“High-quality systems have to look back and reflect on where they’ve been – you have to look forward and forecast where things are going and then plan to get yourself there, because you can’t sit still.” – Vernon Johnson, RISD Superintendent
We don’t know much about Vernon Johnson, our new RISD superintendent. And with a few exceptions, most of us won’t be having lunch with Johnson anytime soon – not that he wouldn’t want to dine with us, of course. It’s just that there are a lot more of us than there are of him.
So as with most public figures, we have little choice but to learn about the man who is running our school system by reading the short stories published in area newspapers and watching 30-second reports on TV news.
These brief encounters offer only a glimpse of the man hired to oversee our schools.
In the tradition of last year’s Advocate Interview with Mayor Steve Bartlett, we pulled out our tape recorders and talked for an hour with Johnson about the state of Lake Highlands schools, his plans for RISD’s future, his previous experience as a superintendent and his family life.
We’ve transcribed our discussion verbatim to give you an opportunity to meet the man who has been hired to educate our children.
Here are some excerpts:
- “I’m hearing from parents that the trust in some of our schools is gone, and thus they are taking their children from our schools and moving them to private schools. On the other hand, I hear from many parents who say these are good schools, these are good teachers, they are making good results with the kids that they serve, and we’re going to stick it out and stay with it.”
- “One of our highest priorities is to maintain safe schools, and we must be very diligent about making certain that happens.”
- “I hope that the politics of the adult world don’t diminish our commitment to every individual kid and their needs. So I will always really try to keep this in focus with what is right for kids and hope not to get the politics muddied up into it.”
We can learn plenty from and about our new superintendent in this candid discussion. So flip to Section C and see what Vernon Johnson has to say about our schools, in his own words.
RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson recently sat down with Advocate Publisher Rick Wamre and Editor Becky Bull to discuss the state of our neighborhood schools and his plans for the future of RISD.
Johnson was hired as the new superintendent this spring to replace the retiring Arzell Ball. He came to RISD by way of Rochester, Minn., where he was superintendent of schools since 1987. Prior to that, he worked in special education with children who have speech, hearing and language difficulties in the New Castle, Indiana, Community Schools. He came up through the ranks of Indiana – working as a principal, assistant director of special education and as assistant superintendent for instructional support services for the Indianapolis Public Schools. He is superintendent of RISD at the age of 45.
The discussion format was simple: We turned on a tape recorder and began asking questions. Johnson was allowed to respond without interruption to the questions with the understanding that his entire answer would be published. The hour-long tape was transcribed and is printed virtually verbatim, with minimal changes to both the questions and answers to clarify thoughts.
Lake Highlands Schools
Advocate: How familiar are you with Lake Highlands? Do you have any first impressions?
Johnson: I do have some impressions. They may not be accurate, but they are first impressions.
Lake Highlands is, as I understand it, a community with a great deal of pride. There is a strong sense of ownership in the community. I think the people do, in fact, care about their future, and in fact they could be characterized as nervous and worried about their future as a community, as a housing area as it relates to the vibrancy of the business area.
And they are a group of people who are activists, and they do express themselves to the people who are making decisions that might affect their community.
It is a lovely community, just from the perspective of driving through. I had the opportunity to look at six or seven or eight houses when we came here to move to Dallas. And it was kind of a strange experience, because it was like being dropped out of a spaceship into a town that you have never been to before.
So discovering where to live with only two, two-day trips is very difficult. But we did explore down in that area and ended up purchasing a home in another area of town. I did have a chance to see the housing and just marvelous areas.
School-wise, from the perspective of public schools – Richardson Independent School District – Lake Highlands has a very strong high school, and again there is a strong spirit in that high school and a lot of participation on behalf of the public, especially the parents. The elementary schools are also good schools, but we have some problems in our elementary schools.
Overcrowding is a concern that many people are speaking about. The racial imbalance in our schools is a real concern, especially as it relates to the ability of the school to perform at an optimum level.
Also of concern, I think, for the future – as parents and citizens, their property values and the quality of the schools and their relationship between the two. So I think we have some work to do down in that area.
As a school district overall, my sense is it is a good part of the school district with caring people who stay involved and are very much active in trying to shape the future.
Advocate: Lake Highlands residents live in Dallas, but are part of RISD. Some feel like stepchildren to RISD. Is that the case?
Johnson: I have talked with many, many people from that region of the school district. I have written dozens of letters to people from that area of the school district. And I have talked on the telephone with many people. So I am getting a sense that people are feeling like they have had some concerns that have not been dealt with over some time.
Now, whether that is a true or accurate perception, I don’t know. I do think there are some things we need to address, and maybe they have reason to feel that way. It doesn’t make any difference whether they have reason or not – they feel that way. I think that some of the questions they are raising are legitimate questions, good questions and need to be addressed.
Advocate: What kinds of questions are you hearing?
Johnson: I’m hearing a lot from people who live in the communities around our schools that our schools have changed so dramatically and that the schools are not quality-enough for their students; that they’re nervous that all the attention that teachers have to give every day is being redirected to students who have significant learning challenges and thus taking away from their ability to properly serve their children.
