Superintendent Heath Morrison will call on the community to unite behind improving early childhood education and making Mecklenburg County “the most literate community in the entire country,” he told a group of Latin American leaders Wednesday.
Morrison also said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools must do more to respond to the growing diversity of public schools, including more Spanish-speaking staff and better efforts to engage families.
“The face of CMS has changed,” he said. “We have failed to address that change in diversity.”
Morrison spoke to about 30 people from the Latin American Council on his 100th day as superintendent of CMS. On Monday, he’ll unveil his long-range plan for the district to an invited group of community leaders, CMS employees, students and families.
Wednesday’s talk pointed at a couple of main themes.
“On Monday, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about early childhood,” Morrison told the group, which is also called Enlace ( en-LAH-say, Spanish for “bond” or “connection”).
Morrison said the affluent and the very poor have access to high-quality preschool, but many families in the middle are left out, which can put children behind as they enter kindergarten.
“The best return on investment in the country, when it’s done right, is early childhood,” Morrison said.
CMS provides free prekindergarten classes for about 3,000 4-year-olds who lack skills they’ll need for school. The Bright Beginnings program is highly regarded by many, but has faced criticism for failing to produce data showing it has long-range academic benefits.
Morrison said CMS needs better studies on whether Bright Beginnings is using the right approach. The district also must work with centers and agencies that serve young children to boost the educational value of programs, he said.
Get adults reading
Morrison also talked about launching a literacy drive that includes helping adults read better and collecting books for children and adults. Such an effort likely would be done in cooperation with other groups, rather than a CMS solo effort.
Adult literacy was one concern voiced by some Enlace members, who said recent immigrants sometimes lack formal education and fluency in English. Morrison said he’s eager to help parents read better: “Little people watch what big people do.”
Some audience members said school office staff and administrators aren’t always welcoming to Spanish-speaking families.
Morrison said he’s working with all principals on “cultural proficiency” and wants to hire more staff to reach out to families. He said he’d also like to hire more English-as-a-second-language teachers who are bilingual – “even better if you’re multilingual.”
Hispanic students make up a little more than 18 percent of CMS students, with numbers growing every year. Many are American born and fluent English speakers, but CMS recently reported that more than 20 percent of all students speak some language other than English at home, with Spanish accounting for the largest share.
Kids, not papers
Morrison said he wants to shift debate away from parents’ immigration status: “It’s irrelevant.” Most students who come from families that don’t speak English at home were born in the United States, he added.
“I think there’s a lot of work we have to do with our community” to shift attention to educating all students, he said.
Morrison came to Charlotte from Reno, Nev., where about 40 percent of students are Hispanic. He said many of the Mexican families there were “too respectful,” in that they wouldn’t challenge schools even when their children were failing.
CMS may face a similar challenge, he said: “How do we get our parents more accustomed to questioning their schools?”
Morrison recently announced that he’s creating a new office of community partnerships and community engagement, with communication director LaTarzja Henry becoming an assistant superintendent overseeing it. That office will help schools work more closely with families and community agencies, Morrison said.