CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte needs to have a “courageous conversation” about the role of race in academic success and failure, Superintendent Heath Morrison told a group of westside leaders at Johnson C. Smith University.
Since he was hired in April, Morrison has been meeting with groups across the county. Thursday night’s session, coming right after Morrison held a retreat with his top staff, offered the clearest glimpse yet of what Morrison is thinking as he prepares a plan for the district.
Morrison said he outlined three big themes at the retreat: More focus on the value of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools diploma, better connections between schools and communities, and the need to tackle race head-on.
“We’ve got to, as a school district, have courageous conversations about race and expectations,” he said to applause. “I promise you we are going to go down that path and we are going to go down it very boldly.”
Morrison also acknowledged the rifts that make such conversations difficult, with many fearing that attention to one issue, neighborhood or group means others will be shortchanged.
He said he wants his performance to be judged by West Charlotte High, a long-struggling school in the heart of Charlotte’s historic black neighborhoods along the northwestern Beatties Ford Road. But, he added, “I’m going to be equally forceful and diligent for Ballantyne, for Cornelius, for Huntersville,” referring to predominantly white suburban areas.
The mostly black, high-poverty neighborhood schools in the northwest corridor often get attention for low test scores and graduation rates. JCSU President Ronald Carter said those neighborhoods are also characterized by a proud history, parents who care about their children and community leaders who are fiercely committed to public education. He and other speakers vowed support for Morrison and CMS.
“We are saying to everyone: Today we rise,” Carter said.
Diploma isn’t enough
Morrison acknowledged the push in CMS to boost graduation rates. The 2012 on-time graduation rate of 75 percent is up from 66 percent five years ago.
But he said even hitting the district’s 90 percent goal won’t mean much if graduates continue to need remedial work in community colleges and four-year universities or are not well prepared for the work force.
In his previous job as superintendent in Reno, Nev., Morrison got national attention for boosting the graduation rate, but also launched studies of how those students fared after graduation.
In CMS, there’s an undercurrent of frustration among teachers who say principals and counselors eager to boost graduation rates demand that teachers give students passing grades, even if they haven’t done the work or mastered the material.
Morrison said a top priority will be ensuring students are truly ready to graduate: “It’s about ‘What is the quality of that diploma?’ ”
Making sure schools are deeply connected to the communities they serve is another top priority, Morrison said.
He praised the “Parent University” classes his predecessor, Peter Gorman, created, but said CMS seems to rely too heavily on that program. “We need many, many tools to engage all of our parents,” he said.
Morrison said CMS hasn’t connected well with Spanish-speaking families, and pledged to improve his own skills in Spanish. He started learning Spanish in Reno, where Latino immigrants make up the largest minority.
At JCSU, he fielded questions about last year’s school closings, which landed most heavily on low-income and predominantly African American neighborhoods in the northwest corridor.
Aaron McKeithan, chairman of the Historic West End Neighborhood Association, said many would like Morrison to reopen those schools, which were points of neighborhood unity. “You close that school and it does something in the neighborhood,” he said.
Morrison elaborated on a promise he made earlier: CMS will provide a detailed report on the financial issues, enrollment trends and academic performance of schools that were merged or reconfigured as part of the closing plan. There will be follow-up reports and a plan for improvement as needed, he said.
He said afterward the timetable for that report isn’t set, mainly because his new data chief is working on a way to track individual students to see whether they fared better in new schools.
He also said the school board needs to create a policy on school closings — one he hopes CMS will never have to use — to avoid another situation where neighborhoods facing closings feel they’ve been treated unfairly.
Morrison’s reference to “courageous conversations” isn’t a casual turn of phrase. In Reno and Montgomery County, Md., where Morrison supervised several majority-minority schools, he brought in consultant Glenn Singleton, co-author of “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.”
In CMS, like most districts across the country, African American and Hispanic students have much lower average test scores and graduation rates than their white and Asian classmates. But discussion about those differences is often couched in terms of family income.
In the book, Singleton and Curtis Linton say such sidestepping masks the role of institutional racism and unconscious biases that lead even well-intentioned teachers to set lower expectations for students of color. They outline exercises to help educators understand their own racial history so they can become “anti-racists” who “challenge the impact and perpetuation of institutional White racial power, presence, and privilege.”
That examination is not anti-white, they write: “Anti-racism means that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed to people of color as well as White people.”
At Thursday’s session, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, who represents the west Charlotte area, asked if Morrison plans to hire “teachers that look like some of the children in the district.”
Morrison said he has never “hired for diversity,” but believes that if you search for the best educators and employees, you’ll get diversity. He noted that of four top administrators he has hired from outside CMS, three are African American and one is white.
He acknowledged that various parts of the county are watching warily to see if he’s taking sides.
“We are so divided in this country because that’s our mindset: If you get more, I’m going to get less,” he said. “Equitable is not the same for all. It’s the same for all based on need.”
Morrison is continuing his “listen and learn” meetings before releasing a plan sometime after his 100th day on the job, which falls on Nov. 21. His next town hall session for the public is at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Harding High, 2001 Alleghany St.