Marcelite Harris, Chief of Staff, Dept. of Ed
Force Major General Marcelite Harris probably never had a chance—not
to be in the field of education, that is.
come from a family of educators,” she says, relaxing in the spacious
fourth-floor conference-room in the Tweed Courthouse. “My great-great
grandfather established a school for African-American children.
His son, my grandfather, became an architect after being one of
the first blacks ever at MIT. My mom was a high school librarian,
and her brother is a teacher and principal. He was the Vice Principal
at my junior high school, in fact.”
Still, throughout her distinguished 33-year career in the United
States Air Force, General Harris had little to do specifically
with education. But then the call—or, rather, “The Call”—came.
Howley, the general my husband once worked for, was on the phone
and said that I should expect a call from Chancellor Joel Klein,”
Harris recalls. “He told me it was a big job in New York City,
but wouldn’t exactly tell me what it was about. All he would say
is that ‘when they told me about the kind of individual they wanted,
you immediately came to my mind.’”
As it turned out, New York City’s brand new Schools Chancellor
was searching for someone who was a self-starter with deeply ingrained
discipline, who was good at implementing strategies and tactics
and who had the outstanding leadership qualities and stubborn
drive to serve as his Chief of Staff. Given these requirements,
looking for a person with a lifetime of stunning success in the
military was perhaps not as unusual as it would seem at first
said the military discipline is the kind of discipline he wanted—and
I couldn’t say no,” General Harris says. “Joel came across as
very dedicated and enthusiastic. You kind of feed on that—it’s
catching. It felt like a mission. It almost felt like destiny.”
The first military person hired by the city’s new Department of
Education? Why not—Harris’ life is full of firsts: she was the
first woman aircraft maintenance officer for the U.S. Air Force;
she was the first woman deputy commander for maintenance; she
was one of the first two women air officers commanding at the
U.S. Air Force Academy; and she is the first African-American
woman Major General ever in the U.S. military.
At the time of her retirement in 1997, Harris was the highest
ranking female officer in the Air Force.
In her “spare time,” General Harris, who majored in speech and
drama at Atlanta’s Spelman College, dabbled in singing and acting.
She also served in President Carter’s White House and, after her
retirement from the military, she became Director of Operations
Support and Logistics Processes for the United States Space Alliance,
the company contracted by NASA for the launch and recovery of
the space shuttle.
Now “on a steep learning curve” as the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff,
she says, “the Chancellor has dubbed me as his implementer,” a
person who knows how to get things done. “And I feel that it’s
also my job to make sure that the Chancellor looks good all the
time,” Harris adds. “He’s so busy that he can’t possibly cover
all the little things that happen all at once. So I make sure
that he is prepared for anything.”
Harris’ get-things-done skills—she was once responsible for organizing,
training, and equipping a workforce of more than 125,000 while
managing an annual budget of $20 million—will be immensely important
to the new administration’s eventual success; experience shows
that, in education, many times the best—and best-intentioned—policies
never to come to fruition. Will this administration manage to
bring about the much-needed changes in public education? “I would
say that if we don’t, you should hold us accountable,” General
The Chancellor’s “Children First” program is currently in its
“listening” phase; meetings with thousands of parents, students,
teachers, business, community and faith-based groups are being
held in all five boroughs on a daily basis. “The Chancellor and
myself are all over the place,” General Harris says. “We are very
curious about peoples’ input. So I would say, speak up! Make suggestions!
This is the time to get your voice heard. We are listening. We
don’t want any parent not to get an answer. Joel is a Chancellor
who is really involved. He insists on reading every single e-mail.
He always says to me ‘this is really important. This is my connection
with the real world out there.”
aim to raise the level of learning significantly,” General Harris
said. “The main problem is that a large portion of public school
children are not reaching the standards. And we view the standards
as minimum—we are reaching above and beyond that. What we are
reaching for is excellence.”#
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