Turnaround of Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High offers national model

Pedro A. Noguera is a Distinguished Professor of Education at UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He worked closely with several schools in the Atlanta neighborhood surrounding Maynard Jackson High School two years ago and believes what has been accomplished there is noteworthy.

In this piece, Dr. Noguera tells us why. He credits much of the success at Jackson to its dynamic principal Stephanie Johnson. I have served on a panel with Johnson and she is a force of nature.  She would make an excellent superintendent someday.

By Pedro A. Noguera

Two years ago, all of the news coming out of Atlanta related to education was bad.  The cheating scandals, the indictment and conviction several educators, and the incriminations made by leaders (Notably, school board members and the mayor) tarnished the reputation of the city and its schools. The crisis also raised serious doubts about the state and federal education policies that had produced the pressure to dramatically raise student test scores, but most of the blame fell upon the educators in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Pedro Noguera

UCLA’s Pedro Noguera

It’s taken some time for the acrimony to subside and for the situation in classrooms and schools to return to some semblance of normal.  There continues to be a steady stream of stories related to the unusually long sentences rendered by Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter on the indicted Atlanta educators, and the brewing controversy over Gov. Nathan Deal’s plans to take control over large numbers of under-performing schools. However, the big news story in education should be what has occurred at Maynard Jackson High School.

Back in 2011 when the school was faced with declining enrollment, low graduation rates and abysmal test scores, the superintendent appointed turnaround specialist Stephanie Johnson principal of the school.

Ms. Johnson has successfully led improvement efforts at two schools in Clayton County. Yet, despite her experience, Ms. Johnson quickly surmised that turning around Maynard Jackson would be unlike the others she’d taken on before.  Aside from addressing the significant academic challenges the school faced, the neighborhood surrounding Jackson was quickly gentrifying.

Principal Johnson understood that to succeed she would have to find a way to attract new students, many of whom were white and middleclass, to her school. She undertook this challenge by directly engaging her community to find out what they wanted from a neighborhood high school.  She came away clear that her strategy would have to extend far beyond increased order and a bump in test scores.  To win their support and attract their kids, she would have to find ways to elevate standards, and significantly expand educational opportunities for all of the students served by the school. She would also have to ensure that the predominantly low-income African-American students who were still there, and who for years had been poorly served by the school, would benefit from any changes she implemented.

To help her in this complex work, Johnson sought out partnerships with leading educational institutions – Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Emory University. This helped her in aligning the school’s curriculum with college requirements. She also brought in a new International Baccalaureate program, added 14 new Advanced Placement courses, and provided consistent, differentiated professional development for her teachers.

The results have been remarkable. Graduation has risen from 57 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2015, test scores in all of core subjects have markedly increased, and enrollment shot up from 571 to 1141, in just four years. This year, Maynard Jackson has the highest increase in state College and Career Ready Performance Index score of all high schools in the district. In fact, the CCRPI score is higher than Grady High School’s, which is widely regarded as one of the best public high schools in metro Atlanta.

Most significantly, the school went from a student body that was 98 percent black and low-income, to one that is increasingly integrated by race and class – 27 percent white, 73 percent black.  In recognition of her accomplishment, Johnson was named Georgia Principal of the Year by the State Department of Education in March of this year.

What lesson should Atlanta and the rest of the country learn from the experience at Maynard Jackson as we continue to search for ways to improve struggling schools? First and foremost that there are no quick fixes. Johnson didn’t employ any test prep gimmicks to obtain higher test scores. She focused on improving the quality of teaching and elevating academic standards. Secondly, she engaged her community and staff around a new vision that inspired them to believe a superior education could be delivered at this once “failing” school. Finally, she focused on improving the school’s culture by adding a wide array of extracurricular activities that attracted new students and their families to the school.

It would be a mistake to conclude that such measures are easily implemented. Principal Johnson demonstrated considerable fortitude and patience over the last four years to bring these changes about. However, as we consider what should be done to improve the quality of education available to children throughout the country, especially those who have historically been the least well served, we should be encouraged by this example to know that real change is possible.

