You might know him from visiting the SAU, where he is busy bouncing between rooms and buildings. You might know him from the school board meetings, sitting to the left of school board chair Thomas Newkirk, and offering an administrator’s perspective. At the very least, you know him from the signature at the bottom of every email that declares a snow day for the ORCSD. With nearly ten years as its superintendent, Dr. James Morse has been a critical fixture within the Oyster River School District since 2012.
In recent months, his influence has magnified. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a whole host of dilemmas and predicaments to schools across the country. Having already taken on significant projects, like the building of the new middle school, the ORCSD was forced to implement even more changes. As superintendent, Morse is not only responsible for the four schools that fall under his jurisdiction, but also the students, staff, and community members who are impacted by his decisions.
However, those close to Morse know his intelligence, passion, and composure makes more than capable for his position, even during a crisis. As covered in an earlier Mouth of the River article, “Superintendent Morse,” by Abby Schmidt (‘19), Morse came from a difficult background himself. In that way, he is incredibly passionate about his work, and makes sure ORCSD provides kids with the best opportunities possible. His student-focused mentality runs throughout the entire district, and his ability to think long term and see the bigger picture has benefited the community in all sorts of ways. Though COVID-19 has driven a wedge between citizens in terms of returning to school, Morse is relentless in making sure everyone’s voices are heard, and everyone’s needs are accounted for. It’s no easy thing being a leader in the midst of an emergency, but Morse takes everything in stride.
In March of 2020, the country was hit with a pandemic that nobody was prepared for. Like most schools, ORCSD struggled to continue education during this time. Still, having a well established leadership team helped mitigate the fallout.
“Right from the beginning, he recognized that we needed to get the community involved in making decisions,” Todd Allen, the assistant superintendent who has been serving alongside Dr. Morse since he began working in the ORCSD, said. “In an emergency, you can’t wait for one hundred percent agreement, but as long as the decisions are student-centered, he makes sure to keep the ball rolling.”
Furthermore, Morse shared that “you have to make tough decisions in a crisis. And in this case, a healthcare crisis, safety is the top priority. I understand why some families don’t agree with all of my decisions. The thing with the pandemic is that nobody is in the right or the wrong. It’s all about balance.”
Over the past year, Morse has been working tirelessly to maintain that balance. According to Kimberly Wolph, Morse’s daughter at Head Nurse at ORHS, “he spent the entire summer, as well as almost each night in meetings since the school year started, planning for this school year and what it would look like. As I mentioned, he always put students and faculty first.” Allen agreed, saying that things have been challenging, but with strong leadership, ORCSD has withstood a lot this year.
Hailing from Portland, Maine, part of what makes Morse adept in his role is his background. You may never guess it when speaking to him, but Morse had an incredibly difficult upbringing. In fact, he cites it as the reason he is so enthusiastic and empathetic in his role. “When you grow up in poverty, and in the inner city, you see the worst kinds of stereotypes,” he said. “This was also a time when there was ‘tracking.’ Wherever you came from determined where you ended up in school, and for me, that meant being put on the ‘General Track,’ where you didn’t have much of a future.”
The “tracking” that Morse is referring to here is undoubtedly unfamiliar to most ORCSD students. It used to be common that kids, from as early as elementary school, were set on predetermined tracks until graduation. These tracks dictated the types of classes one took, and the amount of opportunities one was given. Being placed on the “College Track” meant you were destined for success, but many students ended up on the “General Track,” which lead nowhere.
Morse was placed on the “General Track” early on. For most of elementary and middle school, he struggled through his classes, unmotivated to put in any effort when he had already been designated as an underachiever. By the time he got to his junior year in high school, he was done. “I walked out one day in October. I didn’t see the point.”
Luckily for Morse, though, he was given a second chance the summer of his senior year. After meeting with his guidance counselor, Morse decided to come back to school and finish his junior year over the summer. Not only did he manage to complete a year’s worth of classes in only eight weeks, but he did so with better grades than he’d ever had. With the continued support of his guidance counselor, as well as an English teacher he described as his “savior,” Morse got into the “Onwards Program” at the University of Maine, and graduated with a Fine Arts degree. Soon after, he went back to school for another year to get a teaching degree, beginning his career in education. During this time, he also married his high school sweetheart and had his first child.
