College & Workforce Readiness Leader To Learn From

A Superintendent’s Commitment to Getting Students ‘Future Ready’

By Catherine Gewertz — February 19, 2020 9 min read
Bryan Johnson
Recognized for Leadership in Career and Technical Education
Career and Technical Education
Success District:
Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga, Tenn.
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If Bryan Johnson wanted to illustrate quickly why he built a new system of career pathways in his school district, he could just point to Waltkia Clay.
Waltkia is a 10th grade student in the health sciences “Future Ready Institute” at The Howard School in Chattanooga, Tenn., one of 28 career-oriented “school-within-a-school” programs that the Hamilton County district launched in high schools nearly two years ago.

She studies core subjects through a healthcare lens, and gets real-world opportunities to practice what she’s learning. She’s already mastered CPR and learned how to apply tourniquets. And she recently got a taste of trauma care that’s rare for a teenager: She played the role of a car-crash victim at a local hospital in a simulation for doctors working toward certification in advanced trauma care. Lying on a stretcher and made up with bloody gashes, Waltkia got to see emergency treatment procedures up close.

“In 8th grade, my thinking [about a career] was all over the place,” said Waltkia, who wants to be a forensic scientist. “Coming here gave me a clear vision, a straight shot, of what I wanted to do.”

Lessons From the Leader

  • Don’t be afraid to jump off the ledge: You don’t have to have it all figured out. Of course you try to mitigate as many things that could go wrong as you can. But if you’ve built deep ownership in the idea, and the community sees it as their thing, it’s good to move ahead.
  • Ask what your community needs—and mean it: You’ve got to be extremely genuine. When we involve partners in our work, we often say, ‘I need your help with X.’ But when you ask a business leader what they need from us, it shifts the conversation. It becomes: ‘How do I, as a school system, help you fill that need?’
  • Seek—but don’t demand—the support of school-level leaders: We involved our school leaders in conversation early on. That was really important. It was also important that we didn’t demand that they be part of it. This wasn’t top-down; it was bottom-up

That sense of direction is what Johnson hoped to provide for students when he spearheaded the future-ready institutes after becoming superintendent of the 44,000-student Hamilton County district in July 2017.

“The reality is, whether a student chooses to get a certificate, or go to a two- or four-year college, or straight into the military, everything ends at a job,” Johnson said. “To be productive citizens, they need to be employed.

“So, working backwards, we need to ask, ‘What can we do to expose students to the opportunities that exist locally and nationally, find out what they’re interested in, and get them prepared?’ ”

Bryan Johnson

As intuitive as it might seem to design career pathways to reflect the job market, it’s hardly commonplace. In most districts, administrators don’t take the time—or have the know-how—to dig up local, state, or national job-trend data to shape course offerings accordingly and advise students expertly on post-high-school options. Most don’t have ongoing discussions with local businesses about the workers they need. Johnson’s done both of those things.

His work is getting some top-drawer notice. Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Education Department, visited the programs for technology and networking and for teaching in November, and was impressed.

“The structure of Future Ready Institutes lends itself as an archetype that other schools could use to offer innovative career prep options to their young people,” he said in an email to Education Week. He added that he is “particularly impressed” with the way the district harnesses business and community partnerships to support the career institutes.

Bryan Johnson

When Johnson, 37, came to Chattanooga two years ago, after 13 years as a high school teacher, athletic director, principal, and chief academic officer in a district near Nashville, he started by listening. Dozens of group sessions with parents, educators, and business leaders helped him shape a five-year plan for the district.

A key piece of that strategic plan is boosting students’ “future readiness,” which the district defines as preparing them for jobs that pay well and are in demand. Some of those jobs require only short-term training and certification after high school. Others might demand an associate or bachelor’s degree.

That means all students need preparation for some kind of study after high school. Johnson prioritized expanding access to Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes, and courses that lead to certifications. Under his leadership, every high school now has an asset that’s rare in the nation’s public high schools: at least one counselor dedicated to college and career advising.

Johnson visits a hydroponics greenhouse at Hixson High School. The greenhouse, where students grow lettuce, is part of the high school’s Institute of Integrative Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

In his previous school district, Clarksville-Montgomery County, Johnson helped start a system of career academies, so he’d had a taste of what was needed. In his new post, he imagined a set of themed programs that could give students career ideas and a chance to get a real-world taste of jobs they might be interested in.

But those programs—or “institutes,” as they are called—would have to avoid channeling students into low-paying, dead-end jobs. Johnson’s team studied state and local workforce data to find out which jobs were in demand and paid well. They met with local business leaders, and the chamber of commerce and workforce development board and learned that the greatest need for skilled workers was in health sciences, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. They also picked up a bit of data that reinforced the idea that their institutes would have to set up most students for more education beyond high school: 55 percent of the jobs listed by top employers in the region demanded some kind of training or college after high school, but only 38 percent of the county’s residents met those criteria. And Johnson kept in touch with local businesses as his team built the program.

“Dr. Johnson is an expert in teaching and learning, but he’s also quick to recognize and acknowledge the areas where he doesn’t have expertise,” said Molly Blankenship, the executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, the local chamber of commerce’s education-and-workforce partnership. “He might not know what it looks like to be an engineer every day, how that learning is applied at work, and he reaches out to businesses for their expertise.”

