One Man; One School; One Vision
June 2, 2017
Five years ago, it was just another patch of land, isolated and rocky. Coyotes and rattlesnakes hunted night and day; chaparral and wild flowers grew rebelliously; hikers pounded the dirt and mule deer roamed where they pleased. It wasn’t perfect and it wouldn’t be easy, but for César Morales, it was the beginning of something beautiful: Sage Creek High School.
“I pulled over and asked my wife to step out. We were looking at the campus- which was just a bunch of dirt- and I said, ‘Hun, I’m going to do it,’” Morales remembered.
While the Carlsbad community knows what Sage Creek is, few are aware of the journey its leader took to place it on the map. Through course studies at multiple universities and job opportunities at various schools, Morales gained valuable experience that has shaped him into the man that thousands have come to respect today.
Educational Experience and Early Teaching Positions
Morales is a “North County boy,” who has lived in Encinitas and Carlsbad, and graduated from San Marcos High School. After three years at Palomar College, his passion for football led him over 1,560 miles where he played at the collegiate level at Missouri Southern State University. While football was a major passion of his, Morales’ main agenda was finding his footing in the educational system.
“For me it was a great journey. I definitely was not one of those young men who had a vision or a natural next step of what [my future] looked like. Football kept me hinged to education, [which] I then used to help travel the world. It’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Morales said.
In the Midwest, he had an influential mentor by the name of Professor Ben Peterson who mentored him during his time at MSSU. By helping Morales discover his passions, Peterson gave his young pupil a well-packed starter kit, with which to return to Southern California two years later. Here, he completed his B.A. in Spanish at Cal State University San Marcos before being hired for his first educational position: a Spanish teacher.
For four years, Morales taught Spanish at La Costa Canyon High School and served as the school’s head JV football coach. While he described these jobs as “successful campaigns,” he became hungry for more. More growth, more responsibility, and more influence in the lives of young men and women. He set out to meet professors and find the best graduate program for his future endeavors; his search led him to USC, UCLA, as well as three other universities in Spain. Eventually, he came across a Latin American studies program at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).
From 2003-2005 he studied as a graduate student, where he primarily focused his research on the Preuss School, a nationally ranked 6-12 school located on the UCSD campus. In addition to conducting his research, he also taught undergraduates as a Spanish Instructor. And on top of all the experience he was acquiring, he enjoyed a full-ride scholarship.
After completing his Masters in Latin American studies at UCSD, his 28-year-old self was presented with two options: continue PHD graduate studies or return to the middle and high school teaching positions. While the offer to continue refining his skills and pursuing more knowledge was tempting, he ultimately decided to go back into education.
“I was hungry to get back on a campus. The campus life, the kids… It’s really magical to see all the things that happen. There are so many layers and complexities; everybody experiences each morning a little different. There’s all these different elements that go on in a school campus and it’s beautiful to be a part of,” Morales stated.
Morales ventured to Canyon Crest Academy for two academic years as a Spanish teacher before transferring to Valley Middle School- where he would spend two years as the Assistant Principal and four as the Principal. Between 2006-2012 at Valley, Morales enjoyed observing the friendships, blooming relationships, school dances, and the growth of the middle school students. He also became increasingly aware of his passion for the job and continued to encourage his wife, Claudia, to pursue graduate courses in Counseling at Chapman University. By caring for his wife and working alongside his students, Morales began to strengthen his skills in identifying ways to help other people. One of those individuals is Debra Shinto, his administrative assistant since his time at Valley. Through nine years of working side by side with Morales, Shinto is still touched by the way he carries himself and the way he interacts and assists his co-workers.
“He’s always wanted to do the best possible job he could do. “He was intent upon being the best he could be and learning what he needed to know. And if [the staff has] personal issues, he’s very open to talking about those and finding a solution,” Shinto said.
After spending six years in developing himself and the staff around him, however, Morales was presented with a unique opportunity. One conversation with his supervisor developed into a series of meetings about taking command of a brand new high school opening on Cannon Road.
A New Opportunity
When it came to considering the option of starting Sage Creek, he “literally came to the table with 25 questions” about the possibilities of being the principal. What specifically was expected of him? How much time would everything take? But most importantly, he needed to consider his wife who had recently given birth to their daughter, Juliana.
On the weekend where he was given the chance to mull everything over, Morales made his decision and took his wife for a drive that would change their lives forever. After bringing her past the school, up the hill on College Boulevard, and into a small cul-de-sac, he told his wife that he was going to accept the offer to become the principal of Sage Creek.
As construction workers broke ground on 3900 Cannon Road, Morales took his first step as Sage Creek’s new principal: assembling the best possible team. He needed a group of experts dedicated to designing a vision and mission for Sage Creek because, for him, this was not just an average job; it was something special. Morales’ mindset put the consideration of doing right by the future first before concerning himself with what was easy.
“This role as a principal… it’s not about me [and] it never will be. It’s about how I apply my experience with education to afford the best possible high school experience that Sage Creek can offer. I was clear to folks, this was not going to be an easy journey; there’s going to be sweat, long nights, [and] frustration, but the school needs a team of teachers who are committed to going into the unknown and creating something special for students,” Morales emphasized.
