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July 2013
Teaching for the 21st Century
By Barbara Fagan

     The workplace is changing. Today’s employers can choose from a global pool of personnel. Technology has reshaped the skill sets needed for many positions and the days of being a company man or woman are over. Employees entering today’s workforce can expect to change jobs 10 to 15 times over the span of their working lives.

     Spiraling college tuition and onerous student loan debt have quelled the idea that traditional four-year institutions are the goal for every student and forced students to look for options.

     Preparing the more than 141,000 students of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) for these new societal and economic realities is the job, goal and passion of its superintendent, Dr. Heath Morrison.

     Morrison, who took over responsibility last July for the sprawling and culturally diverse district that in the 2012-2013 school year consisted of 159 schools with more than 18,000 employees and an operating budget of $1.3 billion, is up for the challenge.

     He comes to CMS from Reno, Nevada, where he was superintendent of Washoe County School District, that state’s second largest district. During his tenure there, graduation rates rose from 56 percent to 70 percent and in 2011 he was named superintendent of the year by the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and Nevada Association of School Boards. In 2012 Morrison was honored as the national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators.

     Morrison, who has a Ph.D. in educational policy and planning and a master’s in educational administration from the University of Maryland, is a strong believer in preparing students for what comes next.

     “The biggest challenge for today’s graduates is the changing landscape of jobs now and in the future. We have to equip them with radically different skills than what I needed when I graduated high school.”

     Morrison often quotes from influential business writers such as Thomas Friedman, Jim Collins and Stephen R. Covey and he’s brought a business-oriented approach to his job, commissioning three audits by independent consultants to review the way CMS is structured, how decisions are made, and how operations are managed.

     Communication is key to his leadership style. Morrison was described as the “go-to guy” regarding public education for the Nevada legislation and considers it part of his job to be a voice in the community and in Raleigh for his students.

     He began his tenure by listening. “I came into this position saying I wanted to listen and learn,” he explains. “I brought a lot of ideas but I wanted to start by creating business and faith-based partnerships and visiting schools in the district to make sure that everyone’s voice is part of our evolving strategic plan.”

     As part of the listening process, Morrison visited the district schools and met with students, teachers, support and ancillary staff and principals. He also held 13 town hall meetings and met with public officials, civic and philanthropic groups and higher education leaders and conducted a survey to identify priorities which received 11,000 responses.


The Way Forward

     From information learned through these efforts, Morrison prepared a strategy entitled The Way Forward enumerating eight goals and creating 22 task forces to identify ways to reach those goals.

     Goals include narrowing academic achievement gaps, strengthening and expanding educational choices and providing better communication and customer service.

     “But the first goal,” says Morrison, “is that every student graduates truly college and career-ready. I want to prepare students to be able to walk across that stage and get a diploma that’s a passport for a better tomorrow.”

     Morrison points out a major complication to this goal: “Jobs are changing rapidly. We have to prepare students for entire careers that right now don’t even exist. That’s exciting but it’s challenging as well.

     “What we need to do is equip students with the skills they’ll need to be part of a true 21st century workforce: problem-solving, critical thinking, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and collaborative abilities. These skills have to be embedded in what we do and how we approach education.

     “Knowing the names of the first 10 presidents by memory is not as important as say, knowing what they did and how it still affects us today. The challenge I have and my frustration is that we need to shift focus to those high level skills, but we’re still testing for the old, rote way of learning.

     “I’m a big believer in accountability. There should be an appropriate amount of testing to assess that kids are learning, but we need to test on the skills that are important and the testing needs to be at a healthy level where the ability for teachers to find time to really teach isn’t challenged.

     “I was very pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the governor about this recently and I was very pleased that he’s now speaking about his concerns on the issue.”


Partnering for Success

     Morrison also understands that education isn’t a “one size fits all” proposition. A benchmark of success in The Way Forward is that CMS graduates all students with a personalized post-secondary plan.

     “By the time a student hits high school, they’re ready to make some choices about their future,” says Morrison. “Do they want to go to college? Do they want to enter the workforce or go into the military? I just want them to be successful in any venture they choose so I absolutely believe in having different opportunities to engage students in learning. We’ll continue to have a vibrant push toward college readiness but we’ll also focus on career readiness by expanding our Career Technical Education (CTE) programs.”

     The CMS model for CTE programs is Olympic High School which, in 2006, split into five career-themed academy schools. Internships and apprenticeships with local businesses are key to the model.

     “We believe in work-based learning,” explains Michael Realon, who has been the Career and Community Development Coordinator at Olympic for the past seven years. “We believe in getting children on pathways earlier in life so they can see the relevancy and why they need to learn and how that’s going to help them in the future.

     “What’s hugely different at Olympic is the integration of the business community with what happens here. Our business partners have become critical as collaborators and true strategic partners.”

     Olympic’s Math, Engineering, Technology and Science High School has an engineering career academy with a focus on energy that partners with big industry players like Siemens Energy, Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas Company.

     These companies work with the career academies and local colleges like CPCC to determine the requirements for special certifications. “So by the time they leave Olympic,” Realon explains, “students already have so many units from CPCC in one of these pathways. It could be mechatronics, or energy or HVAC but if a child gets a special certification from the career academy, those companies know the rigor that child has gone through to get the certification so that certificate actually has currency in the marketplace.”

