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Continued: Making history

  • Article by: BY ALLIE SHAH
  • Last update: December 9, 2009 - 10:45 AM

It was an unexpected phone call from hundreds of miles away that triggered Donna Harris to answer "a calling."¶ The call, she says, led her to leave her extended family and a comfortable job in California to become the new president of Minnehaha Academy this year.¶ In accepting the job, Harris made some history, becoming both the first female president and the first African-American president in the school's nearly 100-year history.

"It was totally something I was not planning," she said of the move.

Last winter, she received a call from a search firm hired by Minnehaha Academy inviting her to apply for the school's top job. "I chuckled when she told me the school was in Minnesota."

At the time, Harris, 49, was the assistant superintendent of Valley Christian Schools in California and was hoping to take over as its superintendent one day.

Faced with a difficult choice, she did what she always does: She prayed.

"I said, 'God, if this is a door you want me to walk through, I will,' " Harris said. "As soon as I prayed that, I felt peace. And here I am."

Minnehaha Academy leaders whittled the candidate field from their top 10 choices to two finalists before picking Harris in May as the school's eighth president.

She succeeded John Engstrom, who resigned after 15 years at the helm to become the head of a school in South Korea.

Now, four months into the job, Harris is settling into her new role and her new life in Minnesota.

"I don't get lost as much as I used to," she joked last week while walking through the maze of hallways at the school's North campus building.

Minnehaha Academy is a private Christian school that enrolls 1,075 students in grades K-12 on three campuses in Minneapolis and Bloomington. Founded in 1913, it originally was a vocational high school offering business and secretarial courses.

It was the school's mission -- quality academics undergirded by a strong Christian tradition -- that resonated with Harris. That and the school's emphasis on the importance of arts, athletics and academics.

Children have different gifts, Harris said, and she believes a good school offers students high-quality instruction and opportunities in all three areas.

Harris grew up singing in her church, and she also played softball and ran track at her school. Her father was in the Air Force, and the family moved around a lot when she was a child.

She was born in Louisiana but spent most of her teen years in California, moving there at age 13. She attended public schools and taught in California's public schools for years before taking a job as curriculum director of the Valley Christian Schools, a large private school system where all five of her children got their education. Eventually, Harris was promoted to assistant superintendent.

At school events, Harris often can be found with a camera, snapping candid shots that she displays in a digital photo frame on her desk. The kids like to drop by her office and look at them, she said.

Still an avid singer, she was invited to join the school's gospel choir in a performance last month. In the weeks leading up to the concert, she practiced with the students in the early morning hours. She also helped teach the students about the roots of gospel music.

"I don't want to be a figurehead," she says. "I want to be a part of the life of the school. And you do that by getting involved."

She's always been big on involvement. When she was a teenager, she was very involved in her church and listened intently when her pastor described a mission trip he had made to South America. Inspired, she signed up for a two-week mission trip to sing in Colombian prisons with a church choir. She returned, and felt a calling to go back for a more serious mission.

Harris joined Overseas Crusades and devoted two years to mission work in South America. She worked with juvenile prisoners in Colombia, helping them get their medical needs met. It was a life-changing experience. "My eyes were opened to the suffering of humanity and the understanding that we have the ability to be a part of the solution," she said.

That discovery led her to pursue a career in education. And it's what drove her to take a leap of faith and start anew in Minnesota.

For now, she's straddling life here and her old life in California. Her husband of 28 years, Rick, still lives in the Bay Area, and the two have been traveling back and forth every few weeks. He's hoping to relocate to the Twin Cities sometime next year.

Long hours are a routine, she says, noting the high volume of calls and e-mails she gets daily from parents and others. Often, her car is still in the parking lot at 9:30 p.m., she says.

It's that kind of energy that impressed Jim Volling, chairman of the board of education for Minnehaha Academy.

"The more we got to know about her credentials and background, the fit seemed tremendous to us," he said.

Volling, whose youngest son graduated from the school in 2008, added: "It wasn't part of our agenda to make history here -- to do something that was not in keeping with the past. We were looking for the best person to lead this school. There was no question in my mind that the best person was Dr. Donna Harris."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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