It has happened many times in Henry L. Johnson’s first year as state education superintendent in Mississippi. In places like Tupelo, Rosedale, and Pascagoula, he has strolled into a school gym or auditorium, never having been seen by the students or faculty.
Henry L. Johnson is the first African-American to oversee Mississippi’s public schools since Reconstruction. His knowledge of school accountability programs, combined with his friendly nature, made him an easy choice for the state board of education, which picked him for the job last year.
Some are forward with their smiles and handshakes. Others keep their surprise to themselves. The pride of many onlookers is written across their faces.
Such has been the reaction to Mr. Johnson, Mississippi’s first African- American state schools chief since Reconstruction, and one of the most prominent black officials in state history.
His visibility and expressions of support for public schools in the nation’s most heavily African-American state have been refreshing for many people.
But he says his role has more to do with holding the education system accountable for improvement than with his skin color or popularity.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job under any other circumstances,” Mr. Johnson said in a recent interview here. “All over the state, I’m seeing an energy about improving schools.”
In his first 10 months on the job, he has been to at least 40 school districts, where he’s made speeches and visited school leaders.
The condition of Mississippi’s public schools brings reason for both excitement and anxiety. Public interest in education has grown. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is making education his top issue, and the legislature voted this spring to raise school spending significantly.
But the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 could hamper Mississippi leaders’ attempts to garner more support for the schools. Most schools in the state may be listed as failing under the new federal law when test scores are released later this summer, which could result in a public relations nightmare in many states, but especially in a state that has struggled in many ways to find strong public support for better schools.
Mr. Johnson knows that’s possible, but says he’s ready.
At a state school board meeting earlier this spring, Mr. Johnson listened as Gov. Musgrove, a Democrat, bragged about how much the state had accomplished in education during his watch. Then the state superintendent upped the ante.
Speaking calmly and seriously, he told the governor and the board members who had hired him last June about his own goals for the state.
“We will in fact be the leading state in improving education in the near future,” Mr. Johnson pledged.
Most Schools Failing?
Already, Mr. Johnson has raised the visibility of the state superintendent’s job through his public appearances. He also helped lobby for $236 million in new education money that state lawmakers approved earlier this year.
His main plans focus on the official start of Mississippi’s school accountability system—and how he hopes the system’s school-by-school ratings will spark school improvement statewide.
Mississippi’s educational challenges can be shown in numbers. When test scores are tabulated this summer, more than 80 percent of public schools could fail to show the test-score gains the No Child Left Behind law now requires, Mr. Johnson estimates.
Henry L. Johnson
|Title: Superintendent of Education, Mississippi State.|
|Former positions: Associate state superintendent, North Carolina, 1995- 2002; assistant state superintendent, North Carolina, 1992-1995; assistant superintendent, Pleasantville, N.J., 1988-1991; director of policy development and research, North Carolina School Boards Association, 1984-1988; middle schools director, Wake County, N.C., 1982-1984; middle school principal, Wake County, 1979-1982; staff-development coordinator, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 1975-1979; teacher, Wake County, 1968-1975.|
|Personal: Raised in Kannapolis and Salisbury, N.C. Married with three grown children.|
|Source: Mississippi Department of Education.|
Last year’s trial run of those numbers predicted that “out of 880 schools, we’d have no more than 100 or 150" making adequate yearly progress on test scores, as required under the law, he said.
“We hope and expect that the numbers will look better” this year, he added, “but we don’t know.”
The good news is that Mr. Johnson has already been through some of this.
In the 1990s, as North Carolina’s associate state superintendent, he worked alongside Richard Thompson, the man he would later replace as Mississippi’s state chief. Together, they helped develop North Carolina’s system for grading schools and intervening in the ones rated lowest.
Mr. Thompson, now a vice president of the University of North Carolina system, said of his former colleague: “He understood the need for making sure people could see what you were trying to do. He has so much integrity, you can just stand on it.”
Born in Alabama but raised in North Carolina, Mr. Johnson might have been a Christian minister, following most of the men in his family, friends say. He chose to teach and coach.
“His ministry is improving public schools,” said Carlos Hicks, the superintendent of the 6,300-student Gulfport, Miss., schools, who worked with Mr. Johnson as a school administrator in Wake County, N.C., in the 1980s. “Henry Johnson is one of the brightest, most ethical school administrators I’ve ever known.”
The state superintendent worked as a middle school principal in Wake County, then directed all the Raleigh area’s middle schools, then worked on state policy at the North Carolina School Boards Association. Later, he went north to New Jersey, and worked to improve the Pleasantville schools. Then he went back to North Carolina.
Mississippi’s state board of education, which hires the state superintendent, wanted someone who could carry the school accountability torch.
“Our experience with him has confirmed what we thought: He is the best person in the United States to be state superintendent in Mississippi,” said Kenny Bush, the chairman of the state board, who led the hiring process for the $234,000-a-year job.
Mr. Johnson was the right man in other ways. Married and the father of three children, he has the friendly personality that fits in a state capital where political coalitions are formed over fried-catfish lunches.
“Nobody’s going to outwork us,” Mr. Johnson said as he sipped a glass of cranberry juice during a dinner out. “What’s going to matter is if I successfully implement the board’s accountability systems, and whether students are learning more.”
Building the System
Mr. Johnson’s vision for improving public schools has to do with local control and state help. Districts receive state money in Mississippi with relatively few strings attached.
The state chief acknowledges there are limits to what he can do to help schools from his third-floor office at the old Central High School, across from the Capitol here in Jackson. Unlike North Carolina, Mississippi lacks the money and state personnel, he said, to send dozens of full-time educators into low-scoring schools. The Magnolia State will be limited to part-time consultants.
That places much of the burden directly on local school leaders and classroom teachers. Mr. Johnson is insisting that state academic standards are being taught, so that students have a chance to score higher.
He has opened a school improvement office “to help locals find ways to improve and sustain their improvement.”
“People particularly, once they get set in their ways, need to see success stories in places like their own,” he said. “I want it to be done by Mississippians in Mississippi schools, and developed by Mississippians.”
Mr. Johnson is concerned that schools in the state may not be able to find enough qualified teachers to fill every classroom in the core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year, as the federal law requires.
“Some of our local folk are saying we’re having difficulty now getting certified teachers, and this is going to make it even harder,” he said. “We will be as flexible as the law allows, ... but we will do all within our power to meet the intent and the letter of the law.”
Mr. Hicks said that the state superintendent has the opportunity to be both enforcer and helper to Mississippi’s struggling schools. The Gulfport superintendent argues that some schools need to be held to a higher standard, but that they also need state help if they are to improve. “This state superintendent might be willing to do that,” Mr. Hicks said.
For his part, Mr. Johnson believes that where classroom instruction is focused on state academic standards, scores will rise. Where schools are not focused on improving, the quality of education may continue to lag.
“I am more and more encouraged the more I get around the state,” Mr. Johnson said, mentioning examples of good school leadership, community involvement, and use of technology in schools. “At the same time, I’ve not seen enough of that. Mississippi has a long way to go, but I think the pieces are there.”