‘A calming effect: New THS leader promises stability

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal


TUPELO – It’s 8:30 on Wednesday night, and Jason Harris’ mind is spinning.
School starts tomorrow, and Harris’ office light is among the few that are lit on a massive campus that sits in expectation of what the morning will bring.
The new Tupelo High School principal studies a printout of how many students are enrolled in each class, looking for those that appear too large. He swings his chair to his computer screen to check the latest enrollment projections, knowing that if the school sees the 2,208 students it expects, some classes will be tight.
Meanwhile, he thinks about the senior parade that will begin at 6:45 the next morning, about the expected heat and how it will affect bus riders, about how smoothly the school’s new lunch procedure will run, about his daughter who is about to start at a new school and about the lack of time he’s had with his family over the past month.
“It weighs on you,” Harris said of being Tupelo High School’s principal. “There is no room for failure right now.
“Failure is not an option, and that weighs on me.”
Shortly after he was named to the job on June 28, the former Joyner Elementary principal admits he had difficulty sleeping.
He’s now reached the point where he’s tired enough when he returns home that he is able to slip into a slumber.
Harris, along with the school’s other administrators and teachers, have been hard at work over the past month to prepare for a first day that now looms near in the Wednesday-night stillness.
The Daily Journal followed him during the final week of those preparations.
What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at some of those efforts and a glimpse into the man who will now lead the district’s showcase school at a critical juncture in its history.
MONDAY, Aug. 1, 2011, 8:30 a.m.
Tupelo High School staff members file into the school’s cafeteria for an impromptu meeting.
Today is the first day they’ve had to officially report to work since May, but this isn’t where the day was scheduled to begin. That was supposed to happen at the district-wide Back to School meeting, but those plans quickly changed when the air-conditioner in the THS Performing Arts Center didn’t work, forcing the meeting to be rescheduled.
The result is that Harris’ first planned staff meeting has also been rescheduled, from 1 p.m. to right now. It has been moved from the PAC to the cafeteria, and it will be conducted without the benefit of the powerpoint Harris had prepared but can’t use in this venue.
Teachers and staff members sit behind the long rows of tables that run through the room while Associate Principal Evet Topp and the school’s four assistant principals converse near the front of the room.
The cafeteria’s doors swing open and Harris strolls in, smiling as he prepares address his team for the first time.
•••
This is not Harris’ first introductory address to a new staff. That came a year-and-a-half earlier when he became Joyner Elementary’s principal.
Then, as now, he stepped into a challenging situation. It was the middle of a school year, his first job as a principal and his first time working at a lower elementary.
Yet none of that would dampen the impression he eventually left on the faculty of the kindergarten to second-grade school.
“He had a very calming effect,” said Nikki Logan, a challenge teacher at Joyner.
Harris, 36, grew up in Norfolk, Va., and graduated from Old Dominion University with a B.S. in health and physical education and an M.S. in educational administration. He then came to Mississippi, attended Mississippi State and received a masters in sports administration.
While in Starkville, Harris met the former Brandie Robertson of Caledonia, who would become his wife. The two moved back to Norfolk, and Harris spent the next six years as a teacher, coach and eventually dean of students at two different middle schools and a high school.
Then, he and Brandie decided to return to Mississippi.
Harris became assistant principal at Columbus High School for two years and spent three-and-a-half years as assistant principal at Lawndale Elementary, then a fourth- to sixth-grade school. He left Lawndale to become Joyner’s principal.
Looking back, Joyner teachers say Harris was community-oriented, supportive and a good listener.
Kindergarten teacher Allison Hall said that Harris quickly set up meetings with all of the school’s teachers to get to really know them.
“He didn’t come in and bring a bunch of changes,” said second-grade teacher Carmon Dye. “He waited to see the climate of the school before jumping right in. He is easy-going and let that show with his leadership style.”
•••
“We will have the best year ever at Tupelo High School,” Harris says shortly after walking into the cafeteria. “I can promise you that.”
He tells the staff his emphasis will be on them and on the students. He acknowledges that recent changes in the district have been difficult.
“We need to level some of that out,” he said. “We need to stop drinking from the fire hose and get back to the nuts and bolts of teaching kids and helping kids grow.”
After introducing the school’s 26 new staff members, he thanks those who decided to return to the school this year.
“Those of you who are here, you want to be here, and I appreciate that,” he sad.