     Morrison pledges to continue to explore those partnerships and challenge the local business community to be involved: “Usually when the superintendent comes knocking, businesses ask how big a check do you need and I will absolutely accept their checks but I’m more interested in human capital. Come into our schools and help our principals think more entrepreneurially, help our district become more process and system-oriented, help us develop CTE programs that are tied to business’s workforce development needs.

     “Charlotte is an amazing community where there’s a lot of opportunity for partnerships. We just have to be more intentional about asking.”

     Morrison plans to expand the success of Olympic’s CTE with a cost-saving tweak. “Traditional CTE classes are very expensive and labor intensive so it’s hard to sustain a vibrant CTE program at a single high school. Starting next year we’re going to make North Mecklenburg High School a CTE hub.

     “They’ll offer programs of auto mechanics, engineering, cosmetology and metal working but these programs will be available not only to North Mecklenburg students but also to students who attend Hopewell, Mallard Creek and Hough High School. They’ll be able to go to North Mecklenburg if one of those fields is what they want to study, so we’re giving more students access to those CTE fields at less expense.

     “That ‘hub and spoke’ system is a model we want to expand throughout the district,” he affirms.

     For students interested in advanced studies, CMS has partnered with Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), creating an honors program giving students the opportunity to take college classes and earn college credit while still attending high school.

     Since 2007 Cato Middle College High School has allowed students to complete their high school course requirements while working toward a college diploma, associate degree or industry or post-secondary certification. All college classes are free to Cato Middle College students and Morrison proudly points out that every senior year student of the school graduated this year.

     “We’re going to open another middle college next year,” adds Morrison, “partnering up Hawthorne High School with CPCC to create a medical science academy. The medical field is a leading industry in the future. By tying into CPCC’s 14 medical programs we’re able to expose our students to this field.

     “Because of the partnership we won’t have to build a 21st century science lab, which saves taxpayers’ money, and our students will be able to get some certification while at Hawthorne and go immediately into CPCC’s program after high school, possibly graduating early and becoming part of a workforce our community needs.”


An Advocate in Raleigh

     The success of these partnerships has led Morrison to work with other state school districts to advocate for North Carolina State House Bill 902. HB 902 would offer grants through the North Carolina Education and Workforce Innovation Commission, providing incentives for businesses and communities to partner with schools.

     “This is smart, quality legislation,” says Morrison. “I’ve worked with nine of the other largest school districts in the state—together we represent 43 percent of all the students in North Carolina—to support this bill.

     “This type of legislation is forward thinking; it’s what our state needs. Here’s the challenge: it’s gotten great public accolades but in the budget, it’s not funded. It’s the type of legislation that doesn’t require a lot of funding. It’s kind of a venture capital funding—just enough incentive to get these entities working together. I really hope there is some reconsideration.”

     In these economic times budget issues in general continue to be an issue for CMS. The district continues to grow—3,000 new students were added last year and this year the district will accommodate 3,000 more.

     “It’s just like a family budget,” Morrison explains.” If you have more kids, you either have to spread your family resources thinner or you need to generate more revenue. At the end of the day, you get a budget and you have to do the best you can with what you have, but it means that there will be certain wants that aren’t able to be funded. That’s frustrating, especially when you fundamentally agree that you would love to have those things in our schools.

     “Given North Carolina teachers are paid $10,000 below the national average, we were very pleased that the governor put a one percent raise in his budget for teachers. But because the House and Senate didn’t also put that in their budgets, the board and county commissioners are very unlikely to fund it. We also face a $12.5 million dollar reduction in teacher assistance.”


Teachers and Technology

     Morrison continues, “Great teachers produce extraordinary results. We want to hire great people and create career ladders and build professional development to keep them in the classroom.

     “When used effectively, technology can be an amazing tool to provide inspired learning. Through technology we can expose every student to a truly great teacher and help build the capacity of other teachers.

     “One of the goals in The Way Forward is to increase access to technology. When I first got here, none of our schools were equipped with wireless technology at the level we need. We’re at 70 percent now and, by the end of the summer, we intend to have all our schools equipped with true wireless. This will support our ‘Bring Your Own Technology’ initiative.

     “Students all around the globe are being taught using technology and they are the workforce of tomorrow. Either we’re going to invest in technology and make our students globally competitive or we’re not. I want to give our students that advantage.

     “But I have an absolute fervent bias that technology can never replace a teacher. At its core, teaching is a human endeavor. Young people need to be nurtured and challenged and that only happens through human experience.”

     Morrison reflects for a moment. “We fundamentally need to change how we teach and what we expect kids to know and be able to do. Charlotte is an amazing community that believes its best days are yet to come. Let’s be the community that demands that kind of education. Part of my job is to get the community and Raleigh excited about what we need to be doing.

     “It’s a seminal moment. Either we’re going to make those changes because it’s the right thing to do or we’re going to miss this opportunity. The worst thing in the world would be, if 20 years from now in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, we tell our children to take out their paper and make a list of the first 10 presidents. That would be a missed opportunity.”



Photo: Fenix Fotography


Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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