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Joel Harris and the Power of Unconditional Positive Regard

By Michael J. LaRosa, Rhodes Associate Professor of History
Photography by Cayce Yates Harris ’04

Twentieth-century American psychologist Carl Rogers pioneered the theory of unconditional positive regard: Rogers viewed healthy human development as contingent upon daily positive, nonjudgmental reinforcement from adults, with no conditions attached. Joel Harris ’03, founding principal of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) University Preparatory High school in San Antonio, TX, and his faculty live out the concept every day.

Harris has an ambitious goal, in two parts: First, he plans to provide an excellent, free public education to underserved kids in inner-city San Antonio by holding them to high standards and intervening in creative ways to ensure student success. Second, he wants to see 100 percent of his students admitted to four-year colleges, including Rhodes College in Memphis.

I spent six months of a one-year sabbatical (July-December 2009), at KIPP University Prep, helping with the multiple tasks required to open a new school. Harris, determined to help the 90 ninth graders at U. Prep visualize the centrality of college as a game changer, decided to invite a college professor to the school, full time, every day. Full disclosure: Harris was a History major at Rhodes, and I was his adviser.

Harris arrived at Rhodes from Austin, TX, in 1999 and made a name for himself early, both among his peers and the faculty. A History and German major, he participated on the men’s cross country team, co-founded Greek Fellowship (now called Tuesday Fellowship) and worked as a resident assistant. He started out with a work study job in the music library, then switched to outdoor work, pruning trees, mowing lawns and planting flowers on campus under the tutelage of the Rhodes groundskeeping staff.

After graduation, Harris left for a year abroad, having received a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistantship) fellowship. He landed in a small, struggling city in former East Germany, where he put his talents as motivator, educator, athlete and role model into play. Returning to the U.S. in 2004, he began a two-year program through the Mississippi Teacher Corps, teaching geography and German in Northern Mississippi. He concluded the program by earning a master’s degree in education from the University of Mississippi. The highlight of 2004, though, was his December marriage to English major Cayce Yates ’04. They have three children, Jaden (4), Hudson (3) and Claire (11 months).

A year teaching at the Memphis Soulsville Charter School cemented Harris’ commitment to education for the underserved. Then, in 2008, his selection as a Fisher Fellow, KIPP’s year-long leadership development program, offered him the opportunity to travel the country studying highly successful schools and educators. It also put him on track to open his own KIPP school.

KIPP University Prep is one of 82 KIPP charter schools in the country, serving some 20,000 students. The KIPP program, founded by former Teach for America educators Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, is a unique opportunity for students to excel in safe, small, publicly- and privately-financed schools that offer innovative curriculum and infrastructure. KIPP students attend school about 10 hours each day and every other Saturday. All KIPP school leaders insist on strict disciplinary standards. Students wear uniforms. They call teachers on KIPP cell phones if they have questions about their “life-work”—KIPP parlance for homework. Parents buy into the program by signing a CTE—Commitment to Excellence— Document. They agree to be partners with the school and promise to support their kids and ensure that school is prioritized even while their students are at home.

Joel Harris ’03, founding principal of KIPP University Preparatory High school in San Antonio

San Antonio is similar to many major metropolitan areas in the U.S. As the ninth largest city in the nation, San Antonio is characterized by unacceptably high dropout rates, with an alarmingly high population of young people woefully unprepared for living-wage employment or college admission.

Harris, like other KIPP school leaders and teachers, is never exactly sure what will happen once the school day kicks off. His day begins at about 6 a.m. Students arrive between 6:45 and 7:30. Breakfast is served, and Harris directs the morning schoolwide assembly. He teaches when teachers are unavailable; he’s a school counselor and disciplinarian; he manages the budget; observes the teachers; meets with parents; fixes the copy machine; plans bus routes; and thinks about the next recruitment drive. At 4:10 every afternoon, he changes out of Principal Harris attire into flag football coach clothes, and on more than one occasion, I had to hold informal meetings with Mr. Harris while he was outside tossing a football to 15-year-olds.

Angelica Ramírez is one of the students thriving academically and socially at KIPP U. Prep High School.

“I love it here,” says the 15-year-old, who was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. “KIPP is different from other schools because here the teachers really care about me as individual.” Ramírez attended two schools prior to arriving at KIPP, where she’s found her home. “KIPP is awesome, and I’m really appreciative of the relationships I’ve been able to develop here.”

KIPP U. Prep plans to grow to a full, four-grade high school, adding one grade each year during the next three years. KIPP San Antonio, which includes U. Prep and an elementary school, is set to open a middle school this fall.

Harris in class

In Memphis, as in San Antonio, there is a Rhodes-KIPP connection. Memphis’ KIPP Diamond Academy, located at nearby Cypress Middle School, is part of the Rhodes Learning Corridor, a partnership between the college and neighboring public schools where Rhodes students both tutor and learn. Russ Wigginton ’88, Rhodes vice president for College Relations, serves as KIPP Diamond board chair. In San Antonio, several Rhodes alums have volunteered at U. Prep. Mellick Sykes ’01 and his brother James ’06 helped develop the school’s internship program. Andrew Himoff ’02 has volunteered as a weekly “Tuesday tutor,” and Mikkel Quam ’09 redesigned the school’s website. Professional photographer Cayce Yates Harris ’04 lends her considerable skills to KIPP U. Prep’s efforts.

The Rhodes-KIPP connection couldn’t have been more evident nor appropriate than at last fall’s Homecoming/Reunion Weekend, when Harris was named Young Alumnus of the Year. The coveted award goes to young alums who have brought honor to Rhodes through extraordinary achievement in their profession and community.

The visionary leadership of Joel Harris and his faculty, who teach kids that there are no shortcuts and that they have the power to command their future and “be the change,” is truly inspiring to all who work for better and safer schools in this country. The work is challenging, but when kids decide to stay in school, graduate from high school and apply to college, all of us win. And the highest reward and honor for a teacher, principal (or associate professor of History), is to witness, in real time, their students emerging as transformational leaders, destined for greatness, bound by nothing but possibilities on the horizon.

Mike LaRosa with Joel Harris in background

When asked about his own activities during the fall 2009 semester he spent at San Antonio’s KIPP University Preparatory High School, Rhodes Associate Professor of History Mike LaRosa immediately shifted his focus to Joel Harris. However, after some coaxing, he e-mailed the following:

“I’ve been tutoring kids in English and Spanish, helping to teach a journalism class and publish a student newspaper, helping set up an internship program, helping with recruitment of new students, rewriting the website, and I’m the official in-house translator when parents who do not speak English visit. I also write and send out all official communications with families, in English and Spanish. And, I’m organizing extracurricular, after-school activities and I’ve started an after-hours tutoring program.

“More mundane things: I help with cafeteria duty, I oversee detention and sometimes staff the front office. “It’s a little more than I bargained for, but it’s really pushed me in new and challenging directions and made me think of myself as an educator in new ways, so the experience was really amazing, but slightly exhausting.”