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R.D. Harris: Back in the saddle at MHS

By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
Aug. 4, 2003
R.D. Harris is principal of Meridian High School again. When he sat down last week with the The Meridian Star's editorial board, he spoke frankly about what he thinks MHS needs and doesn't need to improve student achievement.
His formula is a combination of higher expectations, discipline and individualized attention. He thinks there will be problems making the state's new school-by-school accountability model understandable. He thinks an overemphasis on "Tech Prep" weakened the education system overall when it weakened arts curriculums.
Harris also recounted his history with the Meridian School District, why he left and why he came out of retirement to return.
The Meridian Star: Catch us up on your experience at Meridian High School.
R.D. Harris: I started with the school system in 1966 when we were "separate but equal." I was at Harris High School and Junior College where I taught high school German and English, and one semester I taught French.
In 1969-1970, when we became a unified school district, I became a teacher of English at Meridian High School. There I taught English and German for two or three years.
Then, I replaced the assistant principal (at MHS), who left to go to Meridian Junior College, and that started my administrative experience. I left the high school to be interim principal at Kate Griffin Junior High for a semester.
Then, the principal at MHS resigned and the job became open. I was intrigued by the idea of going back to the high school as principal and I decided to apply for the job. I was one of about 50 people nationally who applied and I got the job. That was 1979.
It doesn't matter to me at all, but I was the first black principal there. We started a journey toward excellence in all phases, putting in new programs, advanced placement courses and honors programs.
We put in an English proficiency program that required all seniors to demonstrate an 80 percent accuracy in an essay. It was so successful that we put it in all the grades. The students wrote every day. The idea behind that was the more they wrote, the better they were going to become and our kids did get better and they felt confident.
The Star: How long did you stay in Meridian?
Harris: Twenty-five years, until 1990. I was principal until 1988. I was going to go to Tupelo as deputy superintendent and our school board met with me because we didn't have a superintendent at that time. George Cannon had just left. We were in the midst of building some buildings at the high school and the board wasn't comfortable having me leave, so they said they would create a deputy superintendent position at central office.
I left the high school and went to central office where I was in charge of the high school and other district responsibilities. A year and a half later, the same person who tried to get me to come to Tupelo said, I want you to come to the state Department of Education and be my deputy superintendent and I became the first black deputy superintendent.
I was at the Department of Education from that time until Dec. 2002. I retired after 37 years in education but I remained a consultant.
One of my responsibilities in the state department was to go to school districts that were failing. The majority of my time was spent in the Delta when we took over the North Panola school district for financial failure.
The Star: Who from Meridian called you about being principal again?
Harris: Really, the community. Every time I came here, people would say, We want you to come back, we need you.' That has been a constant cry since I left.
I was in Oktibbeha County from Dec. 6 until a couple of weeks ago. They had a high school principal walk off the job, so they consolidated two high schools and they wanted me to come help with that, and I agreed to do that.
That was the first time I had been an active principal in years. I really enjoyed being there working with kids, parents and the community. It is a small school. I discovered one thing, that it doesn't matter what size the school is, you spend as much time there as you would at a school that is bigger.
As the year progressed, I enjoyed it and I enjoyed being there with the students. That was the most exciting thing, being with the students sitting with them in the cafeteria, teasing with them and I even had to go to the homes and pick some kids up to make them come to school. I did whatever I needed to do to get kids to do well. I worked if it took me all night, if it took me whatever expert I needed to bring in to try to help me with a child, I did that.