Institute for Social Capital names new director

Amy Hawn Nelson, a Mecklenburg County educator with a strong record in improving the academic outcomes for at-risk students, has been named director of UNC Charlotte’s Institute for Social Capital. She replaces Sharon Portwood, the first director, who stepped down in December 2011 to return to full-time teaching at the university.

The Institute for Social Capital was founded by the UNC Charlotte Foundation in 2004 to use social and human data to advance research capabilities and data-based planning at the university and in the community. At its core is a comprehensive community database of records from 13 public and nonprofit agencies, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department and the county Department of Social Services. While maintaining the confidentiality of individual records, the ISC database connects dispersed data sets, providing a foundation for researchers to better understand the variables that affect the community, particularly outcomes for children and families.

Hawn Nelson, who will start her new job September 4, has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, urban education, as well as two education-related master’s degrees (in school administration and teaching) and has spent most of her professional career working in public schools, primarily as a teacher and administrator.

A Charlotte native, she has been active in Teach For America, the national service corps organization. Most recently, Hawn Nelson was assistant principal at Kennedy Charter Public School in Charlotte, where she was part of a leadership team that made progress in transitioning an alternative school for at-risk students into a traditional charter school, significantly improving the students’ academic outcomes.

Among her colleagues, Hawn Nelson is regarded as an educator who draws upon the latest education research and innovation. This combination of research expertise and practical experience in issues affecting children and youth was one of the things that impressed the search committee. In announcing the hire, UNC Charlotte Provost Joan Lorden said, “Amy brings a unique blend of research expertise and practical experience – especially in the field of education – that aligns perfectly with our vision for the Institute for Social Capital as a center that produces research that is both academically rigorous and at the same time relevant to our community partners. We feel that her background has prepared her well to serve in such a ‘bridge’ role.”

Said Hawn Nelson, “I am excited for the opportunity to support the mission of the ISC and contribute to the valuable work of the Urban Institute in our community.”

Her hiring comes five months after the university and the ISC board of directors in March announced the merging of the Institute for Social Capital staff into the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Read more about that here. ISC is now a research program of the Urban Institute, with the nonprofit subsidiary of the UNC Charlotte Foundation continuing to operate as the fiscal and legal steward of the ISC database for security reasons. Urban Institute Director Jeff Michael has been interim director of the Institute for Social Capital since January and will continue to provide guidance and supervision for Hawn Nelson in her role as ISC director.

“This is an exciting time for the Institute for Social Capital,” said Michelle Lancaster, ISC board president and one of Mecklenburg County’s three general managers. “With greater administrative capacity resulting from our recent merger with the Urban Institute, along with Amy’s exceptional talents and deep familiarity with this community, the Institute for Social Capital is truly poised to deliver cutting-edge research that can help inform public policy around social issues in this community.”

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute is a nonpartisan applied research and community outreach center at UNC Charlotte. It provides economic development research; technical assistance and training related to operations and data management; public opinion surveys; community planning; and land-use and natural resources consulting to meet the needs of the Charlotte region and its citizens.