September 21, 2004 1 min read

A Long Time Coming

Elaine Farris has a history of breaking the color barrier.

She was the first African-American since the days of segregation to work as an elementary principal in the Clark County, Ky., public schools. She also was the first black educator to hold an administrator’s post in a regular high school in the same 5,400-student district.

Now, she’s achieved an even greater distinction, as the new superintendent of the 5,500-student Shelby County, Ky., schools. State officials say she’s the first African-American to serve as a district chief in the 168 years of Kentucky’s public education system.

“Sometimes we think that because it hasn’t happened, that it can’t happen,” said Ms. Farris, 49, who assumed her new position on July 1. “My hope and prayer is that others will say: ‘Yes, this is possible.’”

Her appointment marks a mission accomplished for the state. She was one of three participants last year in Kentucky’s new Minority Superintendent Intern Program, an effort to open the job to people of color.

Through the full-time program, Ms. Farris spent 12 months shadowing and working with Leon Mooneyhan, then Shelby County’s superintendent. At a total cost of about $300,000, the state paid the salary of all three interns in the program during the year.

When she started her internship, Ms. Farris said, she had no idea she would wind up as the district’s schools chief. Only several months into it did Mr. Mooneyhan let slip that he planned to retire and that he thought she should apply.

After considering six finalists for the job, the school board voted 3-2 last month to offer her a four-year contract. Along with her experience in Clark County, Ms. Farris worked for the Kentucky education department as a “highly skilled educator,” a job that entails helping low-performing schools.

Robby Morton, who runs the initiative for the state education department, said the aim is to help the state’s diverse student population. “If you don’t see folks who look like you in the classroom, in schools, or in positions of leadership, then what do you have to aspire to?” he said.

Jeff Archer

A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week