In the room is THS economics teacher Braden Bishop, who worked with Harris at Columbus. Bishop remembers Harris as being positive and personable.
“He just seems like he’ll be a great ally for the high school,” Bishop said. “I think he’s really connected with people this morning.”
MONDAY, 11 a.m.
The smell of a grill fills the air near the school’s cafeteria as Tupelo High’s staff returns to the room.
They’re greeted by members of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization who have prepared a meal for them: hamburgers and hot dogs, desserts and drinks.
Once everyone has eaten, teachers’ names are drawn for various door prizes: two recliners, an ottoman, cases of coke and various gift certificates. Everyone will leave the room with at least one prize.
The prizes have been donated by many local businesses. Harris said it was important for the teachers to feel supported on their first day.
Juanita Floyd, the president of the school’s PTO, said that she was excited when Harris asked the organization to conduct this lunch. She said that businesses were eager to support the efforts.
“I think they are looking for someone to bridge the gap between the community, parents and teachers,” she said, when asked about what the public hopes to see from the new high school principal. “That is what the community is looking for, in my opinion.”
TUESDAY, 1 p.m.
The staff has gathered for another meeting in the Performing Arts Center. This time, Harris draws his first applause.
“How many of you would like to wear jeans on Fridays?” he asks, prompting most hands in the room to shoot up.
Harris says he can allow that, but with one exception, jeans must be worn with a Tupelo High School shirt.
“Remember, I’m helping you, you’ve got to help me,” he says.
•••
Harris is not oblivious to the unrest that emanated from Tupelo High School’s campus last year. There were concerns about discipline, frustrations that teachers were not being supported and student protests disagreeing with the decision to transfer Tupelo High School’s last principal, Lee Stratton, now the district’s executive director of athletics and extracurricular activities.
“With everything that has gone on, my job is to be a stabilizer,” Harris said. “The teachers need to feel supported and valued.”
Joyner’s teachers said they saw that stabilizer last year. They said Harris did a great job of bringing community partnerships to the school. Music teacher Lynne Mize remembered that during last year’s unrest, Harris would call the mayor and city council members to invite them to the school to see what it was really like and witness its positive aspects.
“He has great PR skills,” Mize said. “That is his forte.”
TUESDAY, 5 p.m.
Harris pauses from his week of preparations to take his daughter, Madalyn, to her open house at Milam Elementary. He and Brandie have two children Madalyn, 11, and Jacob, 20 months.
As the school year approaches, he regrets the way his new position often keeps him away from them.
“That is a big downfall of a high school principal is how much you neglect your own family for the sake of someone else,” he said.
THURSDAY, 6:45 a.m.
The first day of school has arrived, and Harris is standing in the parking lot of Harrisburg Baptist Church watching members of the Class of 2012 prepare for their school-opening parade.
Harris says he has a special feeling for this class, aware that they’ve gone through four principals in four years.
Today, he’s nervous as he watches students board a flatbed trailer for the short trip to the THS campus. He’s concerned someone will get hurt.
“If I can just get this over, it will all be downhill,” he says while he paces.
As the parade begins around 7:15 a.m., he has another rush of emotion.
“This why you become a high school principal,” he says with a smile. “You see them here and then you watch them graduate on May 18. You don’t have this kind of atmosphere in an elementary school.”
THURSDAY, 9:46 a.m.
Harris is making rounds through the campus and sees senior Camille Walker. Together they talk about the need for the seniors to set the tone for the campus.
“Y’all have to help me out,” Harris said. “What you do represents what happens at this school. You are the seniors.”
Walker says something to the effect that student behavior on campus is not as bad as people in the community think it is.
I know, Harris says, but the belief is out there. I need y’all to help me change that.
THURSDAY, 7:15 p.m.
Day one is over, and Harris’ blue-and-gold necktie hangs loosely around his neck. He lets out a sigh as he walks into his office.
“We had a great day,” he said.
“Those teachers were teaching, the Promethean boards were lit up, and they were going from day one. That is how it has to happen. It is not about Jason Harris. It is all about those teachers and about them teaching and students learning.”
It has been also a long and tiring day that saw 2,185 students arrive on campus. As it comes to an end, Harris says he has no regrets about taking on this new challenge.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is what I want to do,” he says, emphasizing what it will mean to him to see a class of students graduate.
“Some people teach kindergarten, and they talk about teaching a child to read, and that is their niche. This is my niche.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com