Morse endured some of the most difficult challenges life had to offer, including starting a family, holding a job, and working towards a degree, all at the same time. According to Wolph, that perseverance was one of the most important lessons she learned from him. “One of the best gifts that he passed along to me and my brother when we were growing up was to never quit. If you must do the same thing over and over to get the result you want, then you need to keep trying.”
It is a testament to Morse’s character that he was able to persevere through such unlikely odds, but he also attributes his success to being “incredibly lucky.” In that way, once he became an educator, Morse was determined to make sure that students were no longer set up to fail from the beginning like he was. “Any kid should be able to take any class they want. If they’re struggling, but they really feel passionate about pushing themselves, then it’s our responsibility to support that student and help them achieve their goals,” he said.
In order to implement that philosophy, he had to start small. Many would be surprised to know that Morse did not begin his career in administration, but as an art teacher. He described that he was an elementary school art teacher for many years before transitioning to a position as a principal. From there, he served as a principal, assistant superintendent, and, finally, superintendent. For most of his career, he worked in Maine, but in 2012, Morse took on his position at the ORCSD.
Todd Allen, the assistant superintendent of the ORCSD, described Morse’s arrival as incredibly important to the district. “When Dr. Morse came here, [the district] was having leadership issues. We’d just had a superintendent leave abruptly, and had an interim superintendent for a year. With almost 20 years of prior experience, Dr. Morse showed himself to be a person who sees the big picture right away. Instead of making snap decisions, he developed a lot of long term plans and got to work on them.”
Many of the key parts of the district that students have come to know were a result of Dr. Morse’s implementation. In his first few years, Morse worked to complete projects like expanding the Moheriment Elementary School gym to be full size, building up the ELO program and hiring a coordinator, and improving technology across all four schools. He also helped the efforts towards putting in a turf field and track at the high school, building a new middle school, and becoming a one-to-one district, all things that have since paid off.
To some, this may sound typical of a superintendent’s role, but as Allen points out, most superintendents in New Hampshire don’t stay around long enough to complete such long term projects. “The turn over for superintendents is roughly three years here,” he said. “The fact that he’s been here for three times as many years cannot be undervalued. He’s provided us with stability and consistency that many other schools don’t have.”
As we enter the final stretch of the 2020-2021 school year, Morse is looking ahead to promising changes. “The restrictions in place for COVID-19 will eventually come to an end, and we have a lot of other exciting things happening in the district,” he said. Allen also pointed out that, no matter the circumstance, Morse is always focused on delivering the best educational experience possible to the community.
“He has one of the biggest hearts you can imagine. He just wants to help students as much as possible, and he leads with that philosophy,” Allen said. Wolph also noted this, saying “he believes deeply in educating children and supporting staff and faculty to make that happen in the way he believes it should. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and to this day, may still get choked up on a drawing that an elementary student made for him or a speech that a high school student gave. He is an incredibly caring person and it makes him a better leader and supporter of others.”
For a final reflection on Morse, Wolph offered an anecdote from a few years ago. After giving a back to school presentation, he ended his speech by turning on the radio, cranking it to high, and starting to dance on stage. He then encouraged the entire auditorium, full of ORCSD faculty and staff, to get up and dance with him. “Life is short and at times can be stressful. When life moments happen that make you want to laugh, laugh. Never take yourself too seriously,” Wolph said about Morse.
Whether you agree or disagree with his policies, there is no doubt that Morse has had an impact on the ORCSD. From thinking big picture, to managing crises, and most importantly, putting students first, Morse brought a lot of positivity, not only to the schools, but to the community at large. As an essential factor in motivating the district to improve, many are hopeful that Morse will continue to stay on as superintendent for years to come. In Morse’s own words, “there is still work to be done. I didn’t expect to be [at Oyster River] this long, but I love this district, and I am excited for the things to come.”
By Megan Deane