I’m hearing from parents that the trust in some of our schools is gone, and thus they are taking their children from our schools and moving them to private schools. On the other hand, I hear from many parents who say these are good schools, these are good teachers, they are making good results with the kids that they serve, and we’re going to stick it out and stay with it. So I hear both.
I think there are some real legitimate questions being raised about whether the schools overcrowded. Do they have challenges which are learning challenges with the students that are beyond the capacity of the people in the building? Is there a level playing field for those people as compared to other teachers in the district and other schools?
I think those are really good questions that I intend to examine carefully.
Advocate: But no answers yet?
Johnson: No, I don’t have any answers to anything yet, except I can say that I have talked with many people, and I have visited the schools. I can say a few things about that.
I believe that we have good teachers in those schools. I have been in the classrooms, and I have witnessed their teaching, and I would say that I am very pleased with what I saw.
I have talked with administrators in those schools. They are focused on results with kids. They are working hard to try and get around the challenges that they have with many of the kids who come to school not prepared for learning, and they don’t have the support that other kids have to keep pushing for a higher level of learning.
So they’re working as hard as they can possibly work, but you can only push a stone so big up a hill, you know? I think that we have got to do some things to try and level the playing field, attract the people from the attendance areas back into the school again. Get them to come back to us. They are our customers. We have lost them, and we need to bring them back.
We need to do that by redefining or re-creating some of those schools, and the schools then would be very attractive to them. Perhaps, magnet schools. And also we need to level the playing field in schools so that the people who work in the school with the kids, the teachers, have a chance. They need a chance.
Right now, I think that some of them are extremely overwhelmed by the balance or imbalance of existing schools.
Advocate: What is the main reason people cite for pulling their children out of public school?
Johnson: I hear several reasons. One is that they feel that their kids are not getting the attention they deserve in the classrooms that we have in their schools.
Advocate: That the classes are too big or that the teachers aren’t giving enough attention?
Johnson: Some people said that the classes are too big, and for that matter, we will never be able to reach the level they want – 10 or 11 per classroom.
But some of them say that the classes are too big, and some say that the classrooms do not resemble the neighborhood that they live in, and therefore my kids will have no friends to play with. Some people said that the challenge of the kids in the classroom is such that the teacher cannot give the child enough attention to challenge them.
So those are probably the three predominant reasons that I hear. I am really not going to judge the people as much as I am going to listen to their concerns, and I am really listening a lot to the people who are still in the schools.
As an example, at Skyview Elementary we have less than 10 percent of the people who live in the neighborhood, who could attend that school, attending the school. They have walked away. They have left the school. The customers are gone. We have few kids from the neighborhood.
And yet we still have some people from the neighborhood who have their kids in the school, and I am really listening to those people because those people have not walked away from us. They have stayed there, and they are trying to make a difference. They are trying to work through these issues, and I respect their opinion more than anyone’s because they have stayed with us.
They say some of the same things that people who have left have said. But for some reason, they have stayed. I intend to really examine what they say pretty carefully and try to follow through on investigating their issues, studing the problems very carefully and trying to make a response that would seem thoughtful and appropriate for the situation.
Advocate: How difficult is it going to be to get people to come back to public schools?
Johnson: Well, with some people, we will frankly not be able to do that. Not at the elementary level. I think we need to create a program that people will look at and will say: “That’s an exciting program, lots of good things are going to happen there for my kid, I can feel my kid is going to get the challenge that he or she deserves in that school, that the school looks like it is going to be successful overall, my child will be prepared for the next level of learning.” That’s the key.
I think if we can create a school that parents feel those kinds of feelings about, we will probably get people to commit to come back.
For many people in that area, it is not an issue of dollars and cents. They can afford to send their kids someplace else, but if they could have a school next door or in the neighborhood that is attractive to them, that gets results and challenges their kid and gets them ready for the next level of learning, I think they might be willing to give it a second try.
Many of them do bring their kids back in junior and senior high. So it’s not like they have given up on us totally. It’s just that they are not satisfied with the elementary program, perhaps.
So I think we can do it. I don’t have any question. I think we are going to have to earn our stripes. Some people are going to sit back, some are going to move quickly, some will want to wait a little bit and see how this really shapes out, and we are going to have to prove to them that we really want them back and that we will work for them.
I think we can do that.
Advocate: Are you going to set goals or percentages to measure winning students back from private schools?
Johnson: Yes, but it is too early to talk about those numbers exactly. But I can tell you the goals that I would have for that kind of a problem.
I think the goals are to bring the customers back to the school. That has to be a goal. Number one, get the people who have left us to come back.
Number two, raise the level of performance in those schools to a level where people will feel that it is a high-performing school. Those are two very simple goals. That to look at that problem, I think those two goals would really satisfy our customers and hopefully improve the quality of schools overall.
Now, how you do that? There are many ways to accomplish the goals. I think that we are going to have to do, I’ll say it again, is to create some new school programs there that are markedly different from what we have.
