership,” Smith said. “We were like the old Bruce Lee adage, ‘be water.’ Conform to your environment and find out what they need. So that was the first thing we did here, build trust. If teachers were going through something and they needed sub coverage, it was, ‘We’ll cover your classroom, don’t worry about it.’ Every admin has a cohort of teachers they support here, and that’s the admin that was subbing in their classes … The more that our teachers know they’re supported, the more trust they’re going to have in the decisions that we make as a school.”

Smith has also been widely available and approachable on campus, from his presence at Marina sporting events to his social media footprint on places like Twitter.

“Dr. Smith has done a great job bringing a positive culture to our campus,” Marina swimming coach Stephen Wight said. “He is always out saying hi and interacting with the students.”

It has all come full circle for Smith, who holds a master’s in educational administration from Alliant National University and a doctorate degree in educational leadership from USC. He lives in Garden Grove with his wife, April, and three children.

Building relationships has been a core tenant to his leadership style, he said, even through the coronavirus pandemic. Now he’s glad he has a renewed relationship with the high school which started his career 20 years ago.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s been exciting. There’s been some huge challenges, but we’ve all been there. I think what we do really well at Marina is support each other, and that’s the kind of environment I thrive in.”

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