Leadership Profile: Marcus Johnson
Meet AASA's 2011 Superintendent of the Year
The route to respectability for Sanger Unified School District in California began with the type of offer that would be rejected 99 out of 100 times. Sanger, a rural district of 10,800 students in the San Joaquin Valley, was in disarray. Student performance was poor, a hangover remained from a contentious period of bargaining, and as many as 800 people were showing up at board of education meetings to voice displeasure about district policies. Three of every four students in the district came from poverty, while more than half of the parents in the district have no better than a high school diploma.
Faced with circumstances John Dewey himself probably couldn't conquer, the district relied on a trick that rarely works above kindergarten—it took a time-out. Needing to replace its superintendent, the board went to its top three administrators and asked them to share the job for "a short period of time." The year was 2000, and one of the three, Marcus Johnson, had been assistant superintendent of human resources for 18 months. The three agreed, and the "short period" stretched on for two and a half years. Eventually, Johnson was chosen as district superintendent, but Sanger faced another setback before beginning the climb that ended this year with Johnson, 57, being named AASA's Superintendent of the Year.
Q Explain how the district created a shared superintendent structure.
A In hindsight, it may have been one of the best moves we could have made. This place had been a meat grinder for leadership. We were very much in disarray. We took a breathing period. It worked well. Was it perfect? No. We each had autonomous control over our area. [The other two assistant superintendents oversaw finances and curriculum/instruction.] We had a working agreement as a team. We had some pretty hairy discussions, but they weren't in public. For two and a half years, nobody really knew who to blame. It forced us to have conversations and rebuild trust.
Q Tell me about the district and what major setback you faced after being named superintendent.
A We're predominantly rural, but we do include parts of Clovis and Fresno. Seventy-six percent of students are on free and reduced-lunch, 24 percent are English language learners. For parents, 28 percent didn't graduate from high school and another 24 percent didn't go past high school.
The year after I started , the district was one of the first in the state to be placed in "program improvement." We had failed to meet AYP for two years. We'd been failing for a while and hadn't paid much attention to that. I own that. Our Academic Performance Index had been getting better, and we became complacent. We failed to generate any academic gains with ELL. We missed the significance of that.
Q How did the district's turnaround begin?
A We went to see Rick DuFour speak in the spring of 2005. On the five-hour drive back home, the deputy superintendent and I talked about the structure needed to answer the four key questions: What do we want them to learn? How will we know they learned it? What happens if they don't? What happens if they do? We said, No committee, we'll learn by doing.
Q When did the results start to improve?
A We started to become totally driven by student achievement. We realized if we wanted to change our outcomes, we'd need to change our inputs. We didn't blame the kids. And we realized it's not about teaching, it's about learning. Teaching without learning is just presenting. At the start of the second year, we met all AYP targets. [To leave program improvement, all targets need to be met for two consecutive years. The next year, Sanger met the goals again, being one of the first districts to exit the state's program improvement list.] We were first in and first out. Being the drum major in the PI parade is not where you want to find yourself.
Q How have you weathered the state's economic crisis?
A Our finances have been really bad. Public education [in the state] has lost $19 billion in the last three years. My per student funding has gone from $6,200 to $4,800. We lost $14 million out of our budget. We're down 21 teaching positions from 18 months ago, but up 300 kids.
Q What does it mean to be picked by your peers as the national superintendent of the year?
A I'm overwhelmed by it. There are not a whole lot of people who walk into your office to say thank you. I acknowledge that I stand in front of the work of 1,000 people who pour their hearts and souls into it every day. It means I have the opportunity for a year to tell our story, to get the kids of our valley on someone's radar screen.