This mentality brought forth by Morales was something that Megan Herrick, Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA) chair and member of the inaugural year’s teachers, had to say about her boss. Throughout all that Sage Creek experienced- even before it opened- he was there every step of the way.
“Mr. Morales believes in hard work and dedication, and was incredibly supportive of us. He gives us the freedom to figure out what works and believe[s] in building up our relationships. We hit our rocky parts and our growing pains, [but] Morales helped us to deal with any type of problem immediately, [and] helped us realize that the only way to find success and reflect on experiences was to fail and learn from it. He had a more personal and dedicated approach: we’re all in this together and we are all here to support each other,” Herrick said.
Sage Creek’s Early Years
Fast forward to August 28, 2013 and Morales’ team was ready to welcome in 308 freshman as the first class in Sage Creek’s history. From directing traffic in his neon green vest to greeting each student dressed in his suit and tie, Morales immediately took action to create a strong sense of community. Although many programs and processes were on a trial and error basis, he helped the school evolve into a blooming academic environment.
While watching his green and gold flower blossom, Sage Creek’s principal learned to balance his personal life with his work life in the opening year. In addition to attending the school’s first drama production, band concert, and sporting events; in the winter of 2013, Morales and his wife welcomed their son Lucas into the world. Even if his wife and kids were not present for every glorious moment or speed bump, Morales managed his time efficiently and relished the best of both worlds.
“With events like the Festival of the Arts: I bring my kids and they’re a part of it. So it’s not, ‘Dad’s at school again until 8 o’clock.’ The kids get to do a little face paint, they get to run around. Granted, your family doesn’t want to be a part of every single thing; it’s about how you integrate the best of both worlds,” Morales said.
As year one transformed into the next, Morales needed more teachers as the school began to welcome another batch of freshman. He explained that “hiring the right people pays off dividends,” and that combined with “the original [teachers who] were centered on creating an interconnected learning community,” he felt fully confident in the school’s future.
“He asked others to push themselves to learn [new] things. He’s always striving to make himself better- in turn knowing that it’s going to make everyone else better. He really wanted to set the example for staff, parents, and the community for what it means to be [at] Sage Creek,” Shinto explained.
With a powerful and talented support group behind him, he was well prepared for the next group of freshman students and a new set of teachers to expand the Bobcat community.
Morales’ Growth in the Eyes of Bobcat Nation
According to Morales, Sage Creek High School was not simply brought to fruition to make a dent in the Carlsbad High population. This school was created to provide a distinct and diverse educational experience for students within the Carlsbad community. By having “ultra clarity” on the school’s mission and being okay with discomfort, Morales has garnished Sage Creek’s unique attributions and helped it thrive. Despite each new year bringing new colleagues, students and challenges, his leadership, determination and kindness consistently improved to keep the Bobcat community going strong.
“He’s much more confident in himself as a leader and a communicator. He’s constantly educating himself and learning about leadership and communication skills. He encourages us to have a good time and to enjoy [ourselves] while we’re working,” Shinto reflected.
Shinto has not been the only Bobcat to witness the new developments and achievements of our principal’s four year journey. A.P. Psychology teacher, Allison Williams, is only a rookie on staff, yet even she has felt the impact of Morales’ leadership.
“He was really open with me about what my role would be. A lot of times principals get bogged down and lose touch with the people around them, but he’s really passionate and positive. He cares about what he’s doing and he’s willing to take input from others,” Williams expressed.
Taking input from co-workers is merely one aspect of his job, however. Morales can also be found talking to students and “taking the pulse.” Senior- and Bobcat of four years- Nicole Morris was at no shortage for words about her admiration and appreciation for Morales’ professionalism and willingness to listen to the feelings of the student population.
“He’s dedicated to the school and to the students. He is so level headed; it’s just very impressive,” Morris said. On top of this, Morris also gave her perspective on how he has interacted with students and the staff over the course of four years. “He’s very friendly and never talks down to [us]. He’s always willing to hear our opinion.”
For Morales, “livin’ the dream” in Bobcat nation means getting out of his office, interacting with his community, and sharing healthy conversations. As he strolls the campus with his backpack strapped and coffee in hand, he walks in and out of classrooms greeting staff and students with a smile. He looks them in the eye, shakes a few hands, pats a few backs. He’s genuinely interested in weekend events, plans for the week, new aspects in the lives of the people around him. Morales has truly built a powerful, interconnected environment for all of us. The senior class has felt this the most and since opening day, “it’s been a joy” for him, to observe the developments in his students.
“We get to experience the maturation that goes on between ninth and twelfth grade. There are always challenges and issues that young men and women get into that are complex, but that’s why we’re here… We want to support the students and see them grow [in their] post high school adventures. The real report card on [our] jobs is what opportunities [our] kids have when they leave,” Morales said while beaming a giant smile.
Sage Creek is finally ready to send off its first graduating class and while time has gone by fast for students and staff, Morales has enjoyed every second of it. He has hired over 50 new people, developed powerful relationships with staff & students and, most importantly, has balanced his role as a husband and a father.
“Being a dad is huge. When I get home and walk through the front door, I’m dad. I know my phone is blowing up, but I want to just be with my kids. Even though I have more gray hair now than when I started, I would not take this back.”