Profile Page 51
A Teacher on Special
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. They also have propelled him to the title of 2012 National Superintendent of the Year. At 45, he is the second-youngest and earliest-career superintendent to receive the honor.
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. 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.”
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.
“Many of us parents consider [Morrison] the best thing to ever happen to our district,” says 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 percentage points in two years that some goals have been stretched 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, Morrison spent much of middle school in remedial classes. Acts of misbehavior were common. “I was on the path to being a dropout had it not been for two amazing teachers (at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va.) who got me back on track,” he says. “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 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. 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.”
Jay Goldman is editor of School Administrator. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
BIO STATS: HEATH MORRISON
Currently: superintendent, Washoe County Public Schools, Reno, Nev.
Previously: community superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Md.
Greatest influence on career: Mike Cloyd, my 9th-grade English teacher. He invested a tremendous about of time in me, inspired me and supported my efforts to catch up to the point where I was able to take honors and AP-level courses.
Best professional day: The news conference where we announced our graduation rate in Washoe County had climbed from 56 to 70 percent.
Biggest blooper: While still living in temporary housing having just arrived in Nevada, I had a major presentation in front of the Chamber of Commerce to start messaging the tie between economic development and education. While dressing in cramped, dark quarters, I wound up wearing one black dress shoe and one brown. The entire time, I figured a thousand people had their eyes on my shoes.
Books at bedside: Bible; Good to Great by Jim Collins; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey; The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman; and Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton.
Why I’m an AASA member: It troubles me that many people, especially younger individuals, in their professions do not join professional organizations. AASA is a leader and advocate for ensuring a quality education as a right of every student in the country. AASA is a tremendous support system and knowledge base for school leaders across the nation.