Does Maynard Jackson High School have the best principal in America?

Maynard Jackson principal Stephanie Johnson was one of three finalists for 2017 National Principal of the Year. She is now leaving APS for DOE.

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.”

Reader Comments 0

31 comments
Atiba M
Atiba M

 As someone who lives nearby Maynard Jackson HS and works in the philanthropy world to support  APS, I applaud Principal Johnson's accomplishments at the high school level but there is a more important movement that is a contributing factor to the rise of Maynard Jackson HS - "cluster collaboration."  Over the past four years, the traditional feeder elementary and middle schools, plus the charter schools (i.e. Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School and Wesley International Academy) located in the Jackson cluster, have been communicating, coordinating and collaborating in unprecedented ways.  It is impossible to improve student performance at the high school level without improving student outcomes at the feeder schools; however, Principal Johnson has been an exceptional leader because, from the outset and with consistency,  she embraced this vertical planning and collaborative approach that included charter schools and it marks the significance of the "Jackson Innovation Cluster."

CJones55
CJones55

As a teacher who almost left the profession because of Ms. Johnson I disagree with the commentary in this article.  In Clayton County she was a bully. Vindictive. Created an environment of fear. Respect was given only if you were white or an athlete. The black employees and students were treated like trash. Smoke and mirrors is what you all see. As anyone asked the teachers at her new school how they are treated? Teachers are probably running away from that school.

dsw2contributor
dsw2contributor

While I'm sure that Principal Johnson is doing a phenomenal job, I also think Maureen overlooked just how big of a role gentrification is playing in Maynard Jackson HS's turnaround.


Maynard Jackson is right next to the southeast segment of the Beltline, so house flippers and remodelers have been pouring money in the neighborhoods around the school.  Fuqua is finishing a big commercial development across the street from the HS.  Glenwood Place, the development that the founder of Earthlink started building a decade ago, is about a five minute walk from the school.


I don't think there is another HS in the state that has so much gentrification happening around it.

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@dsw2contributor The middle-class, white students are only 8% of the school's population.  While "gentrification" has improved property values, it has had nothing to do with improving education here- actually, most of the Yuppies and Bougies moving in are more of an impediment than a source of support: they only whine about what we don't have.  The charter schools came to fruition after work by dozens in the late '90's, and as those kids progressed focus turned to the HS. It wasn't the 'new' folks pushing those efforts, it was us 'old folks' and long-time residents.

Admin1
Admin1

Many people outside of education put in 12-14 hour days. They are highly paid and respected, even though their families suffer. She is no different, but probably not paid as much.I applaud this principal for doing what needs to be done. But the question is WHAT EXACTLY IS SHE DOING? Getting rid of the wrong people and identifying and hiring the right people. She also insists on student accountability. No headphones, no heads on desks, students getting to class on time, increasing extracurricular activities, etc.Kudos to her for doing what needs to be done. 

If you go into most high schools you will most likely  see students late to class, walking around with headphones, and being disrespectful l to adults. That is one reason why our  schools are failing because most principals are too afraid to confront the difficult issues. They want to just maintain status quo. And keep teachers who are ineffective.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Wascatlady raised the issue of sacrificing family time to lead a turnaround school. 


When I interviewed an academic who created a system to identify good teachers for high poverty schools, he said you want someone who will stay up late to ponder how to reach the kid slumped in his seat in the back row, someone who will give all the time needed to figure out how to reach every kid.


I asked the question: Doesn't such a single-minded focus on the job take away from other parts of a teacher's life? 


His answer was along the lines: "I am not saying there's not a high personal price from this much focus on the students or that this is a healthy balanced approach, but it is what's necessary.''

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@MaureenDowney A comment of mine to those comments never made into the list.
Ms. Johnson't family stands behind and with her as a team effort.  Her husband is an all-star too, make no mistake- he obviously shoulders a lot of the family duties.  Her kids have been to more meetings than they can count!  But they also travel to the kids' sport camps, take vacations, and focus on each other.  They're special folks.

ErnestB
ErnestB

@MaureenDowney


Another question is how do you retain high achievers such as Ms. Johnson in this position?  This kind of success typically results in a promotion to the central office.  If that is her long term career goal, she shouldn't be stopped from seeking that type of opportunity.


What kind of incentives should we provide to outstanding teachers and principals in order to keep them where they are making an impact?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@ErnestB @MaureenDowney I got the sense that Dr. Johnson will move on in the next few years -- she said she would like to be a superintendent. Her son is only a 10th grader so she may stay to see him through Jackson, but she is clearly ready for a bigger challenge and she will have no lack of opportunities to find one. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@MaureenDowney Unfortunately, I know several principals whose extreme investment in their students cost them their marriages and alienated their children.  Wonderful principals, great to work with, devoted to the students and their students' families, they lost connection with other parts of life and burned out.


When I first started teaching, my then-husband complained that I was "always bringing my students home with me."  It can become almost a pathology.  When I taught sped (very special kids--non verbal) I dreamed about them--about what I could do that would lead to a breakthrough for them.


