Starkville Oktibbeha School District Names Dr. Watress Harris the new Starkville High School Principal

Dr. Watress Harris

Dr. Watress Harris named new Starkville High School Principal

"In life, everybody wants to make a difference in the world. It's especially meaningful when you can make a difference in your home town. It's a dream come true.“

That dream is becoming a reality for one of the Yellow Jacket's own as Starkville native, Dr. Watress Harris, was named as the new principal of Starkville High School on Friday. Dr. Harris currently serves as principal of The Learning Center, the district's alternative school, and will take the helm at SHS on July 1st ahead of the 2024-2025 school year.

"As I've gotten to know Dr. Harris over the last two years, I have come to respect and admire his heart for shepherding students as they grow into their best selves and supporting teachers as they deliver excellence in the classroom," said SOSD Superintendent Dr. Tony McGee. "His commitment to the Starkville and Oktibbeha County community has been evident each day as I've watched him work to provide not only learning opportunities, but a path to redemption for some of our district's most troubled students. I believe his servant's heart and track record of discipline and high expectations will serve Starkville High School and our community very well."

"Starkville is my home, and people say home is where the heart is," Dr. Harris said. "I have a heart for the community. I have a heart for Starkville. When you have a heart for something you go above and beyond to make sure that you're serving the community, serving the students and serving the parents. Sometimes that type of chance comes once in a lifetime. I'm just grateful and honored to have the opportunity."

As a Starkville native, Dr. Harris was raised attending the Starkville School District and graduated from Starkville High School in 1998. After earning his Bachelors degree in Education from Mississippi State University, he joined the staff of the school district as a 7th and 8th grade science teacher. During his tenure on staff, he has served as Assistant Principal at Ward-Stewart and Armstrong Middle School, and has lead The Learning Center for the last seven years as Principal. He also holds a Masters degree and PhD in Education from Mississippi State.

Dr. Harris credits his time as principal of The Learning Center with providing many lessons that he brings to the table in leading Starkville High, and Dr. Tony McGee agrees.

"Dr. Harris' leadership at TLC has been an invaluable service to our community as he has created a culture where students can have second and even third chances," McGee shared. "I think we're all thankful for grace, and part of our job is to teach kids not only academically but socially, giving them a safe space to make mistakes and recover. Dr. Harris has really provided that at The Learning Center and brings that commitment to relationship-building to SHS."

"Being at TLC, we mainly deal with at-risk students," Harris added. "Sometimes those students are going to need your attention more than anybody else. You learn that you're not only their principal. You may be a father. You may be an uncle. You may be a doctor or a mentor. You are all those things for those students for what they need at that particular time -- whether it's a student who is excelling or one who is struggling. I've learned that you really have to make an effort to understand them, and that helps build a great relationship."

Harris is moving from the more intimate TLC campus to SHS which currently houses nearly 1400 students for 9th through 12th grade. But, he says his approach to working with students individually remains the same.

"Moving toward a larger environment with more students, it's going to take time. But it's not impossible. I believe you still have to understand and get to know each and every student and talk with students just about life. Sometimes that conversation doesn't have to be about academics. It's about finding out where they are. The first step is communication and listening."

He hopes to take that same approach with teachers and staff in his new role as he begins to build relationships and trust.

"That trust is the foundation," he said. "My first step is just to listen. The teachers I've worked with want to be valued and to know they are part of the team and that their voice is being heard. Excellence is there! I want to begin getting to know the team and learn more about that excellence."

Dr. Harris sees this transition of stepping into the role of high school principal as one with a unique opportunity. Starkville High is the only place in the district where teachers and administrators work with a student for four years. "So you have four years to shape those students' lives," he says.

With the diverse array of opportunities available to students at SHS, each one is faced with choices. "The opportunities that the students have at Starkville High - there's no limit," he says. "Whatever a student wants to pursue, they have an opportunity to get a taste of that at SHS, and shepherding them through those choices is a huge responsibility."

He describes the critical transition in the teenage years from being a freshman at 15-years-old with so many questions and uncertainties to facing the prospects of life after high school as a senior at 18-years-old. From his own experiences, he recognizes how critical and pivotal a role educators can play in helping students prepare not only academically, but as young adults and citizens ready to take the next step. 

"That's one of the goals of the high school principal is to get students prepared for the real world -- whatever avenue they want to pursue," he says. "That's our job to get those students prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, socially. Someone shaped my life and changed my life in high school," he remembers, "and so my goal is to make sure that I'm doing that for students as well."

That person who shaped Dr. Harris' life was Dr. King David Rush who served as Assistant Principal at Starkville High while Harris attended the school in the 1990s. "I tell people all the time that he saved my life," Harris shares when talking about Dr. Rush's impact.

"I'm a living testament that an educator can save a life. He believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. He instilled hope in me when I didn't have hope. He showed me that there is life outside your environment that you can accomplish anything that you want to accomplish in the world if you just put forth the effort."

Harris says he grew up in Starkville in the Sunset neighborhood. His mother was a single parent and her goal for him was to achieve the same level of education she did -- a high school diploma. But through hard work and the influence of educators like Dr. Rush and many of the teachers, like Mrs. Gloria Conley, Mrs. Gwen Ware, Mrs. Maggie Cooks, and Mrs. Helen Odom, Harris earned his degrees and has come full circle in being able to impact the lives of other young students in the community as a school administrator.

"Sometimes I think it's good for them to see someone who's homegrown, someone who came from the same community who has overcome the same things. Seeing is believing and Dr. Rush and many of the teachers at SHS helped me to see who I could be. I hope in my role as principal, I can be that person for students too."

Dr. Harris is married to Ciara, also a native of Starkville, and they have two sets of twins. Jaquez and Martez graduated from Starkville High and now attend MSU and EMCC respectively. Sons Jaylon and Zayvion are current 9th graders at SHS.