New York City’s second in command in the education department is expected to head to Georgia to lead the DeKalb County school district, just outside of Atlanta.
Cheryl Watson-Harris, who currently serves as first deputy chancellor, was named the sole finalist for superintendent, the DeKalb district announced Thursday. She is expected to be appointed on July 1, pending a 14-day waiting period that is mandated by Georgia law. During that time, she’ll meet with the public in virtual meetings.
In an email she sent to some colleagues, which was obtained by Chalkbeat, Watson-Harris said she was “delighted about this opportunity” and that she knows “this is my next calling.”
“I hope this is not goodbye, but a so long and the opportunity to do great things for children in a new space,” she wrote.
It’s not guaranteed that she’ll be appointed. Just weeks ago, it looked like the position would go to former New York City Chancellor Rudy Crew, who currently leads Medgar Evers College. But the school board, expressing concerns about his age and past allegations against him, backtracked and declined to offer him a contract.
In New York City, the education department acknowledged last week that Watson-Harris had been job hunting since December, after it became public that she had applied for a superintendent position in Florida.
She is set to leave the country’s largest school system just as it faces some of its greatest challenges, amid the coronavirus pandemic and resulting budget squeeze. Those difficulties coincide with widespread civil unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who died under the knee of a white police officer.
DeKalb’s announcement of her selection credits Watson-Harris with devising the city’s new school support system under schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, which includes supervising nine newly created executive superintendent positions and managing the department’s somewhat opaque efforts to improve schools. Those reforms have garnered criticism from some who say they have added bureaucracy, been poorly defined, and do not include clear metrics for improving schools.
Carranza, who appointed Watson-Harris as his right-hand in 2018, called her looming departure “bittersweet.”
“We are so grateful for all Cheryl has contributed to advancing equity and excellence for New York City’s 1.1 million public school students,” he wrote. “We wish her the best in this incredible new endeavor and know the students of DeKalb County would be lucky to have Cheryl as their leader.”
Watson-Harris rose quickly through the ranks of the city’s education department, serving in two different stints here that were broken up by time spent as a principal and senior education official in Boston. Upon her return in 2015, she was responsible for just one of the city’s school-support centers in Brooklyn and went on to supervise all seven of them. At one point, she had been rumored to be under consideration to become chancellor.
DeKalb County serves about 100,000 students, fewer than Watson-Harris oversaw in Brooklyn, the role she held prior to joining the education department’s central offices. Most of those enrolled are students of color: almost 64% are black, about 17% are Hispanic, 11% are white, and just over 6% are Asian.
DeKalb school board Chair Marshall Orson touted Watson-Harris’ experience and “her commitment to equity for all students.”
“Cheryl Watson-Harris is part of the next generation of outstanding leaders in public education,” he said. “She fits the criteria desired by the DeKalb community.”