Republican Mark Johnson comes to the job of the state’s education chief promising to shake off the status quo, and is himself a nontraditional choice for state superintendent of public instruction.
Johnson is a lawyer for a technology firm in Winston-Salem who has been on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board for about two years. In last week’s elections he defeated Democrat June Atkinson, who has been the state’s education chief for 11 years and worked at DPI for about 28 years before she won the statewide office.
Two years as a Teach for America corps member at West Charlotte High School helped shaped Johnson’s views on public education, convincing him that problems need “hands-on solutions.”
He taught earth science to ninth graders in a school where many students live in poverty and struggle with classwork. Some students didn’t know whether they would eat at night. He knew one student lived in a motel.
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Johnson had in his classes students older than the typical freshmen who had been held back. He tells the story about a 17-year-old student, someone who did not regularly attend class, who came in one day eager to do the assignment. The student sat down for the silent reading exercise, but confessed to Johnson a few minutes later than he could not read it.
“I realized that I was ready, if given the opportunity, to devote my life to making sure in my lifetime that all students have the opportunity to succeed,” Johnson said. “Through my experiences, I realized that opportunity is not available to every student in this country, and it needs to be.”
He also became convinced that “more of the same” won’t improve public education in the state, he said.
Later, Johnson concluded through his work on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board that local districts needed more support from DPI for their ideas, and that the state requires too much testing. A new federal law has given the state the opportunity to evaluate its testing program and focus on tests that help students, he said.
The department is working to finalize a plan on how the state will measure student knowledge and school quality. Johnson will take office before the state sends the final version to Washington.
Johnson is proud of the work the Forsyth district has done to jump-start one of the state’s lowest-performing schools, Cook Elementary, giving it some of the flexibility afforded charter schools in hiring, pay, and setting the school calendar.
The school has a new name and new teachers. It uses some of the “outside-the-box” elements Johnson espouses. Employees make more money than their counterparts in other schools and members of the “design team” for elementary literacy were paid stipends. The school gave teachers the chance to be leaders in the school and make more money for taking on extra responsibility.
“It’s exciting because we realized continuing to do the same thing year after year at Cook wasn’t working,” he said.
David Singletary serves with Johnson on the local school board. Johnson, as chairman of the board’s building and grounds committee, worked with district staff to evaluate school needs in preparation for a $350 million bond referendum that passed this month, Singletary said.
“He was instrumental in helping streamline our bond package,” Singletary said.
Singletary and Johnson were elected to the local school board in November 2014. Singletary said he wasn’t really surprised when Johnson announced less than a year later that he was running for statewide office.
“Mark has a lot to offer, whether he offers that on a local level or whether he offers that on the state level,” Singletary said.
Johnson grew up in Louisiana the eldest of four sons. He attended public schools there, graduating from that state’s public residential high school, Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, which he described as equivalent to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.
He went to college at Emory University in Atlanta and remains close to friends he met freshman year.
“He wanted to figure out a way to be useful and serve,” said Vikas Kumar, a friend from Emory who works in Washington, D.C. “He’s always had a passion for education issues.”
Johnson was drummer in a band while at Emory with friend Scott Gold, who is now a management consultant in the nation’s capital.
“When he puts his mind to something, he’s more likely than not going to achieve it,” Gold said.
After two years teaching, Johnson attended law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Johnson is leaving his job as corporate counsel for technology firm Inmar in Winston-Salem, and moving to Raleigh with his wife, Rachel, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter for his new job running the state department that employs more than 1,000 people.
As a manager, Johnson said he puts most of the detail work in the hands of people he trusts.
“I find that is the way to get things done,” he said. “If you try to micromanage everything, you’ll be drinking from a fire hose. Find the right people and trust those people to handle the tasks.”
Johnson’s goals in office
Use the authority under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to reform testing.
Meaningful professional development for teachers.
Encourage career growth for teachers, giving them the option of being leaders in their schools.
Provide support from the Department of Public Instruction for local initiatives.