Odds and Ends About Heath Morrison

 Heath Morrison
        Heath Morrison
by Jay P. Goldman

This is a potpourri of brief items that shed light on the distinctive qualities of the 2012 National Superintendent of the Year, Heath Morrison of Washoe County, Nev. Read a profile of Morrison in Conference Daily Online and his article about school turnarounds in the March 2011 issue of AASA’s School Administrator magazine.

An Impact Across Nevada

In short order, Heath Morrison has become the go-to guy in public education circles whenever the Nevada state legislature is in session. Some elected representatives consider him as an all-star, having wowed members of both parties while on center stage.

Morrison made his debut in the well of the legislative chambers in Carson City just a few months after landing in Washoe County. The state Assembly was in special session, meeting as a committee of the whole. The superintendent had been invited to deliver testimony and then be grilled by legislators about the state’s K-12 budget.

“Anyone else might have been intimidated by the circumstances but the body listened with rapt attention because he communicates with such authority,” says Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, the speaker pro tempore.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who wrote one of the recommendation letters in Morrison’s NSOY application, has requested the superintendent’s input multiple times on federal budget and reauthorization issues.

Most recently, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval asked Morrison to join the newly formed 12-member Teachers and Leaders Council to develop new evaluation systems by 2013.

Keeping Conversations Real

Despite having had to oversee spending reductions of $85 million during his first two years in Washoe County, Nev., Morrison comes off in public view as an authentic leader, someone who keeps conversations real and doesn’t talk over anyone’s head.

Says Ken Cervantes Jr., principal at Billinghurst Middle School: “We know as administrators that we have a leader who knows more about the state budget and funding than legislators themselves. He has the ability to structure the dialogue so that everyone understands that when cuts are made what that looks like on an instructional level and in the classroom. He cuts through the smoke and mirrors and forces conversation back to important data points, such as high school graduation, AYP and the targets in the strategic plan.”

Cervantes, now in his 23rd year in the Washoe County schools, was the state’s 2010 middle school principal of the year.

Parallels to His Past Post

It wasn’t long into his tenure in Washoe County that Morrison began hearing comments about him bringing along the best ideas from Montgomery County, Md., to the Far West. For sure, there are obvious parallels between then and now – adherence to Baldrige thinking on performance management and systems planning; formal program support for teacher growth; grooming of principal candidates internally; and redirection of more resources to schools with the greatest student needs.

But Morrison is quick to note the size difference (Washoe has fewer than half the student population of his previous employer) and the major disparities in financial support for public education. “I always say we’re trying to bring the same results, but we don’t have the resources,” he adds. “You can’t just bring the same playbook to Washoe.”

A year into his move, Morrison hired Jane Woodburn, who had been director of human resources in the Montgomery County Public Schools. She now serves as deputy superintendent in the Nevada district.

A Proud Foster Parent

During his time as a social studies teacher in Waldorf, Md., Morrison had an African American girl in one of his 10th-grade AP U.S. history classes who was dealing with the devastating illness and subsequent death of her mother due to breast cancer. Morrison and his wife, Jennifer, built a network of support at the school for her and then arranged for NaShara to become their foster child.

By the end of high school, she attained quite a stellar academic record, earning a full-ride scholarship to Vanderbilt University. Now married at the age of 33, the young woman recently gave birth to her first child.

“I am feeling a lot like a grandparent,” says Morrison, 45, who has two adolescent children of his own.

Product of a Superintendent Factory

That Heath Morrison wouldn’t be long to move into the superintendency of a school district was a given once he was hired by Jerry Weast as a high-ranking district administrator in Montgomery County, Md., in 2005.

Weast had a knack for producing future superintendents during his 11 years of leading the high-flying suburban school system until his retirement last June. By Weast’s count, that number is at least 15, and there have been three Montgomery County products appointed to superintendent posts in other places since Morrison was hired in Washoe County, Nev., in 2009.

In an interview, Weast says Morrison early on demonstrated the leadership skills in his work to become a prime target for the superintendent search consultants. “He appeared to have the intellect, the fire in the belly and the ambition to fill a very demanding role,” he says.

Performance Endorsement

In Montgomery County, Md., Morrison supervised four challenging high schools, where he put in place strategic monitoring tools involving data analysis that helped his principals understand and truly believe that all students, no matter their background, could succeed.

One of those principals, Henry R. Johnson Jr. at Northwood High School, says he and his diverse school reached new heights with Morrison as community superintendent.

“By taking the time to monitor individual student progress at different intervals throughout the school year, principals and teachers could monitor and change instruction to meet individual student need,” says Johnson, a principal for more than two decades. “In the two years that Heath supervised me, Northwood made AYP every year and our PSAT participation rate and SAT scores were the highest in the school's history.

Shared Buy-In

Morrison already knew he had won the support of his teacher union for his sweeping plans in Washoe County, owing to the teachers’ extensive involvement in crafting his Envision 2015 strategic plan.

Still, he received further evidence of the shared ownership when the Washoe Education Association’s president called him excitedly to report her union’s proposal about the strategic plan had been accepted for presentation at a national conference of the American Federation of Teachers.

The superintendent had formed 11 community-wide committees to build Envision 2015.

Broad’s Reach

In the 10-year history of the Broad Superintendents Academy, Morrison is the first program graduate to be named National Superintendent of the Year and, according to Broad’s records, the first to reach final four status. At least a half dozen Broad alumni have been named state superintendents of the year.

Morrison completed the full-year Broad Superintendents Academy in 2009, and he benefitted from a year-long executive coaching arrangement with Thomas Payzant, a former NSOY finalist and a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Payzant made about a half dozen visits to shadow Morrison on the job for a day at a time, then conducted a debriefing at day’s end.

Payzant says he came away impressed at the new superintendent’s skillful dealings with the school board. “He’s very good at listening, but he was also aware that your first year is an opportunity to start some initiatives that will be accepted by the board because of their enthusiasm in bringing you on board.”

Demographic Facts

The Washoe County School District, which principally covers the areas of Reno and Tahoe, has 65,000 students at 94 traditional public schools and eight charter schools. Of the student makeup, 47 percent live in poverty, 35 percent are English language learners, 45 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are African American.

Basic Bio

Morrison was born at Andrews Air Force Base, while his father pursued a career in the Air Force. Neither parent completed college.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary, a master’s and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from University of Maryland.

He taught social studies for four years at a middle school and a high school in Waldorf, Md., then several years as a vice principal. He was principal of John Hanson Middle School for three years and Thomas Stone High School for five years. All of these schools are located in Charles County, Md.

He joined the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools as a director of school performance in 2005-06, then spent three years as a community superintendent.

He is married to Jennifer Morrison, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in education at University of Nevada-Reno. She formerly worked in staff development in Montgomery County, Md. He has two teen-agers.