By Richarda Winder-Robinson
Free Press Reporter
Many children who grow up in Monroe, LA have an intense desire to leave the area at the first opportunity that presents itself. Then there are some who remain in the city after high school to ensure they play a major role in the growth and development of their community.
Jennifer Armstrong-Harris would be the latter. Harris grew up on Monroe’s south side and received most of her education from that area with the exception of her Junior High school years. Against her wishes, Harris’ mother made her attend Lee Junior High School.
It was no fun for Harris being the student of her teacher/mom. Her mom did not give her special treatment either. One day, Harris made a snide remark in her mother’s classroom and she was thrown out. From that point forward, Harris was the model student. The time came for Harris to attend high school.
Rooted in the Catholic religion, Harris’ mom wanted her to attend St. Frederick’s, but once again she protested. This time, she won the battle and was able to attend Wossman High School. Harris was in her element there. She excelled at Wossman and was well-rounded. She was voted on the homecoming court her freshman year, student council member, sang in the choir and a renowned Golden Girl.
Admired Ben Carson
Dr. Ben Carson was Harris’ idol growing up. Gifted Hands was her favorite book. She had visions of being a doctor when she became an adult. Eventually, her interests changed, and she wanted to become a dental hygienist. This was her initial major when she matriculated into Northeast Louisiana University in 1998 (currently ULM).
Transitioning from a high school where the teachers were nurturing to a university where many professors were not as caring posed a challenge for Harris. She could not focus on excelling in the major. It should come as no surprise that soon she would change her major to education because not only did she grow up with parents who were educators, but she adores children.
While in college, Harris took a keen interest in Spanish. She advanced all the way to Spanish 5 and wanted it to be her minor. However, an advisor told her that minors were not a “thing “ in education. Discouraged, Harris no longer pursued her love of the Spanish language. The same advisor also never told her about the importance of taking the Praxis Exam (exam for teachers to become certified).
Three Master’s Degrees
Once again, Harris did not have the proper guidance from the faculty at ULM. This caused her to change her major again, this time to general studies in order to graduate. This did not hinder her from advancing. Immediately she re-enrolled at ULM and entered an education program. Harris earned three master’s degrees. The third one was in Educational Leadership, and by 2010 she was finally finished with school.
In 2005, Harris received her first job in education teaching second grade at her former elementary school, Carver. However, student population went down, and she was advised to move to a school on the northside. Harris stood her ground and wanted to teach where she felt she was needed, which was at a school on the south side of Monroe. Harris understood that the students of south Monroe needed advocates and it was in her heart to stay within that part of the school district. Sticking to her guns, she was able to get a job at Madison James Foster (MJF).
Counselor at Little Flower
As an advocate for children, Harris’ need to reach them expands beyond being a teacher. She volunteers her time through several avenues to influence the youth in her community. As a lifetime member of Little Flower Catholic Church, she is a counselor to the Junior Daughters of St. Peter Claver. Its mission is to help foster young girl’s relationship with Jesus Christ. She is also a member of the Les Martinique Civic and Social Club, and part of their mission is to train young women to be productive members of society. Harris is also a member of the Junior League of Monroe and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. where she diligently volunteers several hours of community service each year.
With everything that Harris is involved in, balancing work and family life would seem overwhelming for many. For Harris, it is a piece of cake because she loves what she does as it pertains to the youth of today. It was her goal while in the classroom to give 110% of her efforts to be the best teacher possible.
Filling Big Shoes
As a result of being an exceptional educator, she was recognized by the administration. The outgoing principal approached her about applying for the position when he left. Immediately, Harris said no because at age 35 she truly did not think she was ready to fill those shoes. She also never really heard of a teacher leaving the classroom and going straight to administration as a principal. After thinking long and hard, she put it in God’s hands and applied. To her surprise, she was selected as Principal of Madison James Foster in 2015.
Walking the Halls
Harris is not a principal who sits in her office all day. She spends a lot of time walking the halls of MJF addressing each student by name. Harris says this was a practice she picked up from her former principal in elementary school, Mr. Andrew Hill. As a young child when he called her by her name, it made her feel so special, as a result she implemented this same practice when she became principal. The road to principalship was not a cakewalk for Harris. It was a challenge to supervise people who were once friends and co-workers. Many people were happy that she was chosen as principal, but she lost some teachers who could not handle the assignment. Harris says it was a great learning experience, but notes it is not for the faint of heart.
By the third year as principal, Harris found her rhythm. Looking back, Harris believes she should have reached out for help instead of doing a lot of the work on her own. Although she worked herself over time, she was able to hire, and hand pick many teachers. Due to her and the faculty’s hard work they were able to increase MJF’s grade. It was an extreme accomplishment that the school advanced several letter grades, that Harris was featured on the news for her success. However, right when MJF was excelling, the state changed the curriculum. With so many changes with testing and content, MJF dropped letter grades. This only fueled Harris and her staff to work harder. Harris had the confidence that she had gotten the students where they needed to be, but then the Pandemic happened.
Covid-19 spread through the world affecting hundreds of thousands of people and has significantly impacted the field of education. Harris states that teachers had to figure out new and creative ways to teach virtually with little to no training. She says that parents have been afraid to send their children to school, so absenteeism has been a major challenge for her. When school started in the fall, 400 students were enrolled but only 75 opted to learn face to face. Harris says “it was very eerie to walk through the school and not hear a sound”. After some months students started slowly trickling in and now, she says only 30 students are virtual. Harris is excited to proclaim not one student tested positive for COVID-19 so far. She says that she is truly blessed that she has never had to quarantine any grade levels because of the virus.
Harris notes that she does not have only one person who is her greatest influence, she gives credit to several people. The influencers who are on the forefront of her mind besides her parents who were long-time educators is Mr. Andrew Hill who she describes as the greatest principal ever. She also wants to credit Dr. Phedra Brantley for taking a chance and hiring her at Carver without any teaching experience. Lastly, she would be remised if she did not mention the late Ms. Addie Morehouse who Harris describes as a spitfire. As she reflects, Harris believes Ms. Morehouse unknowingly groomed her for her position she is in today. She says that she gave her free reign and assigned her several projects to work on outside of the classroom. Harris knows without a doubt her guidance helped her to get where she is today.
Being Principal is her Hobby
When asked what her hobbies are, Harris says, “this job is my hobby because I love it so much. There has not been a day on my morning commute when I feel like turning around and calling in”. She says being a principal is simply a hobby she gets paid to do. As far as her future aspirations, Harris is content where she is even though she does not know what God has in store for her in the future. She is perfectly satisfied staying at MFJ until retirement. Her desire is to not only strive to be an “A” school but most importantly she emotionally explains she just wants her students to feel loved. She sees so much in them and wishes everyone else would too. Harris says they are stigmatized because of where they live but there are awesome residents who live there.
Harris currently resides in Monroe, LA and with her husband Kendel of 13 years and daughter Kaiden, 11.