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Harrison is a rising star in education

She leads one of the top alternative schools in Mississippi. She’s sold on giving students who don’t fare well in standard classrooms a chance to succeed.

She’s one of a small group of teachers statewide to be picked for training for a potential superintendent’s job.

And her doctoral dissertation has captured the attention of a group of researchers in California and Houston who want her to edit her dissertation as a handbook to help teachers of color succeed.

Meet LaRenda “Janee” Harrison in ways you may not know her.

She’s been the director of the Fannie Mullins Alternative Center and director of alternative education for the Brookhaven School District since 2014.

You may know her by way of her family. Her father Doc Harrison was a long-time educator and now serves on the school board. Her mother Clementine Harrison taught at Mullins and Lipsey. Or you may recall she was salutatorian of her graduating class at Brookhaven High.

Mullins, by the way, is one of the top 60 alternative schools in the state, according to publicschoolreview.com.

Harrison has the heart to help its students excel.

“There are some students who fare better in an environment that’s not like a traditional environment,” she said.

Some of her students are there due to discipline problems, but about 20 percent “elect to come here for a smaller environment so they can concentrate better. It’s all about helping students get an education so they can prepare for the future.”

Harrison works with all area school officials to identify those who need to be in the school, even temporarily, and those who would benefit from a different, quieter learning experience.

“My job involves a lot of paperwork and reports,” she said, “but I have a really good staff and we’ve been able to get the hang of getting things done.”

The bottom floor of the school is for in-school reassignment. Separate sections of the upstairs are for alternative placement that is likely to be long-term and for students who are working on a GED.

“Three or four of our students have actually graduated with their class,” she said.

Some may think of an alternative school as a school only for unruly students. There are other considerations that can make alternative school a way to catch up on classes after falling behind, from having poor attendance or family issues that affect learning.

Harrison gives an example of a student who was living with an older sister who worked and had children.

“He was left to get his sister’s kids on buses, and he couldn’t get to school on time,” she said. “My classes don’t start until 9, so it worked out for him to get those kids on the bus and come here for school. We are ultimately grateful we could give him that opportunity.”

Harrison just may be superintendent material. She is the first African American female teacher in the Brookhaven District to be selected for the Mississippi School Boards Association’s Prospective Superintendent Leadership Academy. It’s a yearlong training program that aims to prepare potential candidates for superintendent positions in the state’s public schools.

“I’m super beefed about that,” she said.

Her doctoral dissertation in education administration at the University of Alabama was on the “Induction Experiences of Minority Teachers in a Rural Mississippi School District.”

Harrison’s research indicates that only 18 percent of more than 2 million teachers are people of color. She believes an induction program can take stress off new educators, given them confidence to stay on the job and help them focus on quality learning and quality teaching.

“Studies show that the impact minority educators have on student achievement, particularly among minority students, is tangible and massive but often what drives them to leave the profession is a lack of support, visibility, networking and input, much of what induction programs tend to offer,” Harrison wrote.

Professional development is especially important for teachers of color, and is key to the field of education, she told The Daily Leader.

“We often go outside our district to find teachers, but the real human value is in developing and keeping what you have,” Harrison said.

“There’s a larger pool of students than ever before who could become teachers, and we would like them to come back to where they went to school.”

Her dissertation was part of the topic of a conference in November.

“I never thought my dissertation would take me this far,” she said. “Now it will be part of a handbook that hopefully will make an impact.”

In her personal life, she is the happy owner of Oreo, a female boxer/pit bull mix. Harrison has a fiancé, loves to travel and said she’s proud to have a sense of humor.

Harrison earned two degrees at Mississippi State, including a master’s in counseling, and two higher degrees, both in educational leadership and administration from the University of Alabama.

For all her advanced training, her greeting to students at school each day is simple, personable and encouraging: “It’s a great day to be at Mullins.”

Story by Robin Eyman