Bayside HS principal to retire after 6 years

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Harris Sarney, the energetic, spirited principal of Bayside High School, presided over his last commencement ceremony as a city Board of Education employee Tuesday and said goodbye to the school he has led for more than six years.

As he ended his speech to the graduating class, an emotional Sarney said “my heart embraces you all.” The veteran educator received two standing ovations, shouts and cheers from the students and teachers he helped lead.

Sarney, 61, announced his retirement this month after nearly seven years at the helm of Bayside High School and some 40 years as an educator in city schools.

“It’s hard to leave, especially when you’re having a good time,” he said in an interview Monday. “I would rather go out on a high.”

Sarney said he thought this was an appropriate time in his life to retire and he plans to study interests like photography. No replacement has been named for Sarney, who will stay with the school until the end of August.

The Brooklyn native began his teaching career in the early 1960s at his alma mater, Midwood High School, after graduating from Brooklyn College. Sarney said at first being a colleague of the teachers who had taught him in high school was a bit strange.

“It was very hard at first,” he said. “But I enjoyed what I was doing and I had a lot of support, and eventually my time teaching there outpaced my years as a student.”

During the course of his years at Midwood, where Sarney was an English teacher, drama and music coach and college adviser, he also finished his master’s degree at New York University.

As a college adviser Sarney said one of his supervisors encouraged his talent for handling the administrative side of education and eventually he moved out of the classroom and into the job of assistant principal at Jamaica High School.

Later he was asked to step in as acting principal at the school, Sarney said, and he found he enjoyed the position. When John Lee, Queens superintendent of high schools, asked him to move on to Bayside High School a year later, Sarney said he jumped at the chance.

“I knew Bayside High School and knew about the music program,” he said.

Since coming to the school in 1995 Sarney has been a strong supporter of Bayside High School’s renowned music and art programs and often proudly pointed out the student artwork liberally displayed throughout the school or referred enthusiastically to the school’s annual concerts.

Sarney also cited several other achievements during his tenure, including the development of the school’s science and math program, the addition of a community service honor society, and the 1997 rediscovery and dedication of a huge flag honoring the 1,500 Bayside High School students who served during World War II.

In 2000 a Bayside High School student’s artwork made its way into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, thanks to efforts by Sarney, who ensured that the winning fiberglass, life-sized entry into last year’s Cows on Parade citywide exhibition got its due recognition. The cow, which featured the colors and logos of both New York baseball teams, was a harbinger of the 2000 Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees.

There have also been dark days in Sarney’s tenure, both literally and figuratively. For about two years the school was shrouded in black construction tarp during a $27 million exterior face-lift.

In October 1999 Bayside High School drew unwanted attention when three students allegedly attacked and sexually abused a female sophomore in a basement bathroom after classes ended. Two of the suspects have since pleaded guilty to the incident, and a third is awaiting trial.

Sarney said the incident, which rocked the relatively peaceful school, taught him and his staff to always be on guard despite the already stringent security measures that were in place at the school.

“You should worry twice as much,” he said of security concerns in schools. “It’s better to be overprotective and overprepared than underprepa­red.”

The principal has also been preparing for another problem set to overtake the school: overcrowding.

With an ever-growing enrollment of 2,700 students, Sarney said finding room for everybody while keeping the student body on a single session of classes was a constant juggling act.

“You just keep looking for underutilized space,” said Sarney, who said he has converted several unused, older rooms into classrooms.

At the 2001 graduation ceremonies Tuesday at the Tilles Center on the Long Island campus of C.W. Post, several teachers and administrators voiced their support of Sarney.

Aleta Levine, coordinator of the school’s Art Institute, said “we wish him well, but we really will miss him terribly as a principal and as a person.”

Clifford Wallace, assistant principal for social studies, said “he’s sincere, compassionate and understanding. He’s the best boss I ever worked for.”

Rowena Karsh, deputy superintendent of Queens high schools, was also in attendance.

“This was especially important to me because I know Harris is leaving,” she said. “This is a personal and professional occasion for me.”

Dr. Anthony Paraskevopoulos, who has taught music at the school for 17 years, also praised Sarney.

“Just as students look for role models among their teachers, so do teachers look for role models among their administra­tors,” he said. “Mr. Sarney is the role model.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Updated 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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