CMS chief wants to take schools from good to great

New Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Heath Morrison spoke to a combination of parents, educators and local politicians last weekend in Ballantyne, setting the stage for how he wants to improve the district in the coming years.

“I promise you we are far from great,” Morrison said Saturday in Ballantyne in regard to a school system that’s still working to bring up grades and graduation rates while bringing down drop out numbers and suspensions.

“Are we going to settle to just continue to be pretty darn good?” Morrison asked. “I wanna be great.”

And being great for Morrison means improving on a lot of things the system has been working on – like fixing the achievement gap: “we’ve got kids who start in our schools behind and they end in our schools behind;” and retaining the best staff and educators: “we have to identify our stars … and then we don’t want to lose them,” he said, adding that the system is losing its best employees due to issues like poor working conditions, poor leadership and restrictive policies.

As for the district’s graduation rate, Morrison doesn’t understand why CMS isn’t shooting for the top. The current graduation rate is around 75 percent, but the district has set a target of 90 percent.

“Can we be a great school district if one out of every four of our students aren’t graduating?” Morrison asked of the current rate, adding that CMS needs to target a 100 percent graduation rate and forget about only going for 90 percent regardless of if people say that’s unattainable.

Morrison wants to push for more technology – and teachers who know how to use it – in the classrooms. “If we’re behind the curve, then we’re underserving our students,” he said.

Morrison himself brought up the controversial topic of breaking CMS into three smaller districts – a mission taken up by some recently in the county, more so in south and north Mecklenburg than the inner city. And he countered another local concern – the amount of money spent in inner-city schools compared to what’s spent at many of south Charlotte’s schools – by suggesting that people should be more focused on the higher graduation rates and success of south Charlotte students than worrying about a “fair” distribution of per-student spending at CMS schools.

“We’ve got to look at input and output,” Morrison said. “What does each (student) need to leave well? It won’t be equal, but it will be equitable.”

Another issue Morrison brought up in regard to per-student spending is that he and the district have little control over some of the money they spend. Some federal dollars have to be spent on certain schools or certain projects, inflating the per-pupil spending at those schools, Morrison said. But, he said he does want the system to be more accountable for the discretionary money it does have control over.

One way to help schools get more without spending more cash, Morrison mentioned, is partnerships with area businesses. He recently met with members of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and said he’d like to see increased relationships with schools and their local businesses for programs and events.

Morrison most recently served as the superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Nevada, with nearly 65,000 students. Under his leadership, the district graduation rate increased from 56 to 70 percent, with gains for all schools and all groups of students. He also has worked to narrow the achievement gap through rising test scores and higher student enrollment in more rigorous courses, according to CMS.

He was named superintendent of the year in 2011 by the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and the Nevada Association of School Boards.

Morrison said his goal is for this to be his last superintendent job, and he plans on putting down “deep roots” in Charlotte. That’s reassuring news for some who have watched superintendents come and go over the past few years at CMS. Though some things will change for the district, Morrison is careful to point out he’s not driven by a reform agenda, and he doesn’t want to be considered “a reformer.”

“I rather be considered as someone who is deeply passionate about public education.”

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