Lifelong educator born to help Georgia’s struggling schools

Stock image of school buses

Credit: iStock

Key Points
  • Playmaker: Stephanie Johnson
  • Role: Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent for school improvement.
  • Tenure: 2017 to present.

Stephanie Johnson oversees the state government’s efforts to raise academic performance for thousands of Georgia’s struggling students.

Since 2017, Johnson has led a state office that sends staff specialists and federal money to help turn around classroom experiences for more than 150,000 public K-12 and charter students in Georgia. With tight school funding and challenges for students from low-income communities, her job was already tough long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia in March 2020.

Stephanie Johnson has served as the Georgia Department of Education’s deputy superintendent for school improvement since 2017. (Credit: Georgia Department of Education)

“My entire life has always been the conversation around teachers.”

Johnson wasn’t just called to a career in helping Georgia’s most struggling students. She was born into it.

Johnson, a longtime teacher and administrator who’s worked with thousands of students in low-performing public schools across Georgia, grew up in the “one-light town” of Chatham, Alabama, where both her parents were passionate educators.

Their love for schools ran so deep that her father, a local principal and later superintendent at several schools, and her mother, a teacher and media specialist, frequently planned the family’s vacation trips around attending educational conferences, Johnson said.

“My entire life has always been the conversation around teachers,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “It was almost a natural progression for me to do this kind of work when I got older.”

‘I need you to take this show on the road’

Over decades, Johnson rose the ranks in local Atlanta-area schools to become head of the state Department of Education’s Office of School Improvement, which aims to boost the academic performance and overall classroom experience for students in Georgia’s struggling schools.

She started in Clayton County as a principal tasked first with turning around Marrow High School and Jonesboro High School, as well as Sequoyah Middle School in DeKalb County. Next, she led turnaround efforts at Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School after a high-profile cheating scandal in the city’s public school system. Her work at Jackson paid dividends as test scores climbed and caught the eye of Georgia’s state school superintendent, Richard Woods.

“I remember him (Woods) saying, ‘I need you to take this show on the road and make it statewide,’” Johnson said.

“Since then, that has been the mission … understanding the need for children to have every opportunity possible no matter what your address is or your socio-economic status.”

Struggling schools infographic
Struggling schools in Georgia are identified according to certain “lists” that qualify those schools for federal aid and other support from state school improvement officials. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

‘Every community has something that’s great’

As a deputy superintendent since 2017, Johnson has spearheaded the state education agency’s efforts to pull up test scores, attendance and graduation rates for more than 150,000 students each year in Georgia’s low-performing schools. She oversees a team of school-turnaround specialists who fan out to dozens of schools across the state to help local districts shape improvement plans, data analysis, teacher training and how to spend federal grants on teaching tools and outside consultants.

Key to her strategy is a positive approach to help guide local teachers and school officials on how to boost performance for their students – not just telling them what to do.

She uses words like “opportunities” and “aspirations” instead of “weaknesses” and “struggles” when talking with local school leaders. She always highlights a school’s strengths right off the bat, before giving them an “extremely honest” take on what their performance data shows.

“Every community has something that’s great,” Johnson said. “Some people say negative things about the schools without realizing you’re tearing down the community.”

‘When we say ‘turnaround’, it really shouldn’t be just a test score’

Like all other states, Georgia must identify annually which of its public K-12 and charter schools rank among the lowest 5% in terms of academic performance and overall school climate, as required under the federal Every Student Success Act. Currently, Georgia has roughly 160 schools marked as low-performing with another 80 or so schools close to the 5% edge. State officials identify those schools based on test scores and climate ratings in what’s called the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

There are many more factors that go into whether a school struggles or soars, Johnson said. Particularly important are student health and well-being, which her team has tackled recently by helping schools offer non-academic services like dental, vision and mental-health screenings. Going forward, Johnson wants Georgia’s performance ratings to factor in more of those areas that stem from the impacts a surrounding community’s social and economic issues have on their local schools.

“When we say ‘turnaround’, it really shouldn’t be just a test score,” Johnson said.

“It really should be about what we do to serve the whole child in a way that it literally breathes life into them and makes them believe that they can do more, but at the same time, having our faculties have the capacity to build that for them.”

‘They’re going to need us’

On top of historical hurdles, schools across Georgia have also spent the last year and a half coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Georgia’s list of struggling schools has not changed since 2019 due to a lack of year-end test scores and other performance requirements that state officials waived during the pandemic. That makes it tougher to pinpoint whether struggling schools have made progress.

Nonetheless, Johnson said she and her team haven’t missed a beat. They continued meeting with local school officials regularly on webcam calls and helped districts lock down $23 million in grants for better internet access and technology to hold classes remotely. She’s also confident the state can keep tabs on student performance during the pandemic through formative assessments in certain subjects that have not been dropped.

With schools across Georgia cranking back up for the 2021-22 school year, Johnson said she feels her school-improvement office is in a good spot to help struggling schools stay on their feet after being knocked around by COVID-19.

“We have an abundance of resources ready to go,” Johnson said. “They’re going to need us. And we’re ready to serve.”

Which of Georgia’s leaders do you think we should profile next? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing [email protected].

 Header image credit: iStock