And we are going to have to go into those schools and level the playing field and make a more balanced environment so that everyone who walks in the school can feel good and feel that there is a chance there – that good learning can occur, my child will get what they need, the challenge that they need.
So, we are dealing, in part, with perceptions, and so we are going to have to do some things I think that are creative educationally and give people the feeling that they can have a chance there for high success with their kids.
Advocate: Anything more specific you can provide on what you might do?
Johnson: In my view, and we haven’t gone through this, I think one of the things I am looking at is challenging two to four schools within the next year or two to sit down and re-create their schools. Re-invent what they do.
I am looking at the possibility of magnet school programs. We may have one school create a math and science program. Another school may be focused on academics with a performing arts center.
Advocate: Even at the elementary level?
Johnson: Certainly. There are all kinds of things that you can do at the elementary level. We could expand the length of the school year. We could provide after-school programs using vendors from our community to provide for the arts and enrichment opportunities for the kids. It could be a world-class setting, educationally.
There are all kinds of creative and inventive things that we could do if we just put our heart to it and give people the time that they desire and need to be creative.
And that is what I’ll do. Put some seed money out there, and give people some time to sit down and create a proposal, and if the proposal is acceptable and of high quality, I think what we will probably be looking at then is giving people a chance to see if they can implement those programs successfully.
A World-Class Education
Advocate: You have said you want to turn RISD into a world-class educational system. How far away do you think that is? If you look at it from a DISD perspective, people would cut off their arm to move from DISD to RISD…
Johnson: And they should.
Advocate: …and yet, many people from RISD put their kids in private schools. And some people think RISD is already world-class.
Johnson: Well, we are in many ways. And I think this school district has very strong tradition and a good reputation, both in the region and the state and the nation. There isn’t any question about that.
We already have a high performance, and we have many of our students competing at the world’s best universities and colleges, and they are off doing amazingly wonderful things, but we can still get better. There is room to improve.
The target is moving, and what our students are required to be able to do today is a little bit different than what it was even a year ago.
What I am saying is that we have to set our sights at not only having a national reputation, but an international reputation, because our kids are going to be competing with kids from all over the world. Not only for colleges and university slots, but also for jobs.
Just walk into one of our schools – they look like an international setting as it is. I want to make certain that our kids are prepared to compete at the international level.
So that does mean that the next logical move for this district would be to leave the national reputation in place and move to a world-class reputation where we are recognized as a world-class competitor and leader? Maybe the undisputed champion educationally or something?
That is where I think we need to go.
That is just not rhetoric. That means that we will focus our programs and our services to achieve world-class standards. It means that we have to look beyond Texas. We have to look beyond the national norm, if you will, and look at the international performance of students and then look at what we are doing to determine whether or not we are in fact delivering products and services to our kids that will yield their performance in a world-class arena. I really mean that very seriously.
We are already a very high-quality system. High-quality systems have to look back and reflect on what they’ve been – you have to look forward and forecast where things are going and then plan to get yourself there, because you can’t sit still. If you sit still, you might as well be going backwards.
It’s much like continuing improvement in business. We have to continuously improve the quality of services that we offer and the quality of our programs or we are going to be left behind in the dust. Everyone else will just pass us by. I want people to use us for the benchmark for educational standards, regardless of where they come from.
Crime in Schools
Advocate: It is hard not to talk about school crime, and to a certain extent racism, when we talk about schools these days. How much of an impact, positive or negative, is crime having in RISD schools?
Johnson: Everything that happens in the community comes into the schools at one time or another. We are simply a mirror of the community in every way. Whatever goes on in the apartment areas or the homes areas in the communities where the kids live is probably going to be reflected at some point in time within the school.
That is why we have kids with drugs. We have kids coming to school with weapons. We are seeing a lot of those things happening on school grounds, in the school, or to and from school. We are also being very vigilant about trying to address those concerns head-on.
We have instituted zero-tolerance policies that I think have been effective, and it certainly sent a clear message to kids that we are not going to tolerate certain kinds of behaviors in our schools.
If you come to school with weapons or come to school wanting to use or sell drugs, if you are intimidating or causing people to be fearful, if you are going to harass or are going to try and use force on people – we are not going to tolerate that kind of stuff.
That does draw a line in the sand, if you will, and it does send a message. We need to send that message not only to our students but also to their parents and to the community.
I think the concerns that people have about crime with our students are things that are real, they are things that are serious, and we have a responsibility to deal with them. We are doing a lot in the schools at the early grade levels and the middle grade levels to try to address helping kids deal with confrontation in non-violent ways, to try and teach kids how to mediate. Help kids try to understand that there are alternatives to solving problems other than fighting or using violence, force or coercion.
I think it is partly setting high standards. We have police liaisons in the schools so that we can be sure that our schools are safe, and we are working closely with all of our organizations in our community to deal with these issues as they come up.
But on the other side, educationally, we have a responsibility to help kids learn new ways to deal more responsibly with the problems that they are confronted with.