I think a good principal or teacher should be the advocate, cheerleader, guide, and mentor for their students.  They should also seek to educate the parents.  But, at some point, the teacher/principal has to have another part of their lives, whether family or something else, in order to be effective in their work.

ErnestB
ErnestB

@Wascatlady @MaureenDowney


In fairness, we each make a personal decision regarding the type of work/life balance we want.  We then have to live with that decision.  How does the old saying go, "I work not live, not live to work".

SouthsideParent
SouthsideParent

@MaureenDowney Echoing Chris's comment, Ms. Johnson and her family are all very special. Ms. Johnson particularly has an immense level of energy and focus, and accomplishes far more in a day than I could dream of doing. 


Finding a large number of super special people doesn't sound like a reasonable path to improving our high poverty schools. If we want our teachers in high poverty schools to reach every kid, they need fewer students, more planning time or higher salaries so they can afford to outsource some of their personal obligations. 

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@MaureenDowney Those of us self-employed know that an 8-hr day don't cut it.  Congratulations to those of you that can live on a 40-hr schedule, and I mean that.  Ms. Johnson is just an over-achieving example of what "educators" - faculty, staff, admins and even central office- that are effective have always known: teaching kids is not a 9-5 career.  The demands, and the rewards, are far different, and especially so in public education.  We as a society have asked cops and teachers to solve every problem we have as a nation.  It's far past time to recognize both the huge responsibility we have handed them and the support they need.  And just as the tragedies of our society are newsworthy, so are our successes- thanks for the post.

ChrisRMurphy
ChrisRMurphy

@ErnestB @MaureenDowney  You don't- there's too much need elsewhere.  What you do is support them when they're there, and try your best to make sure that they are mentoring those below and about them.  I have no doubts that Ms. Johnson is 'spawning' a crowd of individuals that are taking lessons, daily, on how to run a school, how to manage people- and kids- and how to navigate the politics and adults involved in education.

gactzn2
gactzn2

Kudos to Mrs.Johnson, what an amazing talent!!! This state is blessed to have her!!!  She is COMMITTED to the cause!!! The real deal when it comes to school leadership!!! She needs to share her expertise and practice because a lot of these school leaders are "wannabe" politicians who truly do not understand their purpose for occupying the position.  These types of turnarounds take tremendous work.

DecaturRags
DecaturRags

Send this story to Gov. Deal. Spend the money you might give to a for-profit corp. to run failing schools on principals like this, instead. How many others like her are out there?

Starik
Starik

@DecaturRags There are many more ex-coaches sitting in Principals' chairs. This is the South, and we know what school is for. Football. Sometimes Basketball.

kaelyn
kaelyn

@Starik - You're right, and it's one of the many reasons why the schools here perform so poorly. The football program at our school takes priority over academics. The administration will tell you otherwise, but their actions speak much louder than their empty words.

Astropig
Astropig

She seems to be proof that you don't have to "cure poverty" before schools can improve.

SouthsideParent
SouthsideParent

@Astropig No, you don't have to cure poverty if you can locate the Simone Biles of principals and persuade her to work 16 hours a day and use her network to bring in others working almost as hard.

Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady @Astropig @SouthsideParent


Many want success.Few are willing to pay the price to achieve it.It's not what you're willing to do that is a determinant of accomplishment-it's what you're willing to give up.


She's showing real leadership in sacrificing family time for her job.She's not asking students and teachers to do what she won't do herself.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Astropig @Wascatlady @SouthsideParent She is willing "to give up" her family time.  A big loss for them.  Most teachers and principals do this to a great extent already.


I wish her well, make no mistake.  Not too many women would choose job over family, however, to this degree,

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Astropig @SouthsideParent She has a family who is willing and able to be a distant second place in her life. Most teachers and principals are devoted to their work, but also devoted to their families.

Astropig
Astropig

@SouthsideParent @Astropig


Been saying that for a long time.Children in poverty can learn-they can learn well.Using poverty as an excuse for accepting bad school performance is just blaming the victims.


Just to be clear-I'm praising Ms. Johnson and hoping she wins.I'll hoist a frosty one in her honor...


Astropig
Astropig

@SouthsideParent @Wascatlady


We're not talking about Simone Biles. She's not a school principal.I could give a toss about her. If you want to worship her,go to the sports blogs,

SouthsideParent
SouthsideParent

@Wascatlady That's the point of my comment. Principal Johnson is one of the most energetic people I've ever met. I've seen her at the end of one of her 16 hour work days in her first year. She was still going full bore. Having seen how much she is capable of giving, I believe she probably had more energy left for her family at the end of 16 hours than I do at the end of 8. 


I don't understand how someone could read this profile of a super human making an immense sacrifice then claim Principal Johnson is proof you don't need to cure poverty before schools improve. It seems about on par with reading a profile of how high Simone Biles jumps and then claiming we don't need ladders. 

kaelyn
kaelyn

Love it. A principal with more expectations than excuses. There are a lot of good educators out there, and this one sounds like the best of the best.