For 25 years, Al Harper has been a fixture in Elmont, serving as an assistant principal and principal at Elmont Memorial High School before becoming the Elmont School District superintendent in 2005. But now his time in the district is coming to an end, as he announced on Jan. 7 that he would retire at the end of the school year.
“I’ve had a tremendous 15-year run in this community,” Harper said of his time as superintendent. “I’ve made friends and relationships that will last forever.”
Harper, 60, grew up in Queens, and received a bachelor’s degree in communication from Howard University in 1981. He then earned a master’s in special education from Adelphi University in 1993 and a professional certification in administrative supervision from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1994.
His first job in education was as a middle school and special education teacher in New York City. There, Harper was responsible for teaching science to seventh- through ninth-graders, as well as special education to ninth-graders. He eventually became both a grade and special education dean in the district, and worked to train new teachers, coordinate multicultural programs and establish procedures for expanding the collection of student data. Harper also helped implement Project Reach in the schools — a program that empowers teenagers to strategize ways to address discrimination and injustice.
In 1995, he joined the Sewanhaka Central High School District as an assistant principal at Elmont Memorial High School, where he served on the Sewanhaka District Safety Committee, organized the school’s discipline plans, coordinated in-school suspension and supervised the Saturday Detention program. Whenever he had to discipline students, however, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Administration John Capozzi said, he used the opportunity to teach students a lesson.
“He taught me so much in every role,” said Capozzi, who was a social studies teacher and assistant principal under Harper. “He taught me that every decision we make as educators has to be what’s best for students,” which became Capozzi’s educational philosophy.
In 2002, Harper was named principal of Elmont Memorial High, and was responsible for the management and instruction of nearly 2,000 students. During his tenure, the school received several accolades, and was recognized by the College Board in 2004 for having more black males pass the Advanced Placement World History exam than any other school in the world.
He continued that trend toward excellence when he became the Elmont district superintendent in 2005, building on his experiences at the middle- and high school levels. During his time as superintendent, Harper expanded enrichment programs to all students in grades three through six and, seeing how successful the high school’s Model United Nations club was, implemented a similar program for the elementary school students. Now they act as delegates to foreign countries — making speeches, preparing draft resolutions, negotiating with allies and adversaries, and resolving conflicts. The students do a great deal of in-depth research for the club, and learn how the international community acts on issues such as climate change, human rights, food insecurity, development and globalization.
“It’s unheard of to have an elementary school student doing such high-level research,” Harper told the Herald, “but I knew our kids could do it.”
For his efforts, Harper was one of three distinguished African-Americans to speak in 2006 about student achievement at then Sen. Barack Obama’s Educational Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., after the district had been recognized by the state for raising proficiency levels the year before. At the time, 87 percent of students were listed as proficient on the English Language Arts exam, up from 50 percent in the 1998-99 school year, and 95.3 percent of students were proficient in mathematics, up from 70 percent. As a result, then Assemblyman Tom Alfano and members of the State Assembly Task Force on Successful Schools visited Elmont to examine how its administrators raised proficiency rates in such a diverse school district.
“When you look at the multitude of languages and the cultural diversity in the schools,” Alfano said at the time, “it’s crystal clear that Elmont is a model of success that other districts can emulate if they wish to increase performance, too.”
But student performance was not everything to Harper — he knew he had to be involved in the community. He was a regular at local events, and forged strong relationships with officials at Gateway Youth Outreach, Belmont Park and the fire department.
As superintendent, he also encouraged students to get involved in the community. He spearheaded the Elmont Dads Club, which engages fathers and their children in community service activities, and started a Thanksgiving food drive that, he said, has “grown tremendously,” from providing a Thanksgiving dinner to 14 families in its first year more than a decade ago to nearly 100 local families last November. “He really had his finger on the pulse of the community,” Capozzi recalled. “It seemed like he had an intuition of where to be and when to be there.”
That will continue even after he retires, he said. Harper said that, while he wants to spend the first few months of his retirement with his family, he is “going to do something again.” Perhaps, he said, he might found a food bank in the community, adding, ”I’ll always be an Elmont person.”