Advocate: Do you think the parents’ perception of the crime matches reality?
Johnson: No, I don’t. I think that people have a tendency if they have heard about a violent crime, as an example, to assume that it is worse than it is, that it is happening everywhere, or that the school is literally falling apart.
When I moved here form out-of-state, it was very interesting how people would dwell on some incidents that have occurred in this community that might have been very serious, terrible incidents, but they were isolated in a sense and not necessarily even associated with the school directly.
But the school was getting a bad image as a result of something that might have happened in the community because of the age of the students involved. I think that people do have the tendency to over-react.
Although, I don’t want to diminish the concern here, because there is a concern, and we do have a rise in student involvement in violent activities. Not to diminish the importance of paying attention to it and dealing with it, but we don’t want to get to the point where we are over-reacting.
I think, at times, that happens.
Advocate: We did a story a couple of months ago that involved interviewing Lake Highlands High School students about their perceptions of their school. They didn’t seem all that concerned about going to school. They thought that violent stuff was occurring, but that it was occurring at other schools.
Johnson: That is typically what you hear. My kid goes to a junior high school in this district. He feels safe. But he comes home and says things happen from time to time.
Our schools are under control, number one.
Our teachers are taking an active responsibility in trying to monitor the halls and work with the students to make sure they act responsibly. We have police liaison officers in the school. Our administrators are working very hard with students and their families to make certain that they act responsibly and comply with the rules and regulations.
So the real key here is, is everyone involved? And is everyone working in the school to make sure it is a safe place for all people, including the kids? I think the answer to that is, yes. Do we have problems and incidents from time to time? The answer to that is certainly we do.
Kids are kids. We have always had throughout the years, when you have 1,000 to 2,000 kids in a school building, it is pretty difficult to go through a day when you don’t have some kind of problem between kids.
But what we should be doing is addressing those problems forthrightly and immediately being responsive, and if there are serious problems, making sure that we treat them seriously.
And I think we do.
Advocate: Are you satisfied with how these problems have been addressed up to this point?
Johnson: At this point, I feel good. I can tell you that one of our top priorities, one of the top five goals of this school district, which I will be announcing shortly, will be that our schools have a good working and learning environment and that people feel good about working and learning in that school, which means that we will have safe schools.
It has to be one of our top priorities. If people come to school, if teachers come to school and they feel fear and they don’t feel that they can go teach without any harassment, as an example, or they are fearful for their life, they aren’t going to do a good job.
If students feel that they are going to be intimidated when they get to school or they are going to be harassed when them come to school, they aren’t going to be able to learn.
And if parents feel those feelings, then parents are just not going to come to school. So even a school with the very best teachers on Earth will not be a good performing school if people feel unsafe.
So one of our highest priorities is to maintain safe schools, and we must be very diligent about making certain that happens.
Advocate: We don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you’re saying the RISD schools, in general, are safe.
Johnson: Yes. You’re not putting words in my mouth. I think that is true.
I want to say in the same breath of air that we do have incidents where we do have students who have committed violent acts in and out of school. We have students who violate our rules. We have students who we are dealing with on a regular basis who are misbehaving.
Some of those are mild incidents and some are very major and substantial incidents which require the intervention of other authorities.
But I believe we are acting responsibly, and I think that we are trying the best we can to keep our schools safe, and I would say our schools are safe.
My kids are in these schools. And I want a safe school as much as anyone.
Working with the School Board
Advocate: When the school board considered you for this job, “outcome-based curriculum” was an issue. It seems to be confusing to some people. What is it, and is it something we should be concerned about?
Johnson: It’s not even an issue. It isn’t even a discussion topic. People just made something out of something that wasn’t even an issue.
This board and this community have clearly stated that they really do not want much to do with that subject, and that’s fine.
I work for this community and this school board, and I am going to do what is right for this district, and that doesn’t include getting off in that arena.
Advocate: No outcome-based curriculum here, then?
Advocate: You mentioned that the school board is your boss. Everyone deals with their boss differently. Some employees take the ball and run until their boss says they don’t like what they’re doing. Other people don’t do anything unless the boss tells them what to do. Philosophically, how will you work with the school board here?
Johnson: With some bosses, that is an unusual circumstance for anyone. Most people would say that they wouldn’t want it. I enjoy it. These people are good, caring people who represent the community. They are elected to serve, and they have big jobs.
I mean that seriously. They all take it very seriously and are very interested in the quality of our schools.
I have a tendency to work pretty inclusively with people, which means that as things come up and as we are shaping direction for the systems, as we are making decisions that will influence the direction of the decision and affect a lot of people, I intend to involve others and study the issue and then help in shaping the decision.
So in some ways, I’m probably a person who would be seen as somewhat democratic in the way they approach large problems and large issues. On the other hand, if it is something that needs to be done, and it is a task that needs an answer or decision right away – like a fire drill, you don’t call the committee, you do it, you just make the decision.
I guess I would be called someone who pays attention to situations. Depending on the situation, depending on the decision that needs to be decided, I will change my style on the basis of what kind of decision we are making.