In August 2018, barely a year after Johnson took the helm, 20 “future-ready institutes” opened in all but one of the district’s 14 regular high schools. Freshmen were eligible to enroll—and nearly one-third of that year’s class did so. This school year, there are 28 institutes that enroll 2,550 9th and 10th graders.

The institutes cover a range of career options, from aviation, engineering, building construction, and automotive manufacturing to marketing, business, law, healthcare, and teaching. Each institute has its own career-tech-ed specialists, and one or more business partners to advise them on coursework and provide guest speakers, job shadowing, or mentoring.

In Waltkia’s program, for instance, a former nurse and a former pharmacist teach the health science classes. They attend weekly course planning meetings with teachers in core academic subjects and help them develop projects related to healthcare and infuse daily instruction with real-world examples from the industry, said Zena Buckley, the institute’s co-director.

A respiratory therapist from Erlanger Health System, a local group of hospitals and clinics, also advises the institute’s teachers and arranges mentorships, job-shadows, and other activities at the hospital, such as the treatment simulation in which Waltkia participated.

Johnson has been surprised by how quickly the future-ready institutes have caught on. He thought maybe a half-dozen principals would get on board in the first year, but nearly all opted in right away.

LeAndrea Ware, the principal of The Howard School, welcomed Johnson’s idea, opening two Future Ready Institutes the first year and two more the second year.

“The traditional ways we’ve done things for so long just don’t work for everyone anymore,” she said. “His vision, his passion, was inspiring. And his shared leadership style made a big difference. He didn’t just come in and say ‘This is something we’re going to do.’ He gave everyone an opportunity to have input, get insight, share thoughts.”

The most challenging part of managing the career programs is “the day-to-day, making sure that the experiences students have in the classroom, and outside it, are really rich and deep,” Johnson said.

“It’s the daily instruction, the guest speakers, that there are quality apprenticeships or internships, making sure it’s coherent and aligned.”

Also a challenge? Carefully curating the institutes’ offerings. Shifting a career pathway from one school to another better equipped to make it successful. Choosing business partners. Those difficult but necessary conversations are tough and ongoing, Johnson said.

He manages all this with a leadership style that’s been a hallmark of his work for years: collaborative, focused on delegating rather than dictating, and on listening rather than talking.

“He has a real presence,” said Mason Bellamy, who worked with Johnson when both were principals in Clarksville-Montgomery County and reported to him as director of elementary schools when Johnson became the chief academic officer.

“When he walks into a room, you can’t help but notice him,” Bellamy said. “But he listens first. You don’t necessarily hear his voice until you’ve been with him awhile.”

Bryan Johnson

Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitt frequently sought Johnson’s advice on how state policy would affect educators when Pitt served on the education committee in the state’s legislature.

“He doesn’t have to prove he’s the smartest person in the room,” Pitt said.

Blake Freeman, who Johnson recruited to lead the design of the future-ready institutes, praised Johnson’s insistent focus on what’s good for students and his willingness to trust his leadership team.

“He’s going to allow you to trust your instincts even if they’re a bit different from what he’s thinking,” Freeman said. “And he always reminds us that [our work] is all about the people.”

Johnson recently chatted with an 11th grade girl who said she wished she’d had the chance to be part of a future-ready institute, where she’d get career ideas and learn about colleges that suit her goals. This conversation stuck with the superintendent, who asked his leadership team to think about ways to extend the offerings at future-ready schools to older students, Freeman said.

Johnson sees himself as a “servant leader” to the children in his district. His parents—a social worker and a Baptist minister—shaped his ideas about leadership, he said.

It’s really about influencing, not commanding.

“It’s really about influencing, not commanding,” Johnson said.

He’s ridden that style into important school improvements. When he became principal of Northwest High School in Clarksville-Montgomery County in 2012, the school had an average rating from the state, a 3, for growth in student achievement.

Johnson led the school through an “uncomfortable” but successful series of changes, including moving teachers to common planning and shared assessments and dropping by classrooms to offer feedback, said Theresa Muckleroy, who was Johnson’s assistant principal there. Within two years, the school earned the state’s highest rating, a 5, for growth in student achievement.

“His gift is vision, being able to sweep away everything else and see clearly,” she said. “It’s easy to get bogged down in the managerial and forget that instruction is what’s important. He was relentless about what was important, but always in a soft-spoken and professional way.”

Promising signs are emerging from Johnson’s “future ready” work. When he took the helm in the 2017-18 school year, only 61 students earned industry certifications. The next year, 224 students earned them. The number of students taking AP and dual-enrollment courses jumped from 1,951 to 2,867 during that same period. The district also earned the state’s top rating, a 5, for growth in student achievement in the last school year, a dramatic improvement from two years ago when it received the state’s lowest rating.

Waltkia said her time in the healthcare institute has made her more optimistic about her future. She’ll apply to a four-year college, with CPR, medical assistant, and EKG technician certificates already in hand.

“I feel prepared for life,” she said. “It gives me something to look forward to. It gives me hope.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2020 edition of Education Week

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