Power and Perseverance: Elker L. Harris | Teachers College Columbia University

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Power and Perseverance: Elker L. Harris


Elker L. Harris calls himself a Treasure Hunter. He’s always looking for students with the right combination of talent, skills, intelligence and persistence to keep expanding their horizons and working toward success.Often, he finds it, just as he found those qualities in himself as a  Summer Scholar at Teachers College in 1991.

The professors and graduate students at Teachers College that summer set the bar very high, but then helped them succeed. “They challenged us and provided us with the leadership to work through those challenges. They gave us strategies and support to finish the assignment,” says Harris, 45, now Dean of the High School Division at Lincoln Park Academy, a public magnet school in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Not only did the Summer Scholars program force Harris to mine talents that he never knew he had, it taught him that sharing them was essential. The summer scholars learned they had to work together to get all the work done. “We became powerful together,” he recalls. “We learned how you can bring your hand together to make a powerful fist.”

Power and perseverance have been the hallmarks of Harris’s career. He came to Teachers College during the summer between his junior and senior years at Bethune College (now Bethune University) in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he was studying and training in vocal performance. After graduating a semester early from Bethune with a bachelor of arts in music education, Harris taught school from 1992 to 1998. Then he moved with his grandmother, who had raised him, to Gainesville, Florida, to earn a master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Florida. Since that time, Harris has also earned an Education Specialist degree in Leadership from NOVA South Eastern University.

“We became powerful together. We learned how you can bring your hand together to make a powerful fist.”
— Elker L. Harris

Harris performed opera in Houston and sang The Star Spangled Banner at a campaign rally for Joe Biden. He became the choral director at South Fork High School in his hometown, Stuart, Florida, where he built the choir from eight to 25 members and into a nationally competitive powerhouse. He continued to teach through those years, never losing his enthusiasm for working in front of an orchestra pit or a classroom. He is now the senior pastor and teacher at Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Stuart.

In 2000, he was tapped by Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Arts, which at the time served students from grades three through eight, as choral director and general music director. There, he got noticed for “some leadership potential,” Harris says. Under the leadership of Dr. David T. Washington, he became a “quasi-assistant” to the principal, filling administrative roles while continuing to teach one class of music.

A key principle of the Summer Scholars Program was to bring African American educators to graduate school campuses for several weeks and encourage them to share their experiences in the program once they return home. Harris has strived not only for his personal best, but to mentor junior members of the faculty. One of four African Americans out of 90 educators at his school, he belongs to a district-wide group of minority educators and aspiring educators who meet twice a month to support and learn from one another how to be more effective. They often talk about the special needs of minority students, who may be struggling at home or in their neighborhoods in ways that are keeping them from learning.

“Sometimes, we expect them to change without our changing as well,” Harris says. “I think that now, we have so many limited positive role models [for children], that to have someone who looks like me or someone who has grown up with like circumstances would definitely provide a positive role model for students in any school.”

To that end, Harris works daily at making Lincoln Park an academically challenging place that brings out the talent, skills and scholastic potential of each student, but also an oasis of safety and encouragement for his over 1,700 students – not unlike what he experienced as a Summer Scholar at Teachers College more than 20 years ago.

Harris remembers one day as a Summer Scholar, when he and his classmates were assigned 27 chapters in a textbook to read by the following morning, a feat that seemed Herculean at the time. But guided by TC graduate students who were on board to assist them in a cooperative learning strategy called “jigsaw reading,” the students tackled the assignment with the “divide and conquer” method, each reading sections of the text and reporting back to the whole body.

“The requirements were so strenuous,” Harris recalls, “we had to work together to satisfy the assignments.” The professors and graduate students challenged them, but then they provided the scholars with the leadership, strategies and support they needed to work through those challenges.

“The things that we learned during that summer were very helpful in pushing me into challenging myself in different areas of my life – not just professionally, but in all areas of my life.” – Patricia Lamiell

Published Monday, Apr 18, 2016

Elker Harris
Elker L. Harris, Summer Scholars program alumnus