For instance, we are going to have to deal with the issue of over-crowding in this school system. We have a number of schools that are well above capacity as far as enrollment. We have a lot of portables – 187 portables in this school system.
Many of our buildings are overtaxed in terms of their ability to provide a good, sound educational environment given the number of kids they have on their campus. We are going to have to look at that and many other issues.
That is certainly the kind of issue that I would probably want to have broad involvement, citizens, staff members, so forth. The board would be intimately involved in that the committee would ultimately have to report to the board their findings and recommendations.
But ultimately, the board and the superintendent have to work together to make the final decision. The board ultimately votes on what should be done.
So I guess I would say to summarize how I am going to work with the board is depending on the issue. Some things I will just do and let them know what I have done. Some things I will involve them directly, and they will decide what will be done, and some things we will involve others and have them make the recommendation or the decision.
Advocate: It was a 5-2 vote to hire you. Normally, a hiring decision such as this is unanimous. In this case, you know you’ve got a couple of strikes against you starting out. School Board Trustee Larry Toon was quoted as saying about you: “I simply believe that this district desires the best, and I don’t think we’re there.” Any comment on that?
Johnson: I guess you would have to ask Mr. Toon or Mr. Herblen exactly why they said it. I can’t speak for them, and I don’t intend to.
I came here, obviously, on a 5-2 vote. I knew that coming into the district. It did and does concern me, but I also felt that I was a good match for the system.
I feel that I have the training, experience and quality that this district needs at this time, and I felt it was a good decision on my part, and I think it was a good decision on the board’s part.
So I guess I will have to ask you to ask them directly how they feel now. They have had a chance to work with me for a short time.
Advocate: The “religious right” was a big issue in the recent school board election. Does this impact you? What do you think about it?
Johnson: Well, I really don’t care to comment on the politics of school board elections. That’s something that superintendents – smart superintendents – stay away from, and I’m not going to comment on it.
Everyone has their right to support whoever they want to. That is the democratic way. I guess that I’m fond of saying that, in the end, I only hope that what happens is good for kids. I hope that the politics of the adult world don’t diminish what our commitment is to every individual kid and their needs.
So I will always really try to keep this in focus with what is right for kids and hope not to get the politics muddied up into it.
Advocate: What were your proudest accomplishments in Rochester?
Johnson: I think I got the district much more focused on the future. They were a district that needed to begin to focus on where they were going. They were really out of focus. They were a quality school district, but they were ready for some good, solid planning, and they needed to align a lot of the programs and services in a common direction.
So I think I did that for them – I helped them do that. I think that most people up there would say: “He was brought here to unlock the system and open it up and help get people involved in the system.”
It was a closed system. It was run by the administration, and there was no input into the system, and people were very frustrated. Lots of things were not being addressed that should have been addressed, so I think that one of my major challenges was to open up the doors and windows of the system and find a way to get the people we serve involved in making decisions.
And I did that and felt good about it.
The third thing is getting us more focused on the results. It was a district that had ridden on its laurels for a long time and had high-performing students. Then the demographic and the student population changed. It became tougher to get those same results.
People began to walk away from their commitment in terms of focusing on getting results, and I helped them recommit to that.
I am a results-centered kind of person. I want to set goals. I want to look at objective data that tells us whether or not we have achieved those goals and to make plans to try to address areas where we are not really hitting the mark. So I think I helped them to reshape their thinking on becoming more results-centered.
Finally, partnerships. I did a lot to build a feeling in the business community that they should participate in our schools and could participate in our schools in a meaningful way. So we created a number of partnerships. Whether it was with the chamber of commerce or individual business owners all the way to a really great partnership with Mayo and IBM in terms of setting world-class standards for our math and science programs. So those are some of the things I was real proud of.
Advocate: How close was Rochester to world-class when you took over?
Johnson: They weren’t close to world-class, but they were certainly a high-performing school district. I would say that as districts are compared, they would be competitive with this district in many ways, but in some areas not nearly as quality.
Advocate: What is different between Rochester and RISD?
Johnson: I think there is a stronger emphasis on the academics here. Much more competitive here than they were there. People in Minnesota, maybe it is just the culture, but the whole notion of competition, the stress of competition among the kids, was just not something that people wanted.
We tried to institute many programs that were sort of competitive in nature, academically and otherwise, and they just didn’t like it.
So, I think this district, in my view, is giving more emphasis to that, and I think it is a good emphasis, frankly; one that I’m comfortable with.
This district emphasizes the arts more for students, and the arts are more integrated in the students’ education K-12. And I am very serious about how important that is, and I think there is good correlation between higher levels of learning, and those kids are involved in the arts. So I think we are right on target there. The district up north didn’t commit that much to it.
We commit a lot of energy and money in this district to supporting kids who do not come to school ready to learn – more than we did up north – and I think that is real important, because we have to build a strong base for kids when they come into our schools so they are ready to learn and able to sustain learning at higher levels.
I think we do a good job of that here, much better than we did up north.
