How Lesley Harris overcame life challenges to lead Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy

Posted at 11:52 AM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 11:52:28-05

CHESTER, Va. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character. That is the goal of true education.”

Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy (CECLA) principal Lesley Harris takes those words to heart, not only during Black History Month but all year long.

But it took a few twists and turns to get that position.

She’ll tell you the same thing she tells her students: “It’s not where you are, but where you can go that counts.”

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Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy Lesley Harris

"My father was a working musician and traveled a lot," Harris said. “I was raised primarily by my grandparents who spoke German in the home. So German was my first language."

Her father then joined the military.

It was at an American school where she learned English, and about the passion and compassion of teaching.

"I remember how welcoming the teachers made me feel when I did transition to school on the base in kindergarten. And it made me feel welcome and safe," she said.

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Her father's military career would eventually send him to Fort Lee in Virginia. But as a high school student, Harris ran into problems in Petersburg.

"Due to some family challenges, I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade," she said. "I was encouraged by an 11th-grade teacher to pursue an associate degree, and a GED first."

As a single mom, she struggled to first become an Instructional Assistant.

That lead to a bachelor's degree and teaching Head Start and kindergarten in Petersburg.

Then taught 2nd and 3rd grade in Chesterfield.

She earned a master's degree in Instruction. Today she’s working on her doctorate at Virginia Tech while being the first principal at CECLA.

She'll not only tell you she's proud to inspire young boys and girls of color, but she’ll also sing about it.

Being in the local band Klaxton Brown is another one of her passions.

She even got to sing backup with the iconic 80s band Heart.

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While singing is a passion, teaching comes first.

Passion and heart come together on that stage where she's Building Better Minds.

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