Profile of Heath Morrison: ‘A Teacher on Special Assignment’

         Heath Morrison
by Jay P. Goldman

At each stage of Heath Morrison’s rapidly ascendant career as an educator, those around him have spotted great things bursting through. They’ve seen his keen understanding of what makes a classroom shine, his collaborative spirit, the capacity to listen before acting decisively and notably his empathy for struggling students.

Those personal qualities, among others, remain regularly in evidence, midway through Morrison’s third year as superintendent of the 65,000-student Washoe County Public Schools in Reno, Nev. These attributes also have propelled him to the 2012 National Superintendent of the Year Award. At 45, he is the second-youngest and earliest-career superintendent to receive the honor in the program’s 25th year.

From his days as the turnaround principal of a struggling high school in southern Maryland to being the sparkplug for noticeable improvements to the highly diverse, downcounty schools in Montgomery County, Md., Morrison has generated an uncommon buzz in school leadership circles. Jerry Weast, a former finalist for the national superintendent title, elevated him to community superintendent after just a year in a lower role and pushed him to accept an invitation to the Broad Superintendents Academy. Morrison’s doctoral adviser at University of Maryland, Carol Parham, correctly identified a bright path ahead, telling him a decade ago, “Once you complete this degree, you will take off like a shooting star.”

Even as an undergraduate government major at the College of William & Mary in the mid-1980s, Morrison carried all the markings of a man on a mission, a classroom standout who could apply his intellect to the evidence at hand. The department chair, John McGlennon, says what he most remembers from the senior year seminar he taught is Morrison’s demonstrated ability “to work with data, to get quickly to the underlying significance and to provide a thoughtful response.”

In Washoe County, folks point to those personal characteristics of a superintendent who has rallied a region that’s been buffeted perhaps more severely than any other by the nation’s economic downturn. The community, top to bottom, now seems keenly attuned to the public schools’ upward swing. “Rarely does a day go by that there isn’t a positive story in our local newspaper,” says Ken Cervantes, a 53-year-old middle school principal who has spent his entire life in Reno.

“Many of us parents consider [Morrison] the best thing to ever happen to our district,” adds Tami Berg, a PTA leader who says she’s been consulted several times by the superintendent about fledgling initiatives, especially his signature strategic plan, known as Envision 2015, in which data drives all decisions and funds flow to the neediest. The plan has been so effective already in driving up the district’s graduation rate by 14 percentages points in two years that some of its goals have been restretched even higher.

By his own account, Morrison finds the latest attention to him “incredibly humbling” and even somewhat improbable considering the serious struggles he faced in school as an early teenager. The son of an Air Force Command sergeant-major who didn’t graduate from college, Morrison spent much of middle school in remedial classes. Acts of misbehavior were common. “I was on the path to being a dropout,” he says, “had it not been for two amazing teachers (at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va.) who got me back on track. … I know what it feels like to be marginalized and be told you’re not smart, so you act up.”

That life-altering experience feeds supportingly into Envision 2015’s broader strategy that carries the slogan, “Every Child, by Name and Face, to Graduation.” Further, it contributes to the role the superintendent sees himself playing, in spite of the official title. Morrison regularly refers to himself as “a teacher on special assignment,” which is fitting for someone who one colleague says has the “ability to envision things not yet actualized.” 

Editor’s Note: Read about Heath Morrison’s distinctive qualities in Conference Daily Online and his article about school turnarounds in the March 2011 issue of AASA’s School Administrator magazine. Watch a brief video interview with Morrison after the announcement here.