Advocate: You started a “newcomer’s center” in Rochester. Could that apply here? Could you elaborate on how it works?
Johnson: Basically what happens is if a student were to come to this community today and move into this community from another country and not have any language skills whatsoever and perhaps not even understand the culture that they are going to be living and going to school in – the newcomer’s center was designed for kids like that.
And the goal was that students who came into the school system would be moved directly to one of the newcomer’s centers at the elementary, middle or high school level. They would spend time in the newcomer’s center, and they would learn the language, and they would learn our culture so that they would then be able to be mainstreamed into the regular classrooms with greater success.
Rather than just putting them into regular classrooms and hoping that they make it, we’re trying to provide some support where they can make it.
The goal was to give them enough language so that they could read, speak and write, and learn enough of the culture so that they could understand what they are getting involved in on a day-to-day basis so that they could be successful.
It is sort of a self-contained program where kids come into the program and move out when the teachers believe that they are ready to be mainstreamed into the regular program. That happens on small steps.
Advocate: Is it a full-day program or something kids attend a few hours every day?
Johnson: Some kids, depending on how long they have been in the center, they work their way out gradually.
Advocate: What is the typical length of time a student would attend the center?
Johnson: Young children work and learn very quickly. They work quickly, they learn the language, they learn the culture, and they are able to get out in a manner of three to 10 weeks, somewhere in that vicinity. Perhaps a little longer, depending on the child.
The older the child gets, the more difficult it is to leave the center. We have had some kids who were in the newcomer’s center upwards of a year or more. They may have been taking some classes by that time outside of the newcomer’s center. But if they are not able to speak, read and write, and to understand the culture that they are going to be in, they are not going to be successful, especially in the junior and senior high school. They are just going to fail.
Many of the kids that we had enrolled in our district were from Cambodia or South Vietnam. Some had never been to school in their life. In fact, most of them had been born and raised in the camps, so they really didn’t have a talent. They lived in a camp.
When they came to our school system, it would be the first time they have lived in a house or apartment, the first time that they had ever been to a school, and so the newcomer’s center made sense. It helped them to move into that setting in a more comfortable way and a more positive way, and the older children especially, who had never been to school and who were 12 to 15 years old, it was not even reasonable to put them into a math, Algebra or English literature class. That would be foolish.
I think we have a lot of kids like that who are moving into our schools that perhaps this concept may have some applicability.
Advocate: What happens to a student like that in RISD now?
Johnson: We have bilingual programs and ESL (English-as-second-language) programs that the kids are moving into. The problem that some people have suggested, that is why we are investigating this, is that some of the students may need something more than what we offer, a more intensive environment, and that is where the newcomer’s center may be applicable.
What we have now may not be intensive enough. It may not give them strong-enough footing to get them ready.
Advocate: What is done now isn’t a full-day, separate program?
Johnson: In many cases, it wouldn’t be.
Advocate: Do you know how many students in the district would be eligible for such a program?
Johnson: No, I don’t.
Advocate: We recall reading in the Richardson News something about $1.2 million in budget cuts considered in Rochester…
Advocate: What did you consider cutting? And how, if it all, will budget-cut situations apply here?
Johnson: Well, the process is different up there. We had created a process that was kind of a group process where we had 60 people on a team, so it virtually examined all aspects of the budget.
There were four teams of people, total of 60, and they made recommendations to either what we called enhance the budget, add something to the budget; maintain the budget, maintain something that is already in there at the same level; or set aside something from the budget, which means not cut, because there is no such thing as cut – it may come back next year or five years from now, but set it aside for now.
Basically, what we told everyone was that they knew the district’s strategic direction, they knew the district’s philosophy and beliefs, and they knew what our target was for cutting or reducing our spending profile. That was based on how much reserve we wanted to have in the district budget at the end of the year.
So they were given the responsibility to fully examine all program areas and come up with some recommendations. They had to come up with $1.3 million in reductions and spending, and how they established priority had to be centered around the district strategic plan’s direction and that kind of thing. They could choose to recommend anything, to tamper with all areas of the budget. It was quite exciting.
What happened was you started off with all kinds of ideas from adding to setting aside. Then, of course, you focused down after a period of time to reality, and you realize you have to get the job done, so you begin looking at things more seriously, and things get set aside. Ultimately, you make a recommendation that the district can live with.
Now, they did make some changes. As an example, two years ago, they eliminated all of the elementary language arts specialists. We had 13 in the elementary schools. They used to go around to the various schools and service the schools. They eliminated all of those, but they increased the number of art/music teachers.
So they set aside one program area and made a higher priority of another program area.
We felt good about that because that was one of the things that we were really concerned about anyway. So I have not really been surprised by the kind of recommendations that we have gotten over the years. They have been very responsible.
Advocate: Do you see that kind of process coming into play here? Or are we not at that stage yet?
Johnson: We are not there yet. We are not ready for that yet. That took time. I was there seven years, and it was only after four years that we got that really on line. We just moved into it slowly.
