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Answering the Call: 2017 Plano Community Forum Educator Award Highlights Sonja Harrison’s Heart for Kids

Shane Mauldin|
Monday, November 13, 2017
Sonja Harrison, McKinney ISD Director of Administrative Services and recipient of the 2017 Plano Community Forum Educator Award

Sonja Harrison, McKinney ISD Director of Administrative Services and recipient of the 2017 Plano Community Forum Educator Award

McKinney, Texas – Her official McKinney ISD job title is “director of administrative services,” but Sonja Harrison would say that her life’s work is helping kids succeed. She’s great at both, and in October, she was chosen by the Plano Community Forum to receive the 2017 Educator Award in recognition of her dedication to young people.

Harrison has had a hand in mentoring almost more students than she can count.

“I would say probably a dozen or more that I’ve mentored one on one and still keep in touch with. Through Club Generation Success [in Plano], over 10 years, we’ve had hundreds of kids come through,” says Harrison, thinking back through the years. Some of the kids she’s mentored have gone on to become a psychologist, a Juilliard trained stage actor, a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, a social worker/teacher and a physician.

“But, there is one in particular that I’ve mentored since she was eight—and she’s now 25. She’s married, and she’s a mother. That feels great. And, I am their baby’s godmother.”

That young mother’s name is Kwnaie, and Harrison became her mentor when Kwnaie was a third grader facing some challenges.

“Growing up, when I was in school, I had a lot of behavioral issues,” remembers Kwnaie. “I had ADHD, so it was hard to stay focused or organized. I remember when I was in third grade, and I was begging for a mentor. I was like, ‘Please, let me have a mentor! Let me have a mentor!’

“And, then Mrs. Harrison came.”

Snapshot of Kwnaie in cap and gown with Harrison smiling beside her

Kwnaie and Harrison at Kwnaie’s graduation from Plano East High School. Harrison has been there for just about every major milestone in Kwnaie’s life.

Harrison would visit Kwnaie at school and help her organize her backpack and homework. They would share lunch and “talk the whole time,” Kwnaie says. And, if she was having trouble, the school would sometimes call Harrison before they would call Kwnaie’s mother.

“I was interested in weather and science and all kinds of stuff, and on my birthday, Mrs. Harrison would get me weather books and things to help me learn about that,” says Kwnaie.

Since those early days, Harrison has walked alongside Kwnaie through middle and high school, her graduation from Plano East, classes at Collin College and certification training at Job Corps.

“She got married shortly after [Job Corps] to a wonderful young man. I’m very proud of how well she’s done,” says Harrison. “We talk a lot.”

“Mrs. Harrison was at my house on Saturday,” Kwnaie adds.

Harrison started out as a systems engineer, but along the way, she made a career change that stuck. Twenty-two years later, she has assembled a professional resume that includes 14 years in Plano ISD where she served as a behavior specialist, dean of students at the Larry Guinn Special Programs Center, an assistant principal at Plano Senior High School and as a district administrator.

She also served for six years as a mentor and administrative leader for Club Generation Success, a nonprofit focused on providing opportunities for the academic, social and emotional growth of Plano ISD students and youth in surrounding districts.

It was during her time with Plano ISD that Harrison got involved with the Plano Community Forum, an organization started in 1981 to provide scholarships for minority students.

When she came to MISD, Harrison found a fifth-grade student here who needed a mentor, and just as she has with Kwnaie and so many others, Harrison has walked with her through high school graduation and on into career training.

Harrison’s job with MISD is director of administrative services, and the practical application of that rather vague title simply means that the most difficult and serious school discipline cases eventually make their way to her desk.

It’s a tough job, and one that provides an ironic bookend to a life focused on trying to help kids succeed and stay out of trouble. But, in Harrison’s eyes, the discipline issues that she encounters—and the consequences that result—don’t have to define the course of a student’s life.

“I give them encouragement, too,” says Harrison. “Most of the time when I have a hearing or have an appeal, I’m going to also offer encouragement because anybody can make a mistake, and I don’t want any kid to feel that I’ve given up on them.

“It’s my responsibility to offer hope because things can change. Things can get better, but you just have to ask yourself, ‘Ok, what do I need to do to grow from this?’” she says.

While she has a heart for kids who need encouragement, one thing becomes quickly clear when talking with Harrison—she is no pushover. She holds students accountable.

“Now, I’m going to do my job, and I’m going to uphold the responsibilities of my job,” she says with firm conviction. “But, in doing that, I also want them to know that I want to do what I can to make sure they have accurate information and that, if there is anything that I can do to help them move forward, I will. If there are any resources I can point you toward, I’m going to do that too,” Harrison says.

As she moves through the latter days of her career with retirement somewhere on the not-too-distant horizon, Harrison is still open to the idea of mentoring another kid who needs guidance.

“Oh, absolutely!” she states emphatically. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

Because there are still a lot of kids out there like Kwnaie looking for somebody to walk alongside them and help them find their way.

And, what made the difference for Kwnaie—what changed the direction of her life—was that she asked for a mentor…

And, Mrs. Harrison came.

The McKinney ISD REACH program offers mentoring opportunities with MISD students. The program is designed to foster students’ sense of self-esteem, self-confidence and motivation to learn while improving interpersonal skills and reinforcing the importance of education. For more information, visit the REACH web page or contact Nancy Cowlishaw at 469-302-4043 or by email at [email protected].

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