BROOKSVILLE — Debbie Harris let herself into her new office at the STAR Education Center for the first time on Monday and found herself alone.
But even without the cacophony of ringing phones, chatting students and bustling staff, the feeling was unmistakable, she said. "It just felt good," Harris said. "When I opened door it was like, 'I'm home.' "
Harris, 55, served as assistant principal at STAR, the district's alternative school for students trying to get back on track after serious or repeated discipline problems, from 2005 to 2007. Now she's back, replacing John Stratton, who'd taken over last summer but was reassigned to the principal post at Explorer K-8 by interim superintendent Sonya Jackson.
Harris, who'd been serving as an assistant principal over the ninth-grade center at Central High in Brooksville, was a logical choice, Jackson said.
Sure, the fact that Harris had worked there before is one of the biggest reasons why, Jackson said. And Harris, a former guidance counselor, has plenty of experience in vocational and technical education, which is a big emphasis at STAR.
But Harris has demonstrated the intangible qualities that can't be noted in a resume, Jackson said. "She has the love and compassion it would take to work with those students," she said.
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A native of Dade City, Harris watched her father Omar Ergle enlighten minds as an agriculture teacher for Pasco County schools. Ergle, who also owned a tree farm in Pasco, would go on to become vocational director for the Pasco district and then provost for Pasco Hernando Community College.
Harris earned a bachelor's degree in marketing education from Auburn University and then a master's in counseling and human development from Troy State University in Alabama. After starting her teaching career at a private school in Alabama, she returned to Pasco as a junior high guidance counselor.
After some time off, she took a job in 1989 teaching marketing at Hernando High. Eight years later, she moved to the guidance department and was department chair within a year. She stayed for about seven years.
After three years as a counselor at Fox Chapel Middle School, Harris returned to Hernando High for a year. In January 2005, she volunteered for a teaching assignment at STAR.
Up to that point, Harris had plenty of experience with the entire spectrum of students, from the valedictorians to the kids who barely eked out a diploma.
For some students, STAR — short for Students at Risk — is the last step before expulsion. To get back to their home schools, students must use their time there as a springboard to a second chance by behaving well, showing initiative and, in many cases, catching up academically.
"I think I've always been drawn to students who need somebody to help them find their way and need some mentoring," Harris said. Six months later, then-superintendent Wendy Tellone tapped Harris to serve as assistant principal
In 2007, Tellone's successor Wayne Alexander assigned Harris to the assistant principal job at Central to lead the just-opened ninth-grade center. The center's goal is to offer a tight-knit place for teachers to collaborate, integrate instruction and bring out the best in students' during their freshman year.
The model worked and Harris loved her job there, making it a little tough to leave for STAR. "It was bittersweet," she said.
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Though Alexander's administrative shuffles were sometimes questioned, John Stratton was roundly praised as his choice to take over at STAR last year for John Shepherd, who'd served as principal for 12 years before moving to an assistant position at Eastside Elementary. Stratton had plenty of experience dealing with emotionally troubled students in danger of dropping out.
Then Jackson tapped Central High principal Dennis McGeehan to lead the new high school north of Weeki Wachee. Floyd K-8 principal Joe Clifford shifted to Central, Explorer K-8 principal Ray Pinder headed to Floyd and Stratton moved to Explorer. The reassignments took effect Monday.
Harris is the top administrator at STAR but because of tight budgets, she remains classified as an assistant principal and won't get a raise from her salary of $67,160. Harris, who has two grown children, lives in Ridge Manor with her husband, Tony, and now owns Ergle's Christmas Tree Farm.
Students respect Harris, said Walter Russ, a program coordinator at STAR who worked under Harris during her first stint at the school.
"She cares about what's going on at home and with their families," Russ said. "She knows academics can make these kids, and she understands there needs to be a balance between home issues and school issues."
Russ said Harris can be gentle but firm. Harris says she got that quality from her father.
"It's very important for students to know they have someone that is looking out for them and someone they can talk to who isn't going to become angry with them," she said. "Kids know when a person is for real or not and whether a person has their best interests at heart. I really believe in these students. I want to see them succeed and be the best they can be, and I think they know that."
STAR has its roots in the so-called Opportunity School that opened in Lake Lindsey in 1976. Two years later, the school moved to its current campus. After a few more location changes in the early 1990s, the school moved back to Varsity Drive in 1996 and took the STAR name.
STAR is home to the Technology Oriented Performance Program, or TOPP, which Harris founded during her first stint at the school. The program is designed to help those behind in credits or struggling with a low grade-point average.
TOPP students graduate with a diploma but not necessarily with 24 credits. Harris says she wants to build on the program so students can recover more credits and leave with a more complete transcript
Alexander had threatened to close STAR and create a program on another existing campus to save money. But the school should expand, not close, Harris said.
STAR has an enrollment of 80 students, a staff of 22, and plenty of room to grow, Harris said. Alternative funding sources such as grants would help, she said.
"When this school demonstrates even more value, it will no longer be anything anybody considers cutting," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.