In this district this year, we have instituted a Budget Advisory Team. They call them the BAT squad, and they are a group of about 21 people, citizens and staff who are beginning to review five very important questions that the board is ultimately going to have to decide as they build the budget.
Like, how do we feel about the 22 to 1 class-size ratio at the K-4 level? How should the board balance spending in the area of benefits versus salaries for staff? They have been tossed some very complex questions. We are framing it a little differently here right now.
So I think we have taken the first logical and good step towards having more involvement of staff and citizens in helping develop the budget of this district. Ultimately, we will always reside in the decision of the board. But I think as we move through the next two years, we will try to find other ways to make this process even more inclusive and probably once that we would look at and that fits systems, fits the way that we do business and is also involving other people and helping shape the direction of the budget.
Advocate: Going back to what you said earlier, about getting people involved, will a process like this help them feel confident about their schools again?
Johnson: Yes. Overall, by the way, I think people feel a very strong confidence about our schools, but for those who have questions about the way that we spend our money or those who feel we could spend our money better in another way, I think it will help those people.
In fact, some people who have been sitting on the budget team now have a much deeper respect for how difficult it is to manage a limited budget and do all of the things that we are required or asked to do. It is a very complex process.
I think that if we can build enough of the people in our community who have a better understanding of the issues that we are facing and feel pretty comfortable about the way that we are making decisions, I think that overall they are going to feel better about us and the services and programs that we provide.
Advocate: When you brought a lot more people into the budget process in Rochester, basically you were dealing with a district that had been status quo for a while?
Advocate: That had to have been a rather noisy and stressful process.
Johnson: Yes, for some it was.
Advocate: How about for you?
Johnson: I liked it. Obviously, if I weren’t comfortable with that, I wouldn’t have done it. I enjoyed that. I think that having people involved, by its very nature, having involvement of others is difficult because it is not easy to manage a process where you have more than one person involved. For every person that you add to a process, it becomes that more difficult to manage.
The other thing that you are trying to do constantly is balance between managing the process and making sure that you have integrity in the process, moving forward with “integrity” and also trying not to control it.
There is a fine line there, and people want to be involved, but they don’t want to be involved if they feel that this is a process where they are being manipulated or used.
So I think it is a challenge to do it in the right way. There were a lot of people that I worked with, and maybe some in the community, who were not happy with the level of involvement that we had created, and they didn’t like the fact that they were not in control any more of some of the decisions.
When you share power and you share authority, it takes away some of that from other people. There were some people who frankly were not happy that they didn’t have the right to single-handedly, without any involvement or input from anyone else, make decisions.
But the strength of the decisions in the end were much greater than if a person or a small group of people inside the district had made those decisions by themselves, even if they were the same decisions.
Even if the outcome were exactly the same, you are better-off having more involvement.
Advocate: How did you get everyone to agree to it?
Johnson: In some cases, they didn’t, they had to comply. In some cases, some people just left. I worked for seven years up there, and there were some people who still don’t agree with the way the changes were made, and who knows what will happen after I leave? Maybe they will try and go back to the way they were.
There were a lot of new people who came into the system, either as parents or citizens, business leaders and staff, who were behind the goals of involvement of others, who were behind the goals of the district, who respected the processes that we had put into place, and who were going to work hard to maintain that with integrity.
So I think that it was a small minority of people who were left who really didn’t want to work in that direction.
What Others Think
Advocate: If we called up five or 10 people who know you pretty well or have worked with you, how would they describe you?
Johnson: They would say I’m strong and fair. They would say he has changed over the years to be more respectful and a better listener. They would say he doesn’t like incompetent people. In fact, that is probably one of my greatest weaknesses. I just cannot tolerate incompetent people.
They would say that I had a great sense of humor. They would say that he was very tough with unions. But fair. They would say that he is probably going to be a better superintendent this time than he was the last time. I look at that with high honor because I think that means I learned something.
I think that is what they would say. I know that is what they would say. You can call anyone. My detractors would probably say the same kind of thing.
Advocate: Now, you are about 45 years old, right?
Johnson: Yeah, I think so.
Advocate: Well, that is pretty young to be in the position of leading a school district, isn’t it?
Johnson: That’s very young.
Advocate: I guess that’s good?
Johnson: Yeah, but I feel old. I was 38 in my first superintendent position. Before that, I had a wonderful experience as an assistant superintendent as one of the top three superintendents in Indianapolis, which is a district of about 55,000 to 60,000. That was really a great training opportunity for me.
So then I left that and became a superintendent at 38 and had a good superintendent experience there for seven years, and now here at 45.
So yeah, I’m still young. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Advocate: Tell us a little bit about your wife and kids.
Johnson: Well, Julie is about the same age as I am. We are actually right now exactly the same age. She was an associate principal of an elementary school building of about 1,100 to 1,200 students. It was the largest elementary school in the state of Minnesota, and a good school, too. She is very tough and very fair. She is really a great gal.
Joseph is a seventh-grader at Westwood Junior High School, and he is very involved. He is in the honors classes and involved in orchestra. He has been in a lot of theater. Just really a great kid.
