CMS chief’s test: Make good on promises

Jul 7, 2013 by

In his first year as superintendent, Heath Morrison has worked to make his mark on Mecklenburg County. He’s spoken at dozens of civic clubs and community hot spots, from the Ballantyne Breakfast Club in the south to Cornelius Town Hall in the north. He visited all 159 schools in his first 100 days, asking many of his 18,000-plus employees for their views.

In the coming year, he’s going to find out whether those contacts pay off.

He’ll be the face of CMS as voters weigh in on their first post-recession school bond referendum. He’ll unveil reports later this month from hundreds of volunteer advisers he recruited for 22 task forces. He’ll have to translate promises, studies and advice into action.

“The real measure is going to be at the end of this next year,” says former state Board of Education chairman Howard Haworth of Charlotte.

It’s been a drama-free first year, in part because Morrison has used it to lay groundwork rather than push quick change. As city and county officials have been embroiled in controversy, CMS has avoided it. “I’m happy to be boring,” Morrison often says with a smile.

Morrison has always described CMS as a good district ready to move up, not a failing system in need of a fix. And where he wants change, he says he doesn’t want to be the sole architect.

For instance, he wants CMS to focus less on graduation rates and more on how well graduates are prepared for college and work. His vision includes an array of new academic options created in partnership with employers and higher-education leaders.

Many of Morrison’s promises remain to be tested. The personal education plans for each student he talked about on arrival have yet to materialize, and an early push to “have courageous conversations about race and expectations” was deferred.

His pacing gets mixed reviews. Some say he’s wise to avoid the haste that created community turmoil over such issues as school closings and changes in school hours. Others say it’s time to match words with action.

Morrison declines to grade his performance. He and others agree: So far, his legacy is incomplete.

And he’s had an unusual level of outside influence. During his first year, state lawmakers – emboldened by Republican control of the House, Senate and governor’s office – have taken a strong role in launching their own approaches to education reform.

Morrison says that has been his biggest surprise. He knew a lot about CMS before taking the job and understood that the state makes many of the rules for public education. “But the intensity and the types of legislation has been surprising,” Morrison said, citing bills that would mandate instruction in cursive writing and allow concealed handguns at schools.

Morrison came from Reno, Nev., with a reputation for working well with legislators. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, says he’s delivered: “I know that if I need input on any education matter, he is merely a phone call away.”

But Morrison cites as his own biggest setback the inability to persuade legislators to include an employee raise in the 2013-14 budget: “How can we talk in good conscience about making education a pillar of our state with our teachers (being paid) $10,000 below the national average?”

Listen and learn

The “listen and learn” tour is standard strategy for new superintendents. But many say Morrison’s debut has been distinguished not only by high energy but by an ability to make real connections.

He visited every school in his first 100 days, stopping to greet every employee he saw and ask about their work. On his first day, he visited summer programs and adult gatherings at Independence High, Endhaven Elementary, Albemarle Road Elementary, Ridge Road Middle and Statesville Road Elementary. That day alone required more than 70 miles of driving.

It made an impact, after years when many teachers grumbled that they never saw former Superintendent Peter Gorman in their schools.

“He’s made us hopeful,” says longtime CMS teacher Erlene Lyde. “He has listened, and more important, he has heard.”

Morrison’s lifestyle lends itself to a hyperactive schedule: He’s often up by 4 a.m., doesn’t drink alcohol and would rather gulp a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the car than sit down to a nice dinner. But even his critics say that once he arrives somewhere, he slows down and pays attention.

When he spoke to business leaders in Ballantyne, he showed a grasp of such suburban frustrations as overcrowded schools and a dearth of nearby magnets. He acknowledged that some suburbanites want to split off smaller districts but got hearty applause when he argued that a more responsive countywide district would better serve their needs.

At Johnson C. Smith University he addressed leaders of Charlotte’s black community along Beatties Ford Road, many of whom were embittered by school closings that had led to angry protests in 2010. He spoke about the reality of racial rifts and the need to build stronger community ties and said his success would be judged by the performance of the high-poverty, long-struggling West Charlotte High.

But he noted that the district can’t fall into old patterns of city vs. suburbs: “I’m going to be equally forceful and diligent for Ballantyne, for Cornelius, for Huntersville.” Westside leaders applauded and pledged support.

County commissioner Vilma Leake, who represents that part of town, says Morrison has been able to earn the confidence of working-class people who felt snubbed by previous leaders. “The people willingly accept him,” she said. “He always makes you feel that you’re the special person at that meeting.”

Morrison says his nonstop meetings, with crowds ranging from hundreds to a dozen or so, are laying the groundwork for CMS advances.

“I always say it’s public education. I want the public involved in what we’re doing,” he said. “The community meetings, the town hall meetings, visiting the schools, going to just about every Rotary club, Kiwanis – that was very intentional.”

