Sixteen years ago, Albert Harper was nationally recognized by education advocates for narrowing the racial gap of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses at Elmont Memorial High School.
Harper wants to pick up where he left off at the end of this school year, helping students from underrepresented backgrounds on their path to college and a career.
But before he can do that, Harper says, he must walk away from his post as superintendent of the Elmont Union Free School District. He announced earlier this month his plan to retire June 30 after 16 years at the helm.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Harper said in an interview at his office Tuesday. “I’m healthy and I consider myself fairly young at 60 years old, but I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Harper, who grew up in Hollis, Queens, has been an educator for more than 30 years. He started as a substitute teacher, then became a science teacher and special education dean in New York City public schools. Before rising to lead the district, he was assistant principal and principal at Elmont Memorial High for 11 years in Sewanhaka schools.
The Elmont school district serves 3,700 prekindergarten to sixth-grade students who graduate into the Sewanhaka Central High School District, which serves 8,600 students in grades 7-12.
After more than 25 years in the district, Harper said Elmont feels like “home” and “if you cut my arm, I bleed green,” the school color.
During his time as principal at the high school, he started an initiative to address the lack of African-American male students in Advanced Placement classes. He worked alongside teachers and other school administrators to research the best way to address the disparity. He also met with parents of students who would be asked to prepare for the high-level courses.
“I had students who would resist and say, ‘Oh, Mr. Harper, I don’t want to work that hard,’ ” Harper said. “But we believed in them.”
Elmont went on to have the nation’s highest number of African-American students who received college credit on the Advanced Placement World History exam in 2004. The school was honored with the Dispelling the Myth Award at the Education Trust National Conference a year later. In 2006, former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy congratulated Harper and Elmont Memorial High before the U.S. House of Representatives for that achievement.
Harper’s work also was written about in the book “It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools,” by Karin Chenoweth.
“We found students who were perfectly capable with the right support who just hadn’t been exposed to the challenge before — that’s it,” Harper said.
Harper said he hopes to volunteer and start a food bank during retirement. But he said that what he’s most excited about is the time he’ll have to start a nonprofit to work with students from the Elmont community for free.
“I’d like to move in the direction of helping people, helping students, helping children,” Harper said. “It’s been a wonderful ride and I think I can continue that ride, but just on a different avenue.”
Harper lives in Baldwin with his wife Jinett, with whom he has two sons, Tyler, 25, and Connor, 22.
“He’s a family man in the truest sense,” said John Capozzi, assistant superintendent at the Sewanhaka Central High district. “He taught me a lot about being a family man and balancing work with family.”
The news of his retirement surprised those who worked closely with him, but they say he leaves the district on an upward trajectory.
“Our kids are doing cutting-edge projects while getting the benefits of extracurricular programs like piano and ballroom dance — and that’s thanks to Mr. Harper,” said Shawnée Warfield, principal at Alden Terrace Elementary School. “He has done a wonderful job.”
Third- to sixth-grade students now have iPads through a one-to-one program he helped institute. Harper also implemented a Model United Nations program for fourth- to sixth-graders. The Stewart Manor School, a district school among the most racially diverse on Long Island, consistently scores at or above state standards in language arts and math.
Amy Buchanan, a principal at Elmont's Dutch Broadway School, who’s worked with Harper for more than 20 years, said Harper led with "a lot of courage."
“To replace a man with shoes this large and a heart this big," she said, "is going to be a herculean task.”
ABOUT ALBERT HARPER
- Was paid a base salary of $320,772 in the 2018-19 school year. The district did not immediately provide salary information for the current school year.
- Went to Adelphi University for his master’s in special education in 1993.
- Got a professional certification in administrative supervision from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1994.
SOURCE: Newsday research