DURHAM — The superintendent of Durham's public schools will leave at the end of the calendar year to work for the U.S. Department of Education.
Carl E. Harris will serve as the federal agency's deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives.
The news surprised local leaders, who credited Harris for a three-year tenure marked by community cooperation, academic progress and relative calm after years of turmoil in the school system.
School board members said they learned of Harris' decision Sunday.
"It is shocking," Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said. "Dr. Harris has been a transformational leader. He has been transparent in his leadership, forward-thinking, and he knew exactly what our district needed to do to improve academic achievement and leadership potential."
Harris was unanimously appointed by the Durham school board and began his term July 1, 2006, after the announced retirement of his predecessor, Ann Denlinger.
"He knew exactly what we needed to do to move the district forward," Forte-Brown said.
Before Harris' arrival, the school board was known for public infighting and arresting disruptive attendees at meetings. Parents, teachers and some board members complained often about Denlinger's leadership.
"This community was split all kinds of ways," said community organizer Melvin Whitley. "I think he did the best that anyone could do. He probably exceeded any expectations given that he was stepping into an open wound."
Under Harris' leadership, test scores and drop-out rates have improved. More students are taking Advanced Placement courses. Harris opened six new schools, including the Holton Career and Resource Center in Northeast Central Durham and several small math and science-focused programs within established high schools, like Hillside New Tech High School.
Kristy Moore, president of the Durham Association of Educators, said Harris has been more open with teachers than previous leaders.
"There is more of a sense of belonging for teachers," said Moore, who has taught in Durham for six years.
Harris, previously the superintendent for five years at Franklin County Schools, was named Central Carolina Regional Superintendent of the Year this summer.
Like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harris has ties to the Broad Foundation, a philanthropic organization for school reform that encourages charter programs, testing for accountability and a corporate model for school governance. Harris graduated from the first class of the Broad Superintendents Academy. The Broad model has recently been controversial with some Durham parents who think the district is focusing too much on test scores.
Forte-Brown said the school board, whose members went through a two-year Broad-funded training program, plans to contact the foundation and the N.C. School Boards Association to help search for Harris' successor. They'll also be looking for an interim superintendent to serve out the school year. Harris' contract had been extended through June 2013 this year.
Whitley said he hopes the next superintendent has the same temperament and engagement with the community as Harris.
"He was just getting started," Whitley said. "But who am I to argue with the president of the United States if he wants to steal him?"
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