Harrison new Galesburg Superintendent

by Norm Winick

Gary Harrison wasn't looking for a new job. He's been Superintendent of the Wethersfield School District in Kewanee for the past 13 years. Doug Blair of the Illinois school Board Association approached him and asked if he'd be interested in the Galesburg position: ''He told me that the Galesburg School Board was pleased with [retiring Superintendent] Ron Cope and 'you appear to be the closest match to Ron Cope we have in the state.' I put my application in about two weeks before closing. The interview was intense and rigorous.''

Harrison was announced as Galesburg's new Superintendent last week. He starts July 1st and says he's already got his house on the market and is looking for a place to live in Galesburg. ''My wife and I are looking forward to becoming Silver Streaks.'' (He started this weekend as he sat incognito in the upper bowl at Redbird Arena and watched the girl's basketball team.) ''We will be totally immersed in the community. I've lived in this area a long time and Galesburg was always the larger city we'd go to for shopping and eating. I just love the New China Café.'' He also knows several of his assistants. ''I served with Neil Sappington in the military and I used to hire Leslie [Assistant Superintendent O'Melia] as an official when I was a principal.''

Harrison is a former technology coordinator and has both a Mac and a Windows computer on his desk. He send emails to staff daily; he does his own desktop publishing. He was surprised to learn that Galesburg's Board offices are not even networked. ''We'll get that changed this summer.''

The new Superintendent is a sportsman. He's belonged to the Little John Conservation Club in Knox County for 25 years. ''I used to hunt and now I'm an avid fisherman. I'd still hunt if I could put the prey back like I put my fish back.''

Harrison takes over a district in good fiscal condition. That wasn't the case when he started at Wethersfield. ''When I came here we had a $500 balance in the bank. We will have $4.5 million when I leave. It was a combination of things. We reprioritized our spending. The census showed we had a higher poverty rate and that increased our state aid. We wrote more grants. We went together with Stark County and Galva and hired a curriculum director -- the first co-op one in the state. But I'd say my successes come as a result of the people I work with.''

He is a self-described proponent of ''management by walking around.'' He gets into the schools and the classrooms almost every day. He knows many of the students by name. ''I don't know how you can manage without being visible. That's where you hear what's really going on. I talk to everyone. When I bring donuts and meet with the custodians on Saturday morning, I learn a lot more about what's going on. I'm an above-the-board kind of guy; I don't like closed meetings. I like open discussion. I like split votes on boards; it shows that they're thinking.''

''My job as Superintendent is to recommend what I think is the best course of action for the students. The Board's job is to make the best decision.''

Wethersfield is on an 8-block schedule -- a longer class period format not unlike the 4-block Galesburg High School will implement next year. ''In order for a block to work, teachers have to change the way they teach. Kids learn in small bits; you need to break up the course time.''

Harrison prides himself on being a people-person and remaining flexible. ''Our policies always say they are 'guidelines.' Those in charge need to use discretion to determine the proper course of action based on the individual circumstances. The worst thing you can do is treat all kids equal. Every kid is unique and different and has different needs. I was the last holdout here on drug tests. I think they send the wrong message. I am not a gestapo-type person. I hate that mentality. I am not suspicious by nature; I trust people. We do not have a 365-day code of conduct here. Kids need to be held accountable for what they do but need to be loved and guided throughout the process. A first-grader has less accountability than a high schooler.''

He thinks teachers need to remain flexible, too. ''I am not a standards type of person. I don't like teaching to tests. Teachers need to be creative. Standards don't allow that.''

''Schools are still the safest place a kid can be in this country -- safer than home or the streets. We've had another school shooting and there will be new efforts to tighten things down. The losers will be the kids.''

''For the next four months, I have a fine line to walk. I am still the Superintendent of Wethersfield and will perform my job and help them search for my replacement until the end of June.''

''I really have no predetermined thoughts on what I am going to change until I see what's going on. ''I will lead in a direction guided by the community. When it conflicts with my own personal beliefs and convictions, I will leave.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 7, 2001

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