And he says the response has been even greater than what he expected. He leaves nearly every session with business cards, he says. “I really am astounded by how much the community wants to help.”

Schools of choice

While Morrison prefers to gather information and build a team before making change, he also feels pressure.

The Charlotte area has always had a strong roster of private schools, and the recent boom in charter schools has increased tuition-free competition. Morrison frequently talks about making sure CMS can keep growing and appealing to all kinds of families by “making every school a school of choice.”

Morrison is tapping higher-ed leaders and employers to expand offerings that will get graduates ready for college and/or careers. For instance, CMS is working with Novant Health, Carolinas Healthcare and Central Piedmont Community College to start a new health sciences magnet at the Hawthorne School near uptown.

CMS and CPCC also plan to open a small school that lets students earn high school and college credits on CPCC’s Levine campus, cloning the successful Cato Middle College High. CPCC President Tony Zeiss says when Morrison learned that CPCC didn’t have classroom space to launch a second school, he offered modular classrooms.

“Heath Morrison is the most collaborative superintendent I have ever worked with,” says Zeiss, who has led CPCC for 21 years.

Morrison has launched plans to expand popular magnet themes, such as foreign language, Montessori and “STEAM,” for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Programs that were clustered close in when magnets were used to spur voluntary racial integration will expand to the suburbs, offering those families a wider menu of convenient choices.

But Morrison says he doesn’t want change to come from central offices. Instead, he’s urging principals to convene their faculty, students, families and community members to talk about what their schools need. The role of central staff, he said, is to help schools explore possibilities.

Most schools will see that process play out in the coming year. McClintock Middle was a pioneer: Building on an existing robotics program and seizing on the opportunity of a new building, Principal Paul Williams and his staff are adding a new math program this year and a robotics magnet in 2014-15.

Facing race

Morrison has also cited an urgent need to talk honestly about how race and culture shape the way children are taught. But he said he also realized that this is an area where doing things right meant slowing down.

“We’ve got to, as a school district, have courageous conversations about race and expectations,” Morrison told a group at Johnson C. Smith University last August. “I promise you we are going to go down that path and we are going to go down it very boldly.”

In December, Morrison brought consultant Glenn Singleton to Charlotte to meet with an array of education and community leaders. Singleton is the author of two “ Courageous Conversations About Race” books, which focus on the role of institutional racism and white privilege in lowering expectations for students of color. Morrison had worked with Singleton in two previous districts and talked about signing him on as early as January.

Community reaction was sharply divided. Some thought Singleton would bring a bold approach that could make a real difference for the students who have long struggled to pass exams and graduate. Some said he would demoralize white teachers and alienate white families.

Morrison backed off, saying it’s more important to craft a plan the whole community can support than to move quickly. His 2013-14 budget plan contains no itemized spending for race consultants, cultural competency or diversity programming. Morrison says he remains committed to tackling the issues, but it won’t be a big spending item.

So far, both sides seem satisfied.

“He stopped the Glenn Singleton contract and the white privilege agenda,” says Tom Davis, a white suburbanite who contended that Singleton’s approach would split the county and doom CMS bonds.

JCSU President Ron Carter, a Singleton supporter, says Morrison was wise to slow down.

“We all know that Charlotte is still uncomfortable talking about race,” Carter says. “I think (Morrison) has some very powerful ideas that should be put in place. I encourage him to take his time.”

Morrison appointed two task forces to study related issues – one on cultural competence and one on African-American males. They’ve discussed such topics as creating an all-male school and expanding the district’s diversity staff. Both groups are slated to make recommendations this month.

Moving forward

In November, Morrison released “ The Way Forward,” an 18-page entry plan that laid out eight goals and 80 bullet-point items.

Not surprisingly, he hasn’t accomplished it all.

Personal education plans, which Morrison said would include individual websites created by students, remain on the to-do list. Customer service improvements have so far focused on making central offices more responsive to schools. Many of the items await guidance from the 22 task forces.

“I would say I have honored the things I said I was going to do,” Morrison said, noting that the entry plan is a springboard for a long-range strategy he and the school board will work on this summer.

Some of the biggest items, such as rebuilding employee morale and public trust, can’t be checked off in a year, he says.

While better pay is a long-term goal, Morrison says he’s tried to show employees he values them by spending time in schools and making sure they get direct reports on CMS news from his office. He’s working with principals on making sure they show their “ irreplaceable” teachers how much they are valued.

Morrison says he won’t settle in and close his door at the Government Center now that his first year is over.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Hey, is all this outreach just because it’s your first year?’ ” Morrison said. “I keep saying, ‘Ten years from now, ask me if that’s the way I like to do this job.’ ”

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