As she entered college nearly a decade ago, Kelly Harper had a plan.
“I wanted to be a judge and attack the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said, noting that she even interned at a prosecutor’s office and at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
It was there she said she realized that too many of those behind bars looked like her.
“It dawned on me that I’d rather impact lives early on in the classroom, not later in the courtroom,” said Harper, a third-grade teacher at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest and the District’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.
Harper now counts as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
“I was in the middle of class when I was called and told I was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year,” Harper said. “D.C. hasn’t had one since 2005, so I was in shock.”
Harper wasn’t allowed to disclose the news to her students for more than a month, but it wasn’t until they were finally notified that the Harper felt the magnitude of the honor.
“They went crazy,” she said. “Students from previous years came to the school and their parents. It was amazing and because the students saw it as a honor for them too, that was the best part.”
The District-born Harper is known for being passionate about educating African-American children and encouraging them as change agents in their communities.
That she’s just one of only three finalists to come from D.C. speaks to her dedication. It also speaks to why Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton invited Harper to the House of Representatives chamber to advocate for key issues in the District.
Her third-grade class also received an invitation to testify at D.C. Council in which they advocated for equity in funding for STEM in Title I schools.
“I was so proud of them,” Harper said. “They were prepared. There were other, older students there and my students made me feel like a proud mama.”
One of the things her class shared during the city council visit was their dream to ensure an equitable playing field for all in STEM.
Later, council members visited Harper’s classroom, much to the delight of the students.
When Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $4.6 million increase in technology at D.C. Public Schools to provide a laptop or device for every student in grades 3, 6 and 9, Harper said her students were thrilled.
“They said, ‘we did it,’” Harper said. “Imagine, if they have this passion at 8 years old, what they’ll do as adults.”
With a classroom approach that goes beyond just a regular curriculum, Harper said she embeds lessons about children activists from the civil rights movement.
She said she seeks to broaden their horizons with experiences such as an annual spring trip to Howard University, where some of the students go into the trip wondering what college is all about and come out feeling like it’s a possibility for them.
Harper recalled one student who she taught for two years.
“When he started off, he’d literally run out of the classroom every day and he refused to work,” Harper said. “Through building a strong relationship that included home visits, this student went on to become the number one track student for elementary school in the city and now he’s in middle school and on the honor roll.”
That student may remind Harper of her father’s path.
A Roosevelt High graduate, Harper said her father’s path to graduation wasn’t linear.
“He dropped out for a time, but through the mentorship of his teachers, he not only graduated high school but also found a pathway to college,” she said.
As she and the other finalists await word on National Teacher of the Year, Harper said she’s simply proud of what’s happening in D.C. schools.
“Receiving this honor speaks to how far D.C.’s education landscape has come and is a testament to the educators I work with every day, the students I serve and the families we’re seeking to engage,” she said.