If this can be done in Atlanta where the legacy of scandal still hangs over the city and its schools, it can be done elsewhere.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

27 comments
TCooper3559
TCooper3559

The success at the school is probably connected to the teachers and parents. I worked for Ms. Johnson in Clayton County and she was the most unethical principal and I almost left the teaching profession because of her bullying. This is not a hidden secret.  Ask anyone who worked for her in Clayton County?  She was suspended for  unethical recruiting of football players. We should be careful in hero building.

Dr. Reed
Dr. Reed

@TCooper3559 I find your post very offensive and hate-filled.  As a principal Mrs. Johnson has been nothing but top-notch.  She demands excellence from her students, faculty, and staff.  I worked under Mrs. Johnson for two years and I was never bullied.  I was challenged.  Like others, it took me a while to see the influence, but once I did I felt a renewed spirit for teaching.  I felt like I could change the world one day at a time, one student at a time.  Mrs. Johnson inspired me to grow in my stagnant career and pursue my Doctorate in Leadership.  She is well-deserving of all the accolades she's receiving and slanderous statements such as yours should be kept by the water cooler and not posted under such an outstanding article.  Thank you Mrs. Johnson for your fine leadership!

Tcope
Tcope

I would be interested in seeing the test results, grades and graduation rate of the black kids before and after the inclusion of the gentrifying area around Kirkwood. I would bet that the big turn around has little to nothing to do with this demographic.

Starik
Starik

@Tcope You can't say that. That may be factually "incorrect" but that doesn't matter.  Remember, if the area is gentrifying it probably includes well-educated black families as well as whites.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

People like Ms. Johnson are truly worth their weight in gold.  I hope she makes significantly more compensation than the average principal, as recognition for the value she is delivering.  


And I hope the teachers who have been instrumental in helping this turnaround are likewise recognized and compensated.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Sounds like the school has some strong, positive leadership.  It would be more revealing, however, to parse out the degree to which the 500 newly recruited (from private schools or where?) students have brought the change in graduation rates, scores, etc.  I  would guess that, to a large degree, the "change" is due to what those 500 students brought with them.


Still, the fact that the 500 additional students HAVE enrolled there (with no change in attendance zone lines, right?) is a feather in the school's cap.


Now, if the 500 additional students are due to rezoning, and have brought a huge uptick of graduation rates and scores with them...  well, then, not so much.


I'd like to believe in miracles.  I really would.

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@Wascatlady As I posted below, the numbers used in the article are not correct- although he got them from an APS source, we think.  There were about 300 more students in 2015 (the CCRPI score noted) and about 350 more now, to 1143., than in 2011.  Around 100 of the kids are white, in the present year.  Redistricting in '11 did not result in more kids being zoned for the school.  We did get over a hundred students, for a couple years running, that APS had moved from other schools due to academic or behavior issues, so if anything, kids from out-of-zone had an adverse affect on previous years' CCRPI.
The changes are 90% not due to 'new' kids.  They are due to years of work in all the Jackson Cluster's schools.  The cluster model allows for far more interaction between the schools that are 'peers,' and with the feeder schools.  The charters- and we are blessed with ANCS, Wesley International and Drew- kick in results of advanced teacher training, and experimental results in strategies and policies.  The charters are treated as equal, within the cluster.

As the author noted, all sorts of resources were brought to bear, from teacher training to after-school programs to 'wrap-around' social services- and yes, often times out of a teacher's, admin's or other parents' pockets.  But APS did get behind the school, starting with Errol Davis.
The biggest thing?  Getting the adults- admins, teachers, staff *and* parents- to act like adults.  As Carstarphen says, focus on the kids' issues, not adult issues.

Mack68
Mack68

@ChrisRMurphy @Wascatlady

No, this was not a result of rezoning. There was a very small part of Kirkwood that was rezoned from Grady to Jackson during the rezoning in 2011-12. As Chris Murphy notes, this success is a combined result of a concerted effort to include the surrounding community in strategic decision making, combined with a fortuitous hire of a very strong principal as well as financial investment of APS. 

