Superintendent Heath Morrison probably doesn’t get stood up much. But when he and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools social worker Heidi Berger arrived for a home visit with a dropout Friday morning, they found no one home.
That was no surprise to Berger, who has done hundreds of home visits. Even after you make an appointment, she said, families often decide they don’t want to deal with social workers or confront their children’s problems.
Nor was Morrison shocked. He launched a “door to door for student success” campaign this week to get teens back in school, but also to give top administrators and elected officials a close-up look at the reality behind dropout statistics.
“It’s not easy,” Morrison said. “Yesterday was awesome. Today’s frustrating.”
“Yesterday” was the first of two home visits Morrison opened to the media, with the understanding that students and families wouldn’t be exposed to coverage unless they agreed. The district has identified students who were enrolled last year and haven’t showed up this year. School social workers, accompanied by top administrators, school board members and mayors, are making appointments to talk to those students and their families about options for getting back on the diploma track. They contacted about 100 students in the first two days.
Thursday, Morrison and counselor Melanie Williams visited Karen Gonzales, who left Garinger High to work full time at McDonald’s when her mother fell ill. Two older sisters also had dropped out of high school. The mother was doing better, and Gonzales, who has almost enough credits to graduate, was already thinking about how to get back in school. She eagerly agreed to return, riding back to Garinger with the social worker.
Friday morning, at a middle-class subdivision in northeast Charlotte, the superintendent and the social worker knocked to no avail, even though the student was supposed to be home and the mother was supposed to meet them there.
Standing outside, Morrison and Berger talked about the challenges of getting teens back on track.
On Thursday, Berger had met with a 19-year-old whose mother described him as “a slow learner,” but who had never qualified for special education services. He’s looking for work, but finding a job without a diploma is difficult.
That student has only half the credits needed to graduate, so returning to a regular high school isn’t practical. Berger outlined several options, including alternative schools in CMS, a charter school, Job Corps and the GED program at Central Piedmont Community College.
Morrison noted that tracking down dropouts and making home visits is nothing new: “CMS does have social workers that have been doing this for a long time, and doing a great job.” Adding the high-level visitors is designed to boost the public profile and provide policymakers with a deeper understanding of the issues.
Morrison is likely to include new options for struggling students as part of the plan he’ll unveil after 100 days on the job. When he was superintendent in Reno, Nev., he created “reclamation centers” located in areas with lots of at-risk students. Not only can potential dropouts earn credits online, with assistance designed to get them back into regular schools, but groups providing social services work to support the entire family.
Morrison wouldn’t say whether he wants to launch a similar program in Charlotte, but he said CMS needs more options. And the community has a strong base of partners eager to help, he said.
Morrison said he’d also like to replicate the CMS Performance Learning Center in more locations around Mecklenburg County. The center, created in partnership with Communities in Schools, offers online classes with teacher support for students who haven’t done well in traditional high schools.
Forty-five minutes after Friday’s scheduled appointment, the student and her mother pulled up. Morrison and Berger went in to talk with them. They didn’t want to talk to reporters, and Morrison wouldn’t give personal details. But he said the student is interested in graduating from CMS and will have a follow-up appointment with Berger. Morrison said he told the girl he wants to hand her a diploma.
Mother and daughter pulled out, but a couple of minutes later, their SUV looped back. The student wanted her picture taken with Morrison and Berger.
They looped their arms around her while a CMS staffer took a photo. She and her mother drove away again – with proof that someone at the top cares about her future.