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The Voice of the Black Community

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Challenges await public schools’ new leader
Heath Morrison starts CMS transition
 
Published Thursday, April 26, 2012 8:12 am
by Sommer Brokaw

Heath Morrison is humbled and honored by his preliminary selection as the new leader of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District. Even though educators have aired concerns about his selection, he is eager to get started.

PHOTO/DANIEL COSTON
New Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison said he's eager to start work in the 140,000-student district.


The CMS board selected Morrison from among three finalists on April 19.


“I’m honored, and I’m excited about this selection,” he said. “I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people across Charlotte-Mecklenburg just welcoming me, and being very positive so I can’t wait to start building those relationships.”


Morrison said that his long-range goal as superintendent of the 140,000-student district would be that every student graduates. His short-range goal is to get out in the community and talk to parents and students and citizens and civic leaders.


Morrison is superintendent of schools for the Washoe County School District based in Reno, Nevada. He began his career at Charles and Montgomery counties in Maryland as a teacher and administrator, before taking the Reno job in 2009. Under his leadership, Washoe’s graduation rate improved from 56 to 70 percent. Two consecutive years of test score gains showed success in narrowing the achievement gap.


Morrison said he has a lot of respect for CMS, which has been recognized across the country for narrowing the achievement gap. He sat down to tell his wife, Jennifer, daughter Samantha and son Zachary, that it was something he needs to pursue.


“In the last few years, I’ve had incredible job opportunities outside of Nevada,” he said. “I’m very humbled about it. Charlotte was a little bit different . . . It’s a school district that I have such amazing respect for I knew it was one.”


He continued: “My goal is to be looked upon as not only one of the best school districts, but as the very best. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a great foundation has been laid and there is a community that wants that so I think it is an amazing goal to set.”


Morrison, who grew up in a military family, struggled academically when he transitioned to a new school. But two teachers helped him to turn his life and grades around. Still when he first started college he had a different career path in mind than education.


“I was going to try to change the world and be a lawyer and then I thought I’d teach a few classes, and I just fell in love with the idea of being an educator,” he said. “Every day you walk in and you have a chance to impact lives. The kids depend on you . . . We’re in the ‘tomorrow business.’ We get to work with kids today, and we get to impact tomorrow. We are depending on them to be our workers of tomorrow.”


Morrison, who has a Ph.D. in educational policy and planning, attended the 2009 Broad Superintendent Academy, which was started in 2002 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad to transform urban school districts into effective public enterprises. 


Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who has 29 years with CMS, and Memphis City Schools leader Kriner Cash were the other finalists.


“They were in closed session and the next thing you know they come out and a decision was made. It wasn’t supposed to be made until May 1,” said Randolph Frierson, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators Executive Board. “Informal polls, they had either Ann Clark or Cash as the person that was surfacing as the top candidate in the community then all of the sudden they come up with Heath and Dr. Cash resigns the night before. A lot of people are wondering what actually happened.”


Frierson said educators are concerned about the similarity between Morrison and former superintendent and Broad Academy graduate Peter Gorman. They wanted to go in a different direction because of concerns about a business-like approach to education and over testing, and Gorman’s decision to close several schools.


“There is just a striking similarity in the trajectory that he and Pete Gorman went through as well as knowing each other, so a lot of people felt that it was just staged,” he said. “He has a hard path, and in the first six months if he doesn’t do anything to replace teacher morale and staff morale and maintain it then I think it’s not going to go anywhere.”


Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, said she was busy after the announcement responding to teachers’ concerns.


“Our concerns were that 75 percent of the community appeared that they wanted someone else and the board of education didn’t look at the other candidates, but it appeared there was a decision made to hire someone very similar to Dr. Gorman and there was no consideration given to capable folks that were already in house or to other individuals,” she said.


“I understand the concern so that is incumbent upon me to show that I’m going to be reaching out,” Morrison said. “I’m going to be listening and our principals and our teachers are going to be very involved in the decisions we make in the school district.”


School board members deny that he was selected because he was similar to Gorman.


“I would say he’s not Peter Gorman,” said Ericka Ellis-Stewart, board chair. “He’s very much his own person. As he’s stated many times, Broad is not the thing that’s shaped his thinking as an education professional, but it was his time as a teacher and his time as a principal and the time he spent working in large urban school districts.”


 “I think all three of our candidates were suited for the position,” said school board Vice Chair Mary McCray.  It was just a matter of Dr. Morrison’s energy, his ambition, and his drive.”


“The board did a really good job of representing the community which is divided, and then we found a way to come together,” Board member Eric Davis said. “Now what we need to do is put out an invitation for the community to join us for the sake of our students.”


The Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president, Charlotte NAACP, added that “it was a fairly good decision.” In meetings with them, he indicated that though the district was smaller there was majority minority students in the district.


“I do think Morrison has a bit more genuine appeal,” he said. “I don’t like his Broad affiliation and Broad fellowship, but since he’s here we have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he will not be controlled by Broad.”


He added: “He promised he would deal with the agenda based on the needs and concerns of the  community.’

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