Looking for Principal Muhammad? The main office might not be your first stop — on any given day you can find him in the halls during passing periods, popping in classes, standing outside the school doors, or strolling down 103rd street from the gas station to the corner store outside Corliss High School.
Why? Because Ali N. Muhammad makes a special effort as principal to know every single student and person in the Corliss community — not just their name, but who they are — and it starts with them putting a face to his name.
“Always available. Always, always available,” Muhammad said. “Even when I don’t want to be!”
It’s one of his guiding philosophies as an administrator because it keeps students feeling connected and part of the community. “This is a place where [students] will be taken care of across the board, holistically, whatever they need, we would try to provide,” Muhammad promised.
He goes out of his way to make time for what students respond to. For example, holding monthly “Activity Days” where students can self-select their schedule, “whether it’s basketball, video games, board games,” Muhammad explained. “We would have movies in the auditorium, [or] kids could just come in and just talk about life.” Sometimes there’s even karaoke in the cafeteria: “I may come in and, you know, get on the mic and do my terrible rendition of ‘New Edition,’” Muhammad joked. “And they just love it.”
The methodology doesn’t lie: Since Muhammad joined Corliss in 2017, attendance has jumped from 79% to 90%.
Muhammad is especially keen on his student-centric approaches because he once stood in his students’ shoes and walked the same halls, albeit 30 years ago and amidst 3,000 other peers instead of the current 267. “I wasn’t important, just a normal, regular kid in the building. I didn’t have honors classes,” he remarked of his time at Corliss. But when he expressed interest in attending a college fair at McCormick place senior year, his counselor suggested enlisting in the military instead. “Back then schools didn’t prepare everybody for success, just a select group of kids and the rest were left to try and figure it out,” Muhammad shared. Now, his work is guided by correcting that oversight: “I want to make sure every kid feels important. So that’s what drives the work.”
Muhammad is even reevaluating Corliss’ reputable STEM program to best align with the interests of his students: restructuring “Foundations of IT” to “Cybersecurity” and developing gaming and web design courses to complement the existing broadcasting and computer networking tracks. Muhammad wants students to find excitement in their classes and cultivate their passions. “We try to put kids in positions to be successful, whether or not they want to go to college,” he said.
Muhammad’s commitment to his students is doubly bolstered by the staff and alumni networks. Over the holidays in 2020, they collectively raised over $10,000 to help Corliss families through the pandemic. “We hand delivered gift cards, took them to the houses,” Muhammad recalled. Over Thanksgiving more than 40 families received $50 to $100 gift cards, and over winter break 15 families received $500 to $1,000 gifts. “You can’t imagine the email response and the phone calls and the tears…[now] we want to do that every year,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad’s connection to the community makes him a household name, not just among Corliss families, but every school community he’s touched. Muhammad recalled a visit to Havenview Middle School in Memphis where he taught prior to moving to Chicago: “Before I knew it, all the kids had come out into the hallway, yelling and screaming and hugging,” he described. “Just those reactions, the love … it’s been a blessing.” Even kids across the street at Smith Elementary know his name.
This type of reputation means he’s serving his students well. “Kids tell the truth!” Muhammad laughed. “They don’t lie. If they don’t like you, you will know.”
But it’s the smallest gestures that carry the most weight. “It’s being present when a kid wants to talk,” Muhammad offered. “It’s the human aspect.”
The whole school knows they can rely on Muhammad, and his commitment enriches the entire community.
So really, if you’re looking for Principal Muhammad you’d find yourself in luck — he’s everywhere.