Wayne County School principal named National Distinguished Principal
Wayne County Schools are proud to congratulate Bell Elementary Principal Derrick Harris on being recognized as a National Distinguished Principal (NDP) recently in Washington D.C.
He was selected for the award by the National Association of Elementary Schools who represent 20,000 members and their NAESP Board of Directors. He traveled to Washington D.C. for the prestigious two-day event held October 10-11. He joined over 60 principals from across the nation from public and some private school districts, including some representatives from American Schools overseas from as far away as the Panama Canal and Ecuador.
“Your leadership serves as a shining example of the importance of the school principal in meeting the challenging responsibility of educating children,” noted Executive Director L. Earl Franks, Ed.D., CAE in a letter to the NDP Class of 2019.
Harris has served as a principal since 2006 starting at Walker Early Learning Center, while leading Bell Elementary in that capacity since 2013. He has focused on implementing best practices that increase student performance and learning, such as a differentiated literacy program that ensures each child’s specific instructional needs are being met. This highly successful program has resulted in a high percentage of the students now reading at grade level. Previously, he taught in his hometown at Pulaski County and Somerset Community College.
Harris enjoyed the brief trip to the nation’s capital that was packed with sightseeing attractions like a visit to the White House, recognition by the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and perhaps the most valuable part were workshops where he mingled with distinguished colleagues who faced similar education barriers. The topics they collaborated on included leadership styles and the obstacles they faced as leaders. Declining teacher applicants, as well as growing trends regarding different religions and ethnicity, as well as socio-economic differences where America is becoming a true melting pot.
“It was beyond words…the money they spent and the way they treated us,” said Harris. “They were so good to me to the point of humility, where you feel bad.”
For example, noticeable perks like the oversized seal of the NDP organization in the hotel lobby that welcomed Harris and his wife Sherie to valuable professional development opportunities on a national scale to specially planned tours on chartered buses to a black-tie awards dinner and dance were quite memorable.
Even though, the sights and sounds of the experience were a bit overwhelming, the warm wishes from his staff and students probably meant the most to Harris when he returned home. A surprise open house luncheon was held in the school library to commemorate Harris’ honorary trip. Various groups of his first and second graders made appearances during the potluck lunch, complete with handmade signs and hugs to melt his heart. Staff members brought their specialties in crockpots, along with deliciously baked desserts. His parents and his young nephew were the honorary guests at the congratulatory event as staff members rotated in and out during their hurried school lunch schedule.
“I’m very blessed to have so many highly skilled educators in our building,” stressed Harris. “They run this ship and I try to keep it afloat and point it in a positive direction.”
Harris is not sure who nominated him for the award, but committee representatives from the state elementary principal’s association came down from Louisville to observe the day-to-day activities at school and review his letters of recommendation. That was not the least bit intimidating, because that is a common occurrence at Bell Elementary. Teachers from other school districts frequently drop by to learn their successful instructional reading formula complete with literacy blocks happening at the local elementary school that serves 430 students. It is a two-way learning streak for local teachers because local reading teachers have been asked to speak at numerous conferences, as well as travel to other surrounding districts to share the local strategies that are working so efficiently.
Harris takes pride in discovering teachers’ strengths, then finding the resources and tools to help them reach their fullest potential. He believes that a true leader does not create followers but inspires more leaders. He has created a culture at Bell where staff are encouraged to live up to this vision as they continuously develop their skills.
“I’ll take good people over good programs,” said Harris who has a sign on his organized desk, “In this office…WE do TEAMWORK, we do Help, We do Respect, Punctuality, and Laughter. We Communicate and Listen. We do Motivation. We do GREAT Things!”
Harris admitted that the one word in that sign – “Listen” was an area he needed to grow in, especially with first and second graders. They are six or seven-years-old and it takes them a long time to communicate.
At the conference, he had the pleasure of learning some interesting stories about other principals and their pathways. He was struck by one of the principals at the NDP that taught him a valuable lesson. His name was Alfonso C. Lopez and he was from the state of Washington.
Lopez started his career in his mid 20’s as an immigrant working in an apple orchard without speaking a word of English. He eventually got his GED and landed a job as a custodian at a school. Next, he got his associates degree and becomes an instructional assistant. His story continues and he gets his teaching certificate becoming a teacher. Five more years pass and long story short, Lopez becomes the school principal.
Needless to say, Harris was hooked on his inspirational story. With about 13 percent of Harris’ student body being minorities, where half of the children have a foreign primary language, he was more than interested in Lopez’ interesting pathway. By the age of five, local immigrants generally speak more English than their parents. In these situations, the language barrier creates an obstacle regarding valuable parent communication. The school district has a limited number of translators and the folks at Bell have a bilingual high school student fluent in Spanish that currently interns for them in the afternoons.
Lopez advised Harris to just love them. “Let them know you love them. That’s all that parents want to know, that you want to support their children,” Lopez said.
He taught Harris the simplest of lessons. “When you go back to your school, the first Hispanic family you see…go up and hug them."
Bell Elementary Principal Derrick Harris amongst the fellow National Distinguished Principals
Harris speaking at the honorary event. All of the principals were given lei necklaces from their peer principal from Hawaii.
Principal Harris with fellow Principal Alfonso C. Lopez from the state of Washington.
Principal Harris at a photo shoot
The National Association of Elementary School Principals seal was embedded in the carpet at the entrance of the hotel.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking to the principals at the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Part of their events were held in the historic Eisenhower Building which houses many of the U.S. government offices
Derrick and Sherie Harris after the ceremony with his framed certificate
Back home at a potluck school luncheon in the school library celebrating the award. Harris received a special mug from his cafeteria staff. (Above and Below)
The staff knows how to cook and share their dishes.
Harris was greeted by different classes of students as they rotated in and out during their lunch break with signs of well wishes.
Harris with Kayley Baker, one of his students.
Kim Lasley's class visited the library with a sign that said, "You're the Best Principal Hands Down" complete with handprints.