March 29, 2022 News & Features » Cover Story

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Shadae Harris, 39 

Chief engagement officer, Richmond Public Schools

click to enlarge shadaeharris.jpg

Scott Elmquist

For Richmond Public Schools, the challenge was how to build meaningful and trusting relationships with the community and the families they served.

The answer was creating an office of engagement in 2018 and hiring its first chief engagement officer, Shadae Harris. With a history in education as a teacher and principal, Harris got her doctorate of education leadership while collaborating with RPS, Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, and the Virginia Governor’s Children’s Cabinet to implement policy and program improvements for students whose education was interrupted by a court charge. She came prepared to meet people where they were.

Harris jumped into her new role by launching the community hub model in 2020. Each hub is staffed with several family liaisons that serve as neighborhood experts to bridge the gap between schools and RPS families, helping to improve attendance, share important information, and provide engagement opportunities to promote student success.

“The liaisons are people who reflect and look like the people in these communities,” Harris explains. “Their roles are to build meaningful relationships and encourage a trust of the school system. There’s no way we’d have made it through the pandemic without the program.”

The pandemic exacerbated socioeconomic and racial issues that RPS has been dealing with for decades.

“It allowed us to see how important it was to help people and understand the barriers families were facing even prior to the pandemic,” Harris says. “It allowed us to build more meaningful relationships with the community because services did not stop during the pandemic.” And with increased focus on those resources, it allowed space for those conversations to happen “that hadn’t been happening before,” she adds.

Because the school system is state funded, Harris says there’s a disproportionate effect on the population RPS serves which manifests as a lack of resources. Despite that, her priority is having the best academics in front of students.

“With so many interruptions to learning, how we now educate students in a post-pandemic world with those two huge barriers is what we’re grappling with.”

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