Yusuf Muhammad is an educator, leader and mentor.
A SUNY Cortland alum, Muhammad has dedicated his life to being the best teacher and administrator he can be.
Muhammad is currently a principal at the The STEAM Academy at Carver in Atlanta, Georgia. When Muhammad joined the school in 2016, the superintendent tasked him with “turning around the school,” he added.
“I took over a school that’s in the heart of Atlanta,” Muhammad said, adding it’s a Title I School that provides free or reduce-priced lunches to its students. “The kids come from the poorest and most marginalized communities in the state of Georgia.”
Since 2018, through an ongoing partnership with an Atlanta Public Schools organization known as Purpose Built Schools, Muhammad has led the school from a “traditionally failing school” to a school that has increased its graduation rate by 10% in the past three years.
The founding principal for a school under a project-based learning model with Purpose Built Schools, the organization has assisted the school in providing “intense wraparound support, family engagement support, community engagement support, curriculum development, and teaching and learning,” Muhammad said.
“We had a big jump,” he added. “We are slowly and continually improving the school for our students.”
Muhammad’s journey to becoming an educator began in his hometown of Brooklyn. When he was 11 years old, Muhammad’s father passed away, which meant his mother raised him alone.
Muhammad noted his mother “prioritized education” in his house growing up.
“She had a strong belief that education will not only make us better people, but help us serve society and break the cycle of poverty,” he said.
Muhammad graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 1995, a school on the upper westside of Manhattan. When he graduated from high school, Muhammad knew he wanted to continue his education in college, with plans to become a teacher.
That’s when an individual named Robert Matos, who Muhammad considers one of his many lifelong mentors, introduced him to SUNY Cortland.
“Matos was the one who gave me the vision that I could be (at SUNY Cortland),” Muhammad said. Muhammad had never heard of the school beforehand.
His want to teach was further solidified when Muhammad arrived in Cortland.
“I learned about the importance of going back to your community to teach and lead to help support students. Regardless of their circumstances, they can be successful,” he added. “Going from Brooklyn to Cortland is night and day, but I loved every single moment of my time at Cortland.”
Muhammad went on attend SUNY Cortland for six years. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in secondary social studies and African American studies in 1999. He then earned a master’s degree in education (with a focus on K-12 grade reading) in 2001.
“I’ve learned everything I know about leadership through SUNY Cortland,” Muhammad said. He added that he became a resident assistant his sophomore year at Cortland, and that he received support from several faculty members.
“There were so many people at the school who took me under their wing and molded me into a man that I am today,” Muhammad said. “They supported and believed in me.”
Following his time at SUNY Cortland, Muhammad earned another master’s degree at Cornell University in 2003, this time in Africana studies.
Muhammad moved back to Brooklyn to begin his teaching career after earning his degree at Cornell. He taught United States history at the Benjamin Banneker Academy for eight years.
In 2010, he applied to become a principal and went through a national program known as New Leaders. It’s a principal preservation program that “takes teachers through extensive work on how to become a principal,” Muhammad said. The program included Muhammad spending a month at Boston University to study his principalship with 80 other individuals.
After he finished the New Leaders program, Muhammad briefly returned to the Banneker Academy as an interim principal. He then became a principal at City Polytechnic High School in Brooklyn for three years, before moving to Georgia in 2016 with his four daughters and late wife.
Muhammad originally didn’t want to become administrator, saying he was “happy as a teacher.” Once he went through the interview process, he knew being in an administrative role was best for him.
“I learned early that you can’t doubt yourself. You have to be courageous at work,” he said. “If I can have a positive impact in a classroom, I can shape a whole school.”
Muhammad’s first challenge as an administrator was to turnaround The STEAM Academy at Carver, which was a “tough transition.”
“We’ve shown that when you put in the right leadership, schools can succeed,” he said. “I’m really proud of that.”
Muhammad noted the school is a “trauma-informed school,” which has on-hand therapists, volunteer lawyers, social workers and school counselors. He added the school helps “sustain lives, other than teaching and learning, and makes sure the students have meals every day.”
“It’s the first time that I’ve been in a school that provided all of these resources,” Muhammad said. “You have to really be in a school where it tells its students that they are loved and special, and that they can achieve regardless of what they go through. We build strong relationships with the kids.”
Muhammad attributes the rise in graduates at the school through its faculty and staff, and the “entire school community inside and out.”
“When you work harder, you get smarter,” he said. “I have a core belief in our students, and I try to communicate that. I keep my eye on the ball by motivating the staff when times are hard, but I also lead with empathy.”
Muhammad said he and his staff “put a strong emphasis on building relationships between students and adults.”
“That means getting to know them beyond the classroom, eating lunch with them, and communicating with their parents on a consistent basis,” he added.
Muhammad recently went through some personal tragedies in his life, losing his wife. Despite his personal losses, he’s thankful for making the jump to being an administrator. It motivated him further to being an even better father to his three daughters and a role model to his students.
“I want to love, support and continue to engage with my daughters. They’re everything to me,” Muhammad said. “Professionally, I want to continue to serve.”
Muhammad noted he eventually wants to write about his experience in teaching (from Brooklyn to Atlanta and everything in between), while also telling stories of the students he’s worked with as an educator.
“I want (The STEAM Academy at Carver) to be the top-rated school in Georgia and expose these students to the world,” he said. “It’s about the culture of academic achievement.”