Stinger2
Stinger2

Ms. Johnson is truly deserving of this honor. We know 

because our grandson (who is Chinese) is finishing his first year (9th grade) at MJ. We are so glad that his parents made the decision to stay in the Grant Park area and allow him to attend this high school. Jack has made a lot of friends and appears to be very

happy. 


Thank you Ms. Johnson for all you and your staff are doing for the 

children attending MJ. Go Jaguars! 

Atlanta Stakeholder
Atlanta Stakeholder

I have witnessed the work ethic and dedication to our Jackson Community and Jackson Cluster from Principal Johnson. She has worked tirelessly to change the culture of the school, and it has not been easy for her or her staff. So when you respond to this post, just know this is a really great lady who made positive changes to a school that we were all running from before she came with a real vision and placed actions into motion to support the vision. She is so visible and so creative in her efforts to serve our school community. Right now, I am just happy that we did not run like many others. Our community students have leadership skills that will take them far in life as they accelerate to their competitive colleges and universities. Thanks so much Principal Johnson and the dedicated Maynard Jackson faculty for fixing our school.

Legong
Legong

African-American kids are poorly served by their parents. 

Yes, the education establishment deserves major blame for blithely allowing political correctness to dumb down curricula and standards. Ditto for teachers' unions stifling accountability and parental choice while bankrolling Democrats who play along with the union bosses' self-serving agenda.

But it's mainly black parents who are letting these kids down, by forcing nearly 3 out of 4 black children to grow up in homes with no father. As recently as the 1960s that ratio was reversed. 

We were once a nation that couldn't be intimidated out of acknowledging and confronting such a disaster. What has happened to us?

PJ25
PJ25

@Legong Awe come on now, we all know its those evil republican voting white folks out in the suburbs fault.  All we need to is give the poor black folks and the black schools more money because money fixes everything.  ;)

Julie Stoverink
Julie Stoverink

We love Principal Stephanie Stephens Johnson! I'm so glad to see her getting recognition here, as well as her amazing team and community partners.

ctfatlanta
ctfatlanta

Let's also remember the charter school parents tried for years to get a charter school high school approved in the area without success.

A breakdown of the grad rate is needed. How much higher is the grad rate for the low income minority students? My guess is the charter school kids and other higher income students have a 100% grad rate

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@ctfatlanta Read my post: there were only 2 kids from ATL charter schools in the 2015 class, both came from Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School (ANCS), both received scholarships for college.

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

While I'm gratified that this article highlights our HS, the author is wrong on a number of points.
In 2011, Maynard had 791 students enrolled (our oldest daughter being one of them); it now has 1069.

Maynard had already been accepted into the IB Programme, and was accepting students into it in 2011.  Teachers and staff were undergoing periodic training and reviews, and the first official classes started in 2013.

Parents and community members were engaged and energized by then-Supt. Errol Davis by the redistricting process underway in 2012.  Mr. Davis promised full support for the IB, and put Mr. Thomas Kenner in place as an interim principal in 2012. Mr. Kenner was a God-send, as the kids had to endure a transfer to the former Coan MS building for a year-and-a-half as Maynard was undergoing a $45 million renovation.
During this time, Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools was formed largely by Don & Leslie Grant.  SEACS brought focus to the HS, forcing the District- and parents and the larger SE community - to look for programs and the leadership that could change the direction of the school.  Davis passed on a number of candidates for principal forwarded by Human Resources; after much pressure to get better candidates, Ms. Stephanie Johnson was lured away from Clayton County.

As redistricting brought SE Atlanta together with other long-suffering areas of the City  discussing our educational woes, Suzanne Guy Mitchell, amongst dozens of others, recruited and encouraged a new slate of Board members, including Ms. Grant.  Despite entrenched opposition downtown- especially from the mayor- 7 of the 9 seats saw new members.  This is the Board that hired our present, estimable Superintendent, Maria Carstarphen.
The state no longer seems to present student data that is broken down by race.  From my recollection, in 2011 Maynard was 95% black, about 4% Hispanic, some mixed race and about 7 white kids.  Over 90% were free-and-reduced price lunch, i.e., low income students.
I do not have access, as noted, to present racial breakdowns, but I strongly suspect there are no more than 10% white kids there now, and the low income numbers are probably about 85%.

