Principal Stephanie Johnson navigates the halls of Atlanta's Maynard H. Jackson High School like an air traffic controller directing a sky full of planes.
Except she gives the pilots only one choice: Fly higher.
From bursting into a lecture to ask why a student was wearing headphones to pulling out her walkie-talkie to track a hall monitor, Johnson missed little as we toured the southeast Atlanta high school earlier this week. Her message was consistent and persistent to teachers and students alike: Try harder. Reach higher. Do better.
As we passed students lagging at the door to their classroom, she announced, “I see people late for class and I don’t see a sense of urgency.”
This principal doesn't want anyone to divert from the school's “Mission Possible” goal. In February, Johnson’s success at making excellence possible at Maynard Jackson earned her the Georgia Principal of the Year title. In October, she learns whether she is the 2017 National Principal of the Year; she's among three finalists.
Johnson landed at Atlanta Public Schools in November of 2012, propelled by a turnaround reputation honed in Clayton County. APS Superintendent Erroll Davis tasked her with an ambitious job: Lift performance at Jackson, then ranked 377th out 399 Georgia high schools.
According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, Jackson High School's overall performance is now higher than 43 percent of schools in the state and higher than its district. Student academic growth is higher than 85 percent of schools, and Jackson was among the top three APS high schools seeing an overall gain in the percentage of students scoring at developing and above on the latest Milestones exams.
To be clear, the 1,100-student Jackson High School is not on academic par with a Walton in Cobb or a Lambert in Forsyth, although its top students – heading to such colleges as Duke, Georgia Tech and UGA -- certainly are comparable. But Jackson has far higher poverty to overcome; about 85 percent of its students come from low-income households.
Johnson transformed Jackson by building on the momentum already underway in the southeast Atlanta school cluster. Over three years, she replaced 73 staff members with passionate, do-whatever-it-takes educators. She consulted student data to shape policy. She expanded to 67 extracurricular activities to connect students to the school and one another. She tolerated neither a candy wrapper on the floor nor a student on a cellphone. During her tenure, the PTSA grew from 12 members to 300.
Everything, everyone and every detail matter to her, and teachers seem at ease with Johnson darting into classrooms to question a student with his head on the desk. “They know they are going to be observed twice a week,” said Johnson. “And they know I am going to be in their classrooms.”
“If you are doing a great job and students are learning, you aren’t going to have a problem with me,” she said. One young male teacher who didn’t meet her expectations left, but went “back to school to learn to teach.” Johnson rehired him. She admitted violating her no-poaching rule and stealing a teacher from another APS high school, but said the teacher called her multiple times and “he’s so good.”
The gentrification occurring around the Jackson campus created both a benefit and a burden. The core 20 middle-class parents who committed to keeping their children in Jackson devoted countless hours to bettering the school itself and its standing. Some even came to Jonesboro High School in Clayton in Johnson's final weeks to discuss Jackson.
But Johnson says a few parents expected tangible improvements quickly, and she even fielded calls in church on Sunday mornings. A father called her almost daily to allay his fears over sending his daughter to what he once described as “a ghetto school,” said Johnson.
In the beginning, Johnson put in 16-hour days, arriving from her Peachtree City home in the predawn hours. She recalled how she and assistant principal Faya Paul labored through two nights over a weekend to revise the math offerings and then dressed in their offices to greet students Monday morning.
With processes and policies in place and performance on the rise, Johnson works 12-hour days. She is married with three children, and her 22-year-old daughter is a newly minted APS elementary school teacher. Her 15-year-old son attends Jackson, while her 11-year-old is a sixth grader in Peachtree City. Her husband and kids accept her long days and frequent weekends at Jackson High games.
“I have not taken off one day or one moment since I’ve been here,” she said. “There is always something we have not done.”
This Monday morning began with finding uniforms and books for students who lost their belongings in a weekend fire at their apartment complex. In the past, it's been girls who couldn't afford prom dresses so Johnson and the staff provided them. Once it was a boy whose family left Atlanta, necessitating Johnson take him into her home so he could finish the school year.
Jackson High's fundamental values are equity and access, according to the principal, so the school’s early college, 16 AP courses and all the International Baccalaureate classes are open to all comers. In several advanced classes, Johnson checked in with students she persuaded to attempt the more rigorous option. They all thanked her for pushing them.
As she came to know the dangerous neighborhoods some of her students still go home to every day, Johnson beefed up activities to keep teens at school longer. If middle-class parents ask for a sprawling rooftop garden, academic teams, robotics or drama, Johnson agrees as long as every child in Jackson can participate. When one of her students – a young woman who earned the elite IB diploma despite taking care of her family – needed more funds to pay for college, Johnson launched a fundraising campaign.
“I don’t mind being mom and dad to these kids,” she says. “It’s important for me to feel I am making a difference.”