RENO, N.V. -- As the sun rises over the desert, Heath Morrison is bantering with a couple of radio talk-show hosts.
Just weeks before he leaves to take over Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Morrison is working the public circuit like a politician hustling for votes. But he’s selling the idea that Reno will be fine without him.
As the hosts wish him well, the superintendent segues into his exit spiel: Reno has a great school system, but the chance to lead CMS was too good to pass up. He quotes what his dissertation adviser told him when he was a high school principal:
“Your work is never going to be done, but now it’s time to do work that serves more kids.”
He’s been moving on and piling up accolades ever since. The five years he spent as a high school principal are the longest he’s worked in one job. At 46, with less than three years as a superintendent under his belt, he’s been named national Superintendent of the Year and hired to lead the nation’s 19th largest school district.
His relentless energy – he sleeps about four hours a night – and his ability to connect with the poor and the powerful have left a trail of admirers across the country. They praise his intelligence and high standards, his motivational power and his unwillingness to accept excuses for failure.
“Dr. Morrison is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met,” says David Fullenwider, president of the Washoe Schools Principals Association. “He has an ability to get people to do things that they might not want to do – and they think it’s their own idea.”
But Morrison acknowledges he has yet to face the ultimate test: the marathon work of transforming a school district. He leaves his first superintendency with many ambitious efforts launched, but no long-term results.
Andrew Barbano, a labor activist and Reno-area newspaper columnist who is one of Morrison’s few on-the-record critics, compares Morrison to Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” a con artist who sweeps into town and bamboozles the locals. “Morrison has told the establishment what they want to hear,” Barbano says.
But Morrison says he’ll be more than a catalyst in Charlotte. He wants to model this stretch of his career on superintendents who have spent 10 to 12 years making good systems better.
“I want to plant some deep roots in Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” Morrison says. “I want to build something.”
The first step, jump-starting public confidence in CMS, plays to his strength. He’ll go anywhere and do anything to talk about public education. Soon after he got to Reno, he flew with a fighter pilot determined to make him vomit, using the opportunity to tell TV reporters about taking the district to new heights and getting out of the comfort zone.
His sense of humor – he grins while his wife feigns a gag over the fighter-jet story – and his enthusiasm for other people’s stories let him pull off that kind of attention-seeking.
Many of Morrison’s themes will sound familiar to those who read management books or follow education policy. More specifically, his style and ideas evoke Peter Gorman, who made a splash when he arrived to lead CMS six years ago.
Morrison smiles at the “Re-Pete” label Charlotte wags have stuck on him. The comparison is flattering, he says. He visited CMS soon after he got the Reno job, and borrowed ideas such as Parent University.
But he says he also watched Gorman lose public confidence when he tried to push new testing and teacher performance pay. In Charlotte, Morrison talks about changing “the messaging” to give employees and others a real voice in decisions.
“I am not,” he says, “going to try to be Peter Gorman.”
Hope lost and found
The child of a British homemaker and a career Air Force sergeant from Kentucky, Morrison had a childhood on the move. As the family shuttled between Virginia and England, he fell behind in school, landing in “corrective classes.”
“I was one of only two white faces in the classes,” he says, an experience that shaped his racial identity and showed him how quickly hope fades with low expectations and a fear of being seen as stupid.
Two teachers – a strict, traditional math teacher and a warm-hearted coach who taught English – got him back on track in middle school. He graduated and went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. That’s where he says his low-sleep lifestyle began, working a morning shift at a pancake house and an afternoon job at the college post office while taking classes.
Morrison married his high-school sweetheart. Heath and Jennifer Morrison both became teachers in Maryland.
NaShara McClaeb, one of Morrison’s former students in Advanced Placement U.S. history, remembers him as one of the teachers who didn’t just drill for the test. She recalls how much fun it was when he staged a mock impeachment trial for President Andrew Jackson.