Ms. Johnson is, as Maureen stated, "a force of nature" (or of the Lord, take your pick).  She did come into a situation far more 'challenged' than she knew, coming in.  That said, there were some fine- world-class, even- teachers at the school, such as Dance Instructor Tiffany Mingo, Chorale Director Lydia Williams, Track Coach and PE Instructor Thomas Russell, English Lit teacher Ebony Martin, amongst others. 
In 2011, two (2) kids that were zoned for Maynard- out of about 35- that had attended Atlanta Neighborhood Charter Middle School enrolled at the school.  Kathryn Murphy became the only white graduate of her class (2015), receiving a scholarship at UGA after completing the IB Programme, and Robert Walters is a scholarship athlete at his college.  Seeing their success- and ease- at Maynard, more middle-class (some being white) students have enrolled, year by year.  Those two deserve a lot of credit.
And the parents, the larger community, and all the staff at Maynard- they share the reflected light that Ms. Johnson has brought to the school.  She'd be the first to tell you, without all that support, Maynard's current upward movement would not have been possible.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@ChrisRMurphy Chris, I am glad to see parents know the transformation of Maynard Jackson was a more complex and organic effort as I worry about savior leadership. When one person is largely the heart, soul and engine of change, it can be catastrophic when that person leaves. I have seen inspirational leaders leave and the fresh air goes out of the room with them. I was at Jackson a few weeks ago for an after-school event and it was vibrating with activity. It was great to see.


ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@MaureenDowney That is exactly it: while we are far further ahead than we could ever be with Ms. Johnson at the helm, do notice that the entire Jackson Cluster made significant gains.  None of the schools are where we envision they could be, but leaders and teachers like Ms. Johnson are being drawn to SE ATL because of the support and the possibilities.  Also note that Jarrod Apperson found the relevant numbers on the racial breakdown: only 8% of the school is white kids. 
What we need now is a blog report on all the 'extra' things Ms. Johnson and her staff are doing that have caused the needle to move.  The results are indeed replicable, but not easy- nor cheap- by any means.


Debra L. Ross
Debra L. Ross

Sharonda Murrell is responsible for bringing in IB

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

That is correct- Ms. Murrell did a wonderful job putting together the plan, the paperwork and then 'recruiting' the students to take on IB.  One note: my daughter said UGA was no harder nor more work than IB at Maynard.


MugofJoe
MugofJoe

Principal Johnson is remarkable, but she's part of the foundation Erroll Davis, Jr. built. This school was given care and attention APS schools like Grady and NAHS had been given, but others in APS haven't.

A new curriculum including International Baccalaureate (like NAHS, Decatur and Riverwood, always among the highest performing Atlanta public schools), a renovated school (like NAHS), more of the middle class families chosing Jackson because Decatur (their previous choice) stopped administrative transfers (like NAHS, Grady, Decatur and Riverwood) collided to form success.

Principal Johnson, though, deserves great credit. Unlike NAHS, who APS corrected on bloody October by cleaning house for the new principal, Johnson bravely cleaned out the dead weight at Jackson. She understood that you have to build on the foundation if you want a house.

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@MugofJoe I agree, somewhat: many schools in APS have not had the focus they need. 
You're wrong that Decatur had been the choice of any but very few from the SE ATL neighborhoods.  Truth is, for a very long time there had been few middle class families with kids; a few would go to Decatur, a few to Grady, but schools here compelled most families to move when their kids became school age.  That changed with the charters (20010, which pressured APS to 'up its game' at schools like Parkside, which is a very good school, for a number of years.
And yes, Johnson cleaned house: one year she replaced more than the rest of the system combined.  She's still getting pot-shots from that.

Mack68
Mack68

@McWaney @ajc

No, plenty of neighborhood schools have seen gentrification in the neighborhood and yet the "gentrified" residents choose not to send their children to those schools. This is a success story not only attributed to the principal, but to involving the surrounding community and attracting them to the school.

GaryJ70
GaryJ70

Great article. Mrs Johnson is truly a dedicated leader determined to provide the best opportunity for all students regardless of the challenges they may face.