By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Building and teaching are what Ruben Morris is all about. So, when he found out about a school that combines both, he was all in.
Morris is principal and program director of Build for Urban Prosperity (Build UP) Ensley. This school is different from most because it ties in homeownership, workforce development, and academics as part of a six-year curriculum through which students earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree. It also enables students to build, repair, and maintain homes in the neighborhoods where they live.
“When I met [Build UP founder and CEO Mark Martin] and heard about his vision of trying to combat poverty and target the Ensley community, I was really intrigued,” Morris said. “It was the icing on the cake for me to be part of the program. Most of our learning will be student-driven with facilitators.”
Morris, 36, has served as principal in the Denver, Colo., Public Schools system and at Birmingham’s Cornerstone Christian School; he also is a Teach for America alum.
“I spent a couple of years, from 2006 to 2008, in infrastructure, helping to build low-income housing in Atlanta, [Ga.],” he said.
Morris grew up in Irondale, attended Shades Valley High School, and went on to Atlanta’s Morehouse College. His first teaching job was at the Houston, Texas, Independent School District as a Teach for America core member. As a teacher, Morris loves having “the opportunity to change lives.”
He believes Build UP Ensley will be successful because of the attention to detail: “We’ve got the right people in terms of our staff. We’ve got experienced teachers and industry professionals.
“The young people involved in the program are highly motivated and interested in doing nontraditional things. There is support from the community and local city government. We’ve got a proven academic model in terms of personalized and competency-based models. We’re filling gaps. When you take a smaller class size—six adults for 22 kids—students get more attention and we can meet them where they are instructionally.”
Build UP Ensley also has the luxury of being able to help students who come in below grade level and giving them the opportunity to get involved in workforce development programs.
“I think the added incentive of students being able to participate in the apprenticeships will also build motivation,” he said.
Morris is still a teacher at heart and will lead a class called Being Black in Birmingham.
“It’s an interdisciplinary course that includes social studies, history, financial literacy, English, and psychology all rolled up into one developmental course,” he said. “As a Morehouse graduate with a degree in history and African-American studies, I nerd out with this. How can we equip these young people with the skills to navigate this current political climate? How do they understand the Civil Rights history here in Birmingham? How do we show them that there was a strong black middle class right here in Birmingham?”
Build UP Ensley students will graduate with an understanding of leadership in their community and how to give
back, Morris said.
“We’ll have a vibrant speaker series, through which community leaders, business owners, and industry experts … take kids to landmarks around the city,” he said. “We will end this year by visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.”
There will also be trips across Alabama to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, as well as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“I think students should be exposed to being able to effectively navigate who we are in a place like Birmingham,” Morris said.