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‘Fighting the status quo’: Inside the combative world of NC’s new public schools chief

In the nine months Mark Johnson has been in Raleigh, differing narratives have emerged about the state’s new superintendent of North Carolina’s public schools.

To some, the 33-year-old is a smart, energetic, natural leader focused on shaking up the state’s education department and bringing fresh changes to a stale system. To others, he is an inexperienced leader who keeps his office door closed and, at times, openly criticizes colleagues he disagrees with.

But if you ask Johnson, he is simply a man on a mission, determined to battle those promoting the status quo in public education. He may be young and have only a few years of experience teaching and serving on a local school board, but “don’t underestimate me,” he warns. Behind his boyish looks are bold, innovative ideas to change the future of public education in North Carolina, he says.

Since becoming superintendent, Johnson has remained relatively quiet about his specific ideas for shaking up the system. And he has often eluded the press, preferring to release emailed statements through his spokesmen instead of doing interviews — a departure from his predecessor who frequently spoke with the media and was easily accessible. But last week, Johnson agreed to talk with reporters from WRAL News and EducationNC.

“This is my first job in my life where I have to really wear a suit everyday,” Johnson said, settling into a conference room chair at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. From his office in Raleigh, he oversees more than 1.5 million students and 180,000 full-time public school employees across the state.

During the interview, Johnson spoke passionately about his vision for public schools and the three initiatives for which he has the most excitement:

  • Promoting early childhood learning by encouraging parents to read to their children every day
  • Advancing personalized learning in classrooms so students can work at their own pace
  • Teaching high school students that college is not the only path to success

He joked about his youthful appearance, saying the most common misconception about him is that he just graduated from high school. And he brushed off his critics, including those who say he takes orders from Republican state lawmakers.

I have a great working relationship with the General Assembly, and our visions actually align very similarly,” he said. “It’s a give and take. We don’t agree on everything, and we work together on what we do agree with.”

Throughout the interview, Johnson frequently returned to his often-used talking points, promising to bring urgency, ownership, innovation and transparency to the state’s education system. He also spoke about his past and how it has shaped his beliefs about public education.

Table of Contents

  1. Fighting the status quo
  2. A chaotic new beginning
  3. Lunch meetings and closed doors
  4. I want to share with you why I’m here
  5. Budget cuts and an ongoing lawsuit
  6. People are ready to see his vision

Since he was elected superintendent, Johnson has spent much of his time on the road, touring the state on a year-long “Education & Innovation” listening tour, visiting more than 30 schools and meeting with students, teachers, principals and business leaders. Those discussions, he said, will help him sharpen his vision for how to improve schools.

When he is not traveling the state, Johnson has been battling the State Board of Education in court over control of the public school system — or “fighting the status quo,” as he calls it. He often uses his platform to blast the board, which he has publicly described as a group of complainers who shift blame, lack accountability and avoid responsibility instead of fixing the state’s “outdated” school system.

Of all the challenges Johnson has faced since becoming superintendent, his legal battle with the state board has been the most difficult, he said. But it is also a point of pride. He called his decision to fight them in court his boldest move since being elected.

“The State Board of Education is tying my hands in court in order to protect the status quo,” he said. “Anyone that is defending the status quo, I will make sure that we move them out of the way and we bring positive transformation for this education system.”

But do not expect any major changes right away if Johnson wins the lawsuit.

“I think if you’re looking for a seismic shift, you’re not going to find it. There’s not going to be this tidal wave of change that’s going to come bursting through the doors at DPI,” he said.

Instead, the changes would be systematic, with Johnson hoping to rework the agency’s organizational chart “to make things more accountable and transparent.”

For their part, state board members have largely stayed silent about the new superintendent, with some saying they do not interact with him much or do not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts about him given the ongoing lawsuit. The board’s chairman, Bill Cobey, declined to comment for this story, saying he did not think it would be productive to discuss their relationship. But he has previously said he was “baffled” and “shocked” by some of the things Johnson has done in their ongoing power struggle over the state’s public school system.

None of the members were willing to be interviewed for this story, but some of Johnson’s former and current colleagues were willing to share their experiences and impressions of the new superintendent. Some praised him. Some criticized him. Some said they want to know more. 

Johnson was stunned. It was election night, Nov. 8, 2016. Sitting at home with his family, he watched as he surpassed longtime State Superintendent June Atkinson in votes and maintained a lead. Atkinson, a Democrat and the longest-serving state superintendent in the nation, was suddenly out of a job.

Johnson, a Republican and the second-youngest statewide elected official in the country, won with 50.6 percent of the vote.

“Right now, it’s been kind of organized chaos,” he told WRAL News by phone a few weeks later.

As Atkinson began packing up her office and moving out after 11 years as superintendent, Johnson was busy moving his wife and young daughter from Winston-Salem to Raleigh. But first, he needed to quit his two jobs.

