Matt Ellis is the principal of Clinton Hill Middle School (CHMS). A Yonkers native, Ellis says he went into his senior year of college unsure of his future career but knew two things—he loved sports and was pretty good at getting through to kids when he worked as an undergraduate tutor. Eighteen years in education later, Principal Ellis sat down with us for our ‘Five Questions’ to chat about #middleschoollife and his time with Prospect Schools. As you’ll see, Matt’s intuitions as an undergraduate proved to be deeply impactful for his career!
Did you always want to work in education?
Not really. I knew I liked working with kids, but even in my senior year of college, I remember thinking: ‘Teaching is not what I’m going to do.’ But then I applied for the New York City Teaching Fellows, and they got me excited about having such a direct impact on kids on a daily basis and the belief that education work is social justice work. I ended up teaching at a high school in the Bronx for six years and later joined Brooklyn Prospect High School as their Director of Culture. In this role, my job was to create a joyful, supportive, and growth-oriented culture that supported our students’ academic and socio-emotional growth.
Since 2019, you’ve been the principal of Clinton Hill Middle School. How do you view your role as principal??
I feel grateful that there are so many teachers here at Clinton Hill who are so talented and deeply experienced with middle schoolers. I never taught in a middle school classroom, but I always use the metaphor that LeBron James still needs a coachand still has a coach. My role is to allow them to shine and be their best selves.
Is there anything that surprises you about middle schoolers that regular adults—even their parents—might not think about?
I think the word middle is just right. In a good way. You are becoming an adult. There are times that I have conversations with students—and I feel like they’re capable on their own to stay after school and work on this situation or running for student council and those decisions that they as an individual are making. And I want to empower that.
I think about our student-led conferences and some of our families who ask, ‘Are they really ready for this?’ And then they’re impressed with their student’s ability to go in and lead a student conference! That’s exactly how it should be. We want you to become more independent, and we want you to have more ownership of things. As an educator with high school experience, and now as a parent of a young kid, I think, What is that age where you are becoming a bit more of your own confident individual person? And this is the exact time when it happens.
You’ve been with Prospect Schools for nearly ten years. How have you seen the organization change over time?
When I saw the recent data from the high school, about 100% of our kids—regardless of demographics—got accepted into college and were getting scholarships to college, I was proud. That was our 2023 vision—to have 100% of our high school graduates be college-ready—when I started. And we got there!
Even though there is a ton of work to do when it comes to reaching our next vision—cutting gaps by 50% along the lines of race and income, the fact that we’re talking about it a lot more consistently feels really good. [I am] naming for [parents] what we believe when we talk about equity in education for all and what it means to be a diverse school. For example, we shifted our Math curriculum when we saw an opportunity to minimize outcome disparities. Many of these conversations are just so much more normalized, even though there’s a lot of work to do.
We know you love sports. And you implemented the after-school athletic program, consisting of 13 different teams, along with an athletic coordinator, when you were overseeing culture at the high school and middle school. Is that one of your biggest pride points?
I coached Junior Varsity boys basketball at the high school for four years. We won the championship three out of the four years. When I think about how hard the team worked and how much our athletics and after-school programs have grown, I couldn’t be more proud.