The pulse of the 2009-10 school year in Washoe County really jumpstarted in February 2009 when former Superintendent Paul Dugan announced his retirement. The unexpected news immediately set the stage for the reform-minded Board of Trustees to bring in new leadership that would try to guide the region’s schools to better reflect the branding effort of a “World Class School District.”
After an involved search process that took two rounds of interviews with candidates from across the nation, trustees hired Dr. Heath Morrison from Maryland. Morrison brought with him an aggressive entry plan and last week he shared the first year’s results of that plan at Truckee Meadows Tomorrow’s quarterly meeting. Not only has he lived up to his promise to visit all 102 school sites and is making his rounds again, he’s visited more than 2,900 members of the community either individually or via government agencies and special interest groups and has made more than 175 public presentations. Town hall meetings are more frequent and overall attendance is up.
The numbers are impressive, but even more so is the sense that the community is finally starting to feel engaged about a school district that had a reputation for not being open with parents and stakeholders.
Morrison began with a running start, anxious to show that getting kids excited about education is a priority. He implemented a Door-to-Door for Student Achievement walk in September to bring students who didn’t register for the 2009-10 year back to school. Because of the effort, many students chose to return to campus to continue their educations. Some students said they feared going back to school because they were being bullied. Administrators assured students they would work to create a safer environment.
District staff held its first Data Summit in November to assess the true trends in student achievement and how to fill the gaps in rigor and curriculum. Morrison is a self-proclaimed fan of studying the numbers and he has demonstrated all year that without understanding test scores and dropout rates, the district has no clear path to improvement.
More serious numbers were released to the press less than two weeks later. The results of the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed several alarming social patterns, including increased thoughts or attempts of suicide, more sexual activity and lifetime use of marijuana among teens. Morrison put out a call to action to community groups to help intervene in these behaviors. So far, at least one such organization, Truckee Meadows Tomorrow, has responded and members have created a Youth Risk Behavior task force to seek out solutions. Kudos to the community and business leaders for acting on very troubling trends.
Changes, however, on multiple levels were to be expected with the incoming of a new leader. An audit in the fall revealed the administration needed to be more effective, many new positions needed to be created and, as Morrison often has said, the right people needed to be put in the right jobs. The first major organizational change came with the creation of a chief academic officer position, which Lisa Noonan filled. A chief performance officer position also was created and was filled by Rick Borba. The change also created six senior officers. Deputy superintendent Pedro Martinez, a candidate for Morrison’s position last summer, and Jane Woodburn, chief operating officer, then joined the district’s central services staff.
Many good works were accomplished in the fall to eliminate inefficiencies. Morale and commitment to education, which always seemed to be high anyway, appear to be on the rise. Morrison’s presence has been a breath of fresh air and he has shown he is dedicated to taking the district to the next level. That dedication is a fine quality to have, considering a brewing budget storm has taken its toll on a district in charge of the education of about 64,000 students.
Read my column in the Tribune next week for the challenges the district faced in the spring semester.
Jessica Garcia is the education reporter for the Sparks Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.