This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Congratulations to Wendell A. Harris, our North Region "Changemaker for Schools!"
Wendell A. Harris It was over twenty years ago that Wendell A. Harris was challenged by the teacher at his six-month-old daughter’s Head Start program to volunteer at the school for just one hour a month. Reluctantly, he gave it a shot and was quickly put to work finger-painting with the young children.
That first hour has since turned into a decades-long commitment to improving Philadelphia’s public schools as an outspoken voice for parents and community members on issues ranging from school privatization to the District’s discipline policies.
Harris has been a dedicated volunteer for the Home and School associations at his children’s schools in the North Region, serving as president of the Home and School Associations at Birney Elementary, Cooke Middle, and Olney High Schools.
Currently a vice president of the citywide Home and School Council, the umbrella group for Home and School associations, Harris is a representative for all of the North Region’s Home and School associations and is an assisting officer in the West and Central East Regions.
Most recently, as Chair of the Home and School Council’s Safety and Discipline Committee, Harris been a vocal critic of the District’s new zero tolerance policy implemented under CEO Paul Vallas.
As an advocate for individual students and as a districtwide voice on the new policy, Harris has pushed for a more holistic approach to discipline that offers students more supports.
"We need realistic prevention and intervention programs in place – something of a broader scope," Harris explained. "We haven’t been listening to children when they’ve been hollering for help. All we’ve been doing is reacting."
He has also criticized the lack of student and parent involvement in developing the new student discipline code. Simply put, Harris said, "A program has to engage parents, students, community, and educators or it won’t work."
To that end, Harris is currently working to convene a group of all of those constituencies to discuss a more comprehensive approach to school discipline.
He said that this will likely be his last year of formal involvement as a Home and School officer, but he will continue to be an advocate for the schools and school children.
Harris’s advice to parents who want to improve their schools is to hang in through tough times. "Don’t allow yourself to be frustrated to the point that you become turned off from reaching that point where you really realize how valuable and important you are," he said.
"The rewards are so much greater than the frustrations," he said, adding that he has found support for his work with schools in his spiritual belief. "Anyway, if I don’t receive a reward in this life, I will receive one through my Lord and Savior."