Her 10th-grade year brought a tragedy that changed life for NaShara and the Morrisons: Her mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. As her health worsened, the Morrisons started taking NaShara on outings and inviting her to their home for holidays. When her mother died, the Morrisons became NaShara’s foster parents.
Heath Morrison helped her get a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University, says McClaeb, who is now married and the mother of a 4-month-old baby. She laughs at the memory of having “parents” who were about 10 years older than she.
“There was already such a bond,” she says. “It just felt natural in an unnatural situation.”
By that time, Morrison had moved into administration. His first principalship was at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf, Md., a low-performing, mostly black school the superintendent described as “last in everything you want to be first in and first in everything you want to be last in.”
Morrison recalls getting word that his school had logged big gains in geometry test scores. He rushed to congratulate the teachers.
“They were already identifying the students who hadn’t hit the target,” Morrison said. “They didn’t need me; they were just doing it. That’s the kind of culture I want to be part of. We went from being the lowest-performing high school in that district to the highest performing.”
Run toward trouble
Morrison’s work at Stone High got noticed. He was Maryland’s Principal of the Year in 2004.
His doctoral adviser, Carol Parham of the University of Maryland, was the one who told him it was time to move on. He went to work for Jerry Weast, superintendent in Montgomery County, Md.
Weast, who recently retired after 35 years as a superintendent, has a national reputation for finding and developing talent. He says he drills all his administrators in a few core values: Provide hope.
Be compassionate. And own up quickly and publicly when you make mistakes. “Run toward trouble,” Weast says.
Montgomery County is a large, high-performing suburban district with a struggling urban edge abutting Washington, D.C. Those were the schools Morrison supervised. And that district, more than the smaller and less diverse one he currently leads, gave him a taste of what CMS might be like, Morrison says.
At the core of urban education lie troubling questions: Why are so many poor, black and Hispanic students failing and dropping out? And can anyone break that pattern?
Morrison says he’s always sought to work in schools where those students struggle. Beneath his successful white-guy-in-a-tie surface lies a boy who lived in an impoverished black neighborhood, an American who was a misfit in British school, a youth who lost faith in his own intelligence.
Every educator in America says all children can learn. Morrison believes it, say Weast, Parham and others who have worked with him. And his belief, coupled with his energy, is infectious.
Superintendent search firms took an interest in Morrison, who liked the idea of leading his own district. But he says his first reaction to the Reno vacancy was “no thanks.” By then, he and Jennifer had two children of their own. They didn’t want to move 2,800 miles from their East Coast families.
The Washoe County board did a search and decided it hadn’t found the right leader. The board decided to start fresh.
That caught Morrison’s interest. That kind of courage, he says, signaled a serious interest in making change. In the second search, he applied and got the job.
In Mecklenburg, a district with a strong national reputation and a corporate community deeply invested in public schools, Morrison talks about reviving trust. In Washoe County, with a history of weak public spending and a gambling economy that relies on low-wage labor, his task was more basic. He had to rally parents, business leaders and lawmakers to take public education seriously.
During his first months on the job, he visited roughly 100 schools, held dozens of town hall meetings and met with anyone who had a stake in Washoe County’s economy, talking up a five-year plan for higher academic standards, boosting graduation rates and making sure students go on to college or career training.
In a district that’s 37 percent Hispanic, he got a tutor and started learning Spanish. Struggling to speak to Mexican families in their own language (and with a translator at hand), he urged them to demand more from schools that were failing their children.
He visited corporate offices in glittering casinos, selling his vision to the families that built Reno.
“He brought energy and focus that our community had been lacking,” says Michonne Ascuaga, CEO of The Nugget casino and a founder of the Washoe Education Foundation, which has raised more than $1 million to put the 2015 plan into practice.
Shortly after Morrison arrived, the Nevada legislature convened a special session to slash the state budget.
Morrison had done so much research that he didn’t seem like the new guy in town, says Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, who represents Washoe County. He rattled off data to make his case and told stories that made lawmakers see how cuts would play out for children.
