Since arriving in New Haven in 2009 tasked with transforming the city’s school district, Garth Harries ’95 has garnered enough respect to earn him New Haven’s highest education leadership position.

The school board voted unanimously at its Monday night meeting to promote Harries from his current role as assistant superintendent to superintendent of New Haven Public Schools. Harries began work in his new position following the Tuesday retirement of Reginald Mayo, who led the city as superintendent for the last 21 years and worked in the NHPS system since 1967.

“It’s awe-inspiring in both a wonderful and an intimidating sense,” Harries said. “[The job involves] 21,000 kids and being responsible for their education, and, to some extent, for helping to ensure that they have the best possible life prospects.”

The search for the next New Haven superintendent, which included 66 applicants from across the country, started in February when Mayo first announced his upcoming retirement. By July 18, the field was narrowed to three: Harries, Dred Scott, the deputy superintendent of the Independence, Mo., school district, and Kriner Cash, who formerly served as the schools chief in Memphis. Last Saturday, the three final candidates squared off in a heated debate at Gateway Community College, leaving the school board only a few hours to make a final decision.

Harries first came to New Haven to attend Yale University. After he graduated in 1995, Harries attended Stanford Law School and later joined McKinsey & Company, where he worked as a consultant for three years.

In 2003, he switched his career to education. Harries took a job with the New York Public Schools system and became Chancellor Joel Klein’s senior cabinet member in charge of special education and portfolio development, leading the creation of more than 300 new schools.

Harries returned to New Haven in 2009 to design the School Change Initiative, which centers around a teacher evaluation system that has been praised nationally as a model for compromise between teachers’ unions and school administrators. The initiative also includes New Haven Promise, a college scholarship sponsored by Yale, and has overseen the development of programs like Parent University, which offers workshops for parents, and Boost!, which partners students with nonprofits in the community.

While Harries served as assistant superintendent last fall, New Haven received a $54 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant will fund the New Haven Professional Educator Program, which seeks to support and develop quality teachers and administrators.

From 2009 to 2012, the city’s graduation rate rose from 58.1 percent to 70.5 percent, and the dropout rate lowered from 31.7 percent to 21 percent. Of the 1,027 students who graduated high school in 2013, 80 percent are headed to a two- or four-year college.

“He’s already demonstrated that he can do the job,” School Board President Carlos Torre said. “We are making national headlines in terms of our student growth, everything from lowering the dropout rate to increasing the graduation rate, raising test scores, raising classroom climate … nobody has done it the way he has done it. We can continue the momentum we have.”

Despite his successes, Harries said he thinks an even bigger push for education reform is needed for the future. While he said that New Haven is headed in the right direction, he spoke of the need to “deepen and extend” the work of the School Change Initiative. Harries added that his leadership as superintendent will be defined by his desire to bring people together and his belief in changing the world.

Harries did not give any details of his future plans for New Haven, but he said he would outline more particulars of his vision for the district in a Thursday press conference.