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New York City
December 2002

Gen. Marcelite Harris, Chief of Staff, Dept. of Ed
By Tom Kertes

Air Force Major General Marcelite Harris probably never had a chance—not to be in the field of education, that is.

“I 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.

“Richard 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 glance.

“He 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 Harris says.

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.”

“We 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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