Smith says she spoke with Morrison at all hours of the day and night.
“That’s the thing that sets him apart,” she said. “You can have all the best intentions and ideas, but you have to put in the energy and time to make it happen.”
Kudos and criticism
Morrison also makes time to keep his national network strong, whether that’s attending superintendent training sponsored by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad or flying to Maryland to speak to Parham’s students. National agenda-setters who didn’t have Reno in their sights began to hear about the Morrison vision and the community energy behind it.
Early this year, the American Association of School Administrators named him Superintendent of the Year. Among the nominators was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who consults Morrison on education matters.
In the 25-year history of the award, no one had ever won it so early in their career, reported Jay Goldman, editor of the group’s magazine: “Morrison has generated an uncommon buzz in school leadership circles.”
When he won the award, many in Reno suspected he wouldn’t be around much longer. Indeed, he says he was peppered with “incredible offers,” including bigger districts and higher-paying posts than the one that will bring him to Charlotte. But CMS offered the irresistible mix of a strong district much closer to family in Virginia and Florida, he says.
News of the move brought some acerbic online commentary in Reno and Charlotte, most of it anonymous, with people calling Morrison a self-promoter and politician who cares more about big salaries and public attention than actual results.
Barbano, the newspaper columnist, and the president of the Reno/Sparks branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, questioned whether the graduation-rate surge that built Morrison’s reputation will disappear.
“I just don’t trust those numbers,” said NAACP president Lonnie Feemster.
Morrison says he doesn’t mind anger, as long as people will talk to him. He seems confident that he can make a personal connection. Often that proves true.
The radio hosts bidding him a fond farewell on a recent morning first got his attention with an April Fool’s stunt announcing that his cash-strapped district would start charging fees for bus rides.
District phones were flooded with callers who didn’t get the joke, and his staffers were incensed.
Morrison asked to be on the show the next morning. He became a regular guest, and the studio now sports a plastic toy bus with Morrison’s photo taped to it. As Morrison talked about leaving, host Bill Schultz said he was “super stoked about everything you’ve done for the last three years, glad to be able to call you friend.”
Even Feemster veers off when talking about his qualms about the data. He recalls a time when he told Morrison he had given “a lousy presentation.” Morrison responded by buying a book Feemster recommended.
“The next presentation he did was a lot better,” Feemster said. “I like him as a person.”
Making the move
Like Gorman did six years ago, Morrison is carefully crafting his entrance strategy, using the West Coast time difference to make early-morning calls before starting work in Reno.
Morrison says he started calling political and civic leaders, then realized he should add teachers and parents to the list. When he introduced himself to teachers, they often thought it was friends pulling a prank, he said.
Jennifer and their daughter, ninth-grader Sam, have been looking online for homes. Son Zach, a sixth-grader, has been checking out schools; he’s intrigued by Northwest School of the Arts.
Already, Morrison has demonstrated one big difference from Gorman: his exit.
Gorman resigned abruptly last June, as soon as the 2011-12 budget was finished, shocking even board members with his decision to take a private-sector job. He spoke briefly to reporters and left for an overseas vacation. Although he lives in Charlotte, he hasn’t spoken publicly here since.
Morrison says a superintendent’s exit plan is as vital as his entrance. In Reno, he’s keeping up a steady stream of public appearances. And whether he’s cutting up on air, urging wealthy donors to keep supporting schools or having a brown-bag lunch with working parents, his message loops back to one theme: This community has crafted a plan for improving schools. It doesn’t depend on me. You still have an award-winning school board and strong senior staff. Keep up the work we’ve started.
Morrison insists that unless the CMS board fires him, Charlotte won’t see his exit strategy anytime soon. But can he do it?
“My big fear with Heath is his passion and his drive are so much that he could burn out,” says Weast, who led Montgomery County schools for 12 years.
But Weast also believes the Morrison family is a source of strength. And Heath Morrison is young, he says.
“He’s still on the rise.”