Interviews and Reviews

Harrison Peters : CEO of Men of Color in Education Leadership

harrison peters ceo of men of color in education leadership

About Harrison Peters

Harrison Peters earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida in Elementary Education and received his master’s degree in Education Leadership from Nova South Eastern University and a Specialist’s Degree in School Transformation from the University of South Florida. 

His career started as a 4th and 5th-grade teacher in Apopka, Florida. Since that formative time in the classroom, Harrison has served in several leadership roles (including Dean of Students, Assistant Principal, Principal, Assistant Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, and Chief of Schools) before being named to his current role. 

His work in large complex school districts, including Charlotte Mecklenburg, Chicago Public, Houston Independent, and Hillsborough County (Tampa), afforded him the opportunities and challenges of transforming some of the toughest schools in the country. He brought those experiences to bear in his role in Providence, where the state has committed to a comprehensive effort to transform the city’s schools.

As Deputy Superintendent-Chief of Schools for Hillsborough County Schools, he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the district’s 250 schools that educate 220,000 students. His team of eight area superintendents, 850 administrators, and 15,000 teachers achieved record-breaking graduation rates, industry certifications, and college scholarships, as well as a significant reduction in the student achievement gap.

While serving as Chief of Schools on the Southside of Chicago, Harrison was credited with significantly increasing ACT scores, 3rd-grade reading, math proficiency, and graduation rates. As a Chief School Officer in Houston, he was part of the leadership team that led a majority vote in favor of a $1.9 billion bond, the largest in the history of the state. While in Houston, he was also awarded the “Outstanding Educator” award by Zeta Tau Lambda. A proud veteran of the United States Navy, Harrison Peters served on the USS Cleveland.

What prompted you to think of MCEL?

My drive for education was sparked by one 10th-grade teacher who said I was not college material and another who said, “I love you, I believe in you, and I refuse to allow you to fail.” I learned then that what we tell our children absolutely matters. I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and was raised by his grandmother, who had only a 2nd-grade education. As a result, I was completely dependent upon caring teachers to help him reach his academic potential. That’s why, for over two decades, I have been fighting for children across the country.  

MCEL came as a result of my personal vignette and lived experiences in education. In addition, MCEL was also shaped by very similar stories from leaders from across the country that my co-founder and I heard as executive leadership coaches. We have a collection of vignettes that center squarely on challenges and obstacles that leaders of color face(d) in their systems.  Many of them felt isolated, targeted, silenced and unprepared, ill-resourced to lead in the untenable situations they were placed in. MCEL believes these ills are exceptionally exacerbated for male leaders of color as they are reaching an extinction level event within the next decade. 

What attracted you to working on this particular cause?

There is no question that pervasive achievement, access, and opportunity gaps exist for students of color. Data and studies suggest that all students benefit from a diverse education workforce. As a matter of fact, when schools have leaders of color:

  • Achievement in reading and math is higher
  • More students of color are identified as gifted and talented
  • The most marginalized students feel safer
  • Fewer students are identified as needing special education services

Currently, less than 2% of our nation’s teachers are Black men. Fewer men of color are choosing education and a viable career path and men of color are also leaving the profession at a higher rate than their counterparts. We also know that male educators of color are stretched more and vastly underappreciated. 

What specific problem does this organization solve?

Men of Color in Education Leadership (MCEL) is a national nonprofit of educational leaders from across the educational leadership spectrum (current and former school superintendents, C-Suite Executives, school leaders, higher education, and non-profits) who are hyper-focused on eliminating achievement and opportunity gaps for all students. Based on research and lived experiences, MCEL supports male leaders of color who are uniquely positioned to disrupt current ecosystems, lead through the lens of equity, and serve as critical levers to student success.

Currently, less than 4% of school leaders in the US are Men of Color (MOC). The number of MOC entering the teaching and leadership pipelines is steadily declining. Projections indicate that without disrupting these trends, MOC in education leadership is heading toward extinction by 2030. Historical practices that are foundational to current realities have created unjust practices in school systems that have exacted profoundly negative experiences and ill feelings toward education. 

As a result, MOC is not seeing education as a viable or desired career option. Disparities between student populations and MOC leader populations are widening, and MOC who decide to seek leadership positions are oftentimes tracked into discipline and coaching roles where they remain far longer than their white counterparts – thus contributing to the inevitable state of extinction.

Our mission is to develop and support a strong network of male leaders of color who lead fiercely through their authentic selves and lived experiences. These male leaders of color will join the fight of ensuring all students reach their full potential; especially our most marginalized and disenfranchised.

MCEL’s Provocation

Given the current trends in education:

  • Men of color represent 4% of the educational workforce.
  • Fewer males of color entering the profession.
  • Men of color are leaving the profession at a higher rate than other demographics.
  • Typically, there is a 6–7-year journey to the first administrative role.

It is possible for the United States to reach an extinction-level event for Men of Color (MOC) in education leadership by the year 2030.

MCEL posits that a primary path to addressing the issue of dangerously declining numbers of MOC in Educational Leadership is to create a “culture of allyship” among organizations that 1) choose bold, clear, and unapologetic action over silence when leaders of color are faced with injustice, 2) amplify the voices of MOC leaders by uniquely positioning them to have a larger influence on equity across systems, 3) individually and collectively serve as advocates to create pathways (e.g., research, training, policy analysis, innovative supports, etc.) for MOC to thrive.

MCEL’s Theory of Action:

  • Quality: Equip men of color with the leadership skills, knowledge, and system of support to lead complex organizations that drastically improve the success of all students.
  • Quantity: Increase the number of men of color in education leadership
  • Care: Support male leaders of color in navigating the unique challenges they face by creating spaces that support being their authentic selves. 

Tell us about a challenge or obstacle you faced when creating MCEL and how you came to a resolution.

Periodically, we get the question: Well, what about women of color? They face very similar challenges. We want to be clear that this is not the “oppression Olympics” where we pit one marginalized community against another. Rather we see this as a demographic issue. In addition, MCEL is built off the lived experiences and vignettes of women of color; those that identify as black, Asian, Latinx, Indian, Native American, etc. 

What inspires you to continue the work you do?

I am humbled to provide a space where male leaders of color can feel safe and vulnerable so they can focus on their growth, development, and healing. I’m inspired by the opportunity to support the journey of the next generation of educational leaders that will most certainly impact millions of children across the educational ecosystem. In addition, we have joined forces with 7 other powerful national organizations that have launched a national campaign centered on recruiting and retaining 1 Million teachers of color and 30 Thousand leaders of color within the next decade.  

What is your outlook for the future of MCEL?

I wish we lived in a world where there was no need for an MCEL.  I wish we did not have to engage in these discussions or debates about race and systemic oppression; the reality is, these things exist and so must MCEL. I’m hopeful for the future of MCEL and want to grow and scale our impact. We want to work side by side with our allies to ensure that conditions exist for our children to reach their full potential and experience success.

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