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By Joan Slattery Wall
On the wall across from the desk of Columbus Public Schools Superintendent Gene Harris is a large framed picture of a pencil, tattered and worn to a nub. Bold, capital letters proclaim its message: PERSISTENCE.
The picture was a gift from friends after Harris completed her doctorate in educational administration at Ohio University.
"These friends knew it took me awhile," says Harris, who finished her dissertation and received her degree six years after she started the program in 1993.
By then Harris already had achieved her lifelong dream of being a high school principal. She held the position within Columbus Public Schools, where she had grown up and received her high school diploma. There, she quickly moved up the administration ladder to supervisor of principals and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Then, she caught the eye of the state Department of Education, which wooed her to be its assistant superintendent for public instruction and chief program officer.
Still, she continued hoping for the Columbus superintendent's slot. She was not selected when she applied in 1997, but that persistence her friends had encouraged paid off when she was named to the job in July 2001.
While others tell her she faces a daunting task, Harris considers the position a chance to influence the success of central Ohio through improvements in its schools.
"I see it as a huge opportunity, a wonderful opportunity," she says.
Toward that end, she uses skills she honed while pursuing her doctoral degree, which she sought from Ohio University because its educational administration program allowed her to continue her career while she completed her coursework.
"I also liked getting a different kind of view of the world. I think it broadened my perspective," Harris says, noting her camaraderie with fellow doctoral students from rural school districts. Some of the same issues encountered by her classmates, such as keeping children focused on the value of education and dealing with family problems, are challenges she faces at Columbus Public Schools.
Having spent 25 years as a Columbus Public Schools educator and administrator, Harris wasn't blind to the fact that she was stepping on shaky ground when she was named superintendent. The district has been considered by the state to be in "academic emergency" for three years, largely because of students' proficiency test scores. In addition, the school board's divisiveness was well-known, and the superintendent's office seemed to have a revolving door. Harris, however, was not intimidated.
All of her plans are intended to help her meet the district's three goals: increase student academic achievement; operate the school system more efficiently and effectively; and raise hope, trust and confidence in Columbus Public Schools.
Trust, in fact, is one of Harris' strong suits, says Henderson Days, a Columbus middle school principal who completed the Ohio University doctoral program with Harris.
"When you have trust in leadership, that goes a long way," Days says. "I think she instills trust, so therefore she gets trust."
Harris has implemented eight-week Proficiency Institutes to help students struggling with the tests. More than double the 1,000 students she expected have attended. At one session, the mother of a high school junior who consistently fell just shy of passing the math portion personally thanked Harris for providing the program.
To raise hope in the district, Harris initiated a Student Ambassador program, selecting the schools' brightest young minds to serve as her advisers and meet with community and business leaders. Harris, meanwhile, embraces the district's challenges.
"I can have an impact not only on the lives of the 64,000 students we have today," she says, "but on what will happen in this district in the future."
Joan Slattery Wall is assistant editor of Ohio Today.