Jackie is a fifth-grader. She is at Bowie Elementary School. She is going to be in the band next year. She is going to play the flute. She is very excited. She is also a piano and violin player and active in theater.
Both of them are very talented kids. They are loving Texas. It has been a great move for them. Even my neighbors laugh at us, because we moved here the first of April, and we have been in the pool ever since, and all my neighbors just laughed.
They think “these guys are not for real and none of us would dare do that until later in the year.” But I promised the kids, by golly, we’ll have a pool when we move to Texas, and you’ll be able to swim year-round, and that is what they’re doing.
I have an older son, Ryan, who is at Indiana University, and he is a sophomore, soon to be a junior. He lives up in Indiana. He is in business administration and computer science, and we will have to wait for another year or two to see where he shakes out.
Advocate: What do you do for hobbies?
Johnson: We mostly do family things. We ski together. We are avid snow-skiers. In fact, we didn’t get to go this year because we canceled our vacation since I had to be here instead of in Denver skiing. So we snow-ski a lot.
We are avid sailors. We have a sailboat. We spend a lot of time on our boat. Although we haven’t here, yet. It’s here, but we haven’t gotten out to it, yet.
Those really consume a lot of our time. The rest of the stuff is family stuff. We go to a lot of theater, concerts and so forth. We really enjoy being together shopping. Just putzing around, just as a family.
We have a dog and two cats and two goldfish. We lost one on the way down here. We actually brought them with us. On the way down here, we had the two children, Julie and myself. We had a golden retriever. We had two cats.
The thing was loaded down with what didn’t fit in the moving van, and we had two goldfish between the two front seats. It was symbolic that we had to bring them with us.
One didn’t make it, and it was interesting because he passed away as we crossed the line to Texas, and we actually had to have the burial service at the “Welcome to Texas” sign. So we had trauma on the way here.
We wanted the kids to come here early and get acclimated in school, get to know some of their friends so that they could be ready for the summer and certainly be ready for the fall. I thought it would be better to have a head start than to come in the summer and not know anyone. It has worked out just great.
Advocate: Is your wife planning to work?
Johnson: Oh yeah. She left her job and thought that would be great for a few months to kind of get us on our feet, get everyone settled. She is already read to get back to work. She is very much a professional, strong administrator and a good teacher. So I’m sure she will be back to work soon.
Advocate: How many hours a week do you work?
Johnson: Thousands. I don’t know. A lot. I get here at 7 a.m., but so do a lot of other people. I’m busy many nights. Too many nights.
In fact, the favorite question at home is: “How many nights this week?”
But I love my work, and I guess like a lot of other people in other professions, there is never enough time to devote between your work, family and your private life and yourself.
So I always have questions, making sure that there is enough balance in my life.
Advocate: As an educator, do you have any tips on how to make sure there is enough balance in life?
Johnson: Start with your family, and then kind of go to yourself, and then go to your work. Do it in that order, and you will be OK.
If you are like most of us, you start with work, and try to go to your family, and then there is nothing left for you.
Just keep asking yourself questions. “First Things First” is a great book to read if you haven’t read it, by Steven Covet. And ask yourself what is really necessary and important to you, and what makes the most difference in your life, and do those things.
Advocate: Why did you choose education?
Johnson: I started in special education and speech and hearing therapy because I wanted to devote time in my life to working with kids who are handicapped, who have had language challenges, and that is where I started, and my heart really is there.
From that, I just sort of emerged from some administrative posts. And I think I have a natural talent for leading and for organizing and for managing, and so I would rather do that here and make a difference with kids than to go into the business world.
I wouldn’t get the same positive feelings about what I do unless I were doing it for kids. So that is why I kind of migrated in this direction.
I have had some opportunities to go into business, several opportunities. At one point and time, I almost made the decision, the change. But something pulled me back, and I think it was doing something with the kids. I have stayed here, and I’m pleased I did. I cannot complain.
Advocate: What can we as residents of this community do to help you?
Johnson: First thing you can do is be informed. You can’t be informed by listening to people who do not know. Talk with people who know. The best way to do that is to go to the school and find out for yourself.
Look at the schools. Spend time in the school. Help the school by contributing time doing things that you feel comfortable doing and will help them.
Spend time with your kids, if you have kids. Spend time with them understanding what they are doing in their class. Talk with their teachers. See if you can help them in any way.
As business people, and as citizens, take responsibility to correct things that you hear that are not true. Don’t let people say things that are not true about schools. Challenge people when they make statements that are not accurate.
Most importantly of all, if you can, give us time as a district and help us as a district when we need people to examine issues and concerns. Come on-board and get involved with us, and contribute to the district. Contribute to the system by getting involved at the building level and district level and supporting your child.
Those are the three things you can do that will make a difference for us. If we have people who understand us and have good first-hand knowledge and who are giving of their time to the school, we’ll be the best school system in the world, because we will have active people who are involved and who care.
Advocate: Any final comments?
Johnson: Well, I’m pleased to be here. I’ll be looking forward to working with people in the community to make their schools the best that they can be.