Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teachers: It's not a prank call

You can't blame Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers for being skeptical when some guy calls from out of the blue saying he's Heath Morrison,  the just-hired superintendent.  Morrison says after he introduces himself, he tends to get reactions such as "No, really -- who are you?"

Morrison,  an early riser who makes his Charlotte calls before he starts his job in Reno, Nev.,  is working an entrance strategy and an exit plan at the same time.  He won't be in Charlotte for the CMS budget pitch to county commissioners,  but he says he's left messages for all nine commissioners to make his introductions.

As he was calling civic and political leaders,  he realized the symbolism of talking to them before he connects with his own work force.  So he asked zone superintendents for names of teachers to talk to. Now,  he says,  he's trying to match his contacts with Mecklenburg officials with calls to teachers, principals and parents.

Meanwhile,  in Nevada,  it's been interesting to watch Morrison do an extended farewell tour.  At 6 a.m. Tuesday,  he was at Channel 2,  where he does a monthly TV appearance. He got hugs, handshakes and hearty praise for his three years leading Washoe County Schools from the staff there.

"So you're going South?  Don't mix jelly with your grits,"  one cameraman said.

Morrison on 96.5 radio
Shortly afterward,  he was doing the Bill & Connie morning show on a local radio station,  where the hosts laughed about their introduction to Morrison.  They had done an April Fool's show announcing that his budget-strained district was going to start charging fees to ride the bus  --  as well as offering movies and popcorn during the ride for a price.  People who didn't get the joke deluged Washoe County Schools with outraged calls,  and Morrison asked to go on the show the next day.  He's been a frequent guest ever since,  and the hosts keep a toy school bus with Morrison's photo taped to it.

Morrison didn't bat an eye when asked to join in on a "Hollywood Trash" discussion of Whitney Houston's drug addiction,  using it to talk about making connections with students and staff:  "We owe it to people we care about and love to push past what's visible."

Host Bill Schultz told Morrison he was "super stoked about everything you've done for the last three years, glad to be able to call you friend."

Morrison does have his media critics.  Andrew Barbano,  a labor activist and columnist for the Daily Sparks Tribune, has been writing about what he dubs "The Mythological Morrison Miracle," questioning whether the increased graduation rate Morrison touts reflects reality (Sparks is a city adjacent to Reno, also in Washoe County). But overall,  Morrison is clearly adept at building relationships in the media and the community,  a skill the CMS board hopes to tap as it strives to rally confidence.

(I'm also visiting schools and discussing serious issues while I'm here; more to come.)

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