Cleveland High School Principal Rick Harwood has been reassigned to Seattle Public Schools' central office and will be replaced by Rainier Beach High School Principal Donna Marshall...

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Cleveland High School Principal Rick Harwood has been reassigned to Seattle Public Schools’ central office and will be replaced by Rainier Beach High School Principal Donna Marshall, district officials said yesterday.

Harwood joined Cleveland High as assistant principal in the fall of 2002 and became principal in May 2003. He was leading an effort to improve race relations, raise academic achievement and create smaller, specialized academies within the school.

Officials cited the need for new leadership at Cleveland.

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Despite Harwood’s success in attracting more parents to school nights, Cleveland High’s pass rates on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning remained the lowest last year among the city’s regular high schools.

Last spring, some black parents and students at Cleveland protested after a white science teacher allegedly used racially inappropriate language, the school’s third such incident in a year.

Like many of Seattle’s public schools, most of Cleveland’s teachers are white, while about 90 percent of its students are ethnic minorities; nearly half the Beacon Hill school’s 777 students are black.

The teacher was reassigned, and Chief Academic Officer Steve Wilson at the time advised Harwood to set clear standards and expectations for student and staff behavior

Yesterday, Wilson said the parents’ complaints weren’t the reason for Harwood’s removal. Wilson and High Schools Director Ammon McWashington said they simply believed the school needed new leadership. They looked at Rainier Beach High, which has a similar student population, and at the significant improvement in student achievement that has occurred during Marshall’s tenure there.

Marshall has led Rainier Beach since March 2000.

“We’ve been looking at this for a long time and we feel very strongly we need to get (Cleveland) going on a positive note with new administrative leadership,” Wilson said in an interview. “Our responsibility is to fortify every school in the district.”

Wilson met with staff at both high schools yesterday to announce the changes. Rainier Beach High’s assistant principal, Robert Gary Jr., will become principal, Wilson said, and Elnora Hookfin, head counselor at Ingraham High School, will move to Rainier Beach High to take Gary’s position.

The changes are effective Jan. 3, but Gary and Marshall will begin the transition next week, Wilson said.

The district said it was sending letters to parents yesterday about the changes.

One Rainier Beach High parent, Sandra Jeffcoat, was initially upset about Marshall’s transfer. She pulled her son out of Cleveland High after last year, she said, because he wasn’t learning and required expensive tutoring.

Her son, now a Rainier Beach senior, is flourishing and “back to liking school again,” Jeffcoat said, because the school’s staff worked with her to carry out an individual improvement plan. Now her son meets teachers at 6:30 a.m. for tutoring, she says.

Jeffcoat expressed relief when told Gary would succeed Marshall as principal, saying he gets to know his students and the parents. And she was hopeful Marshall could turn Cleveland around: “I guess they’re sending her there to solve the problems.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland’s faculty were in shock and expressed frustration with the district for yanking Harwood a week before the start of winter break.

“There’s a lot of disappointment,” said Dale Rector, who teaches French and Spanish and is the union representative for Cleveland teachers. “We really want to continue the direction that we’re taking.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com