A lawyer by profession, Johnson left his job as corporate counsel at Inmar, an international technology company, where he worked for three years. He also resigned his seat on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, which he held for two years.

Despite her defeat, Atkinson offered to meet with Johnson and promised a smooth transition of power. But the loss still stung.

In an emotional interview with WRAL News several weeks after the election, she accused Johnson of swimming in a “swamp of ignorance” and a “swamp of dishonesty” and wondered how she could help “a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight.”

At the time, Johnson said he was “surprised to hear her saying these things.”

“We were always very civil and polite to one another,” he said. “There are things that, yes, I was very critical of but no, not dishonest, not at all.”

Atkinson has since softened her stance on her young successor. In an interview this past August, she said the two eventually did meet last December, and she offered to answer any questions he had. But Johnson did not have any.

“In trying to put myself in his shoes, I know that when I came to the department, I really didn’t know what questions to ask,” Atkinson said. “I needed the experience to work in the department to see how it operated to see what were the priorities.”

Since then, Johnson emailed her once to ask about the state’s Read to Achieve program, she said.

Johnson declined to speak about his meeting with Atkinson or the transition in general, saying he prefers to focus on the future. He referred questions to the chairman of his transition committee, Jonathan Felts, who also served as his volunteer spokesman and adviser after the election.

As Felts recalls, Atkinson gave them some insight into staffing, including which three positions Johnson could hire or fire as superintendent — senior advisor, assistant and scheduler — and which employee she believed would be retiring in the coming year — the communications director. She also showed them the emergency evacuation plan for the building and offered to show them her parking space.

I would characterize the meeting as being about as productive as Dr. Atkinson had set it up to be,” Felts said in an e-mail. “By the time Dr. Atkinson finally met with us in December, nearly a month had passed and we were already working closely with Board members and the General Assembly on how to best address the dysfunctional structure at DPI.”

Felts said he hoped to work with Atkinson to ensure a smooth transition but was put off by her negative comments about Johnson after the election.

While veterans of the (Gov. Beverly) Perdue Administration had warned me that Dr. Atkinson could be petty, I thought it couldn’t be that bad,” Felts said. “But I was proven wrong when Dr. Atkinson chose instead to hurl personal insults at Superintendent Johnson via temper tantrums in the press.”

“She never called on election night, as per protocol, and I believe it was after Thanksgiving before she ever reached out,” he added. “I’m happy to take the blame for Mark not reaching out to her, as I told him she might think he was rubbing salt in the wound if he proactively called her.”

After the election, employees at the state education department prepared to welcome their new leader.

Vanessa Jeter, the agency’s longtime communications director, emailed Johnson a few days after the election to welcome him and tell him about the role of communications at the agency. She had a list of transition items her department typically asks of new superintendents. Johnson thanked her and said he would be back in touch after Thanksgiving, she recalled.

“But I never really heard from him again to my recollection until he was sworn in (in January),” she said.

Jeter met with Johnson a handful of times after he officially took the reins, but they did not have much interaction, she said. Some superintendents are more interested in the communications aspect of the role than others, she explained. While Jeter got the sense that Johnson truly cared about the students of North Carolina, she said he did not show much interest in her institutional knowledge of the system.

Philip Price, the agency’s longtime chief financial officer, also hoped to hear from Johnson after the election.

“There was no contact,” Price said. “I was expecting a request to have leadership come to Winston-Salem to be briefed on transition.”

Former Deputy State Superintendent Rebecca Garland also remembers there being little communication with Johnson before he took office. She said the transition was rocky but does not think the responsibility is Johnson’s.

“I don’t fault anybody for that,” Garland said, adding that she should have reached out to the newly elected superintendent herself. “For whatever reason, the early part of the transition seemed not to be really smooth.”

On Johnson’s first day as superintendent, he was inundated with a “firehose” of information pointed his direction, Garland recalled. Senior leadership crammed in meetings with him as staff quickly tried to brief him for the next day’s State Board of Education meeting.

Since that time, Johnson says he has tried to meet with everyone in the organization. He gets together once or twice a week and has lunch with people in the department, asking them how things are going, what they are working on and getting to know them as people. By fall, he will have met with everyone.

“From everything I have heard, these lunches have been well received and are a first step in trying to improve the culture at DPI,” said Lindsey Wakely, who serves as the superintendent’s senior policy advisor and chief legal counsel.

Garland, who retired in February, said she has heard from people in the department that communication is improving at the agency.

But not every former employee views Johnson’s changes so positively.

Price, the agency’s longtime chief financial officer who retired earlier this year, said he met with Johnson three times. “One of the most striking actions” he noticed was that the new superintendent and the people he hired “always kept their doors closed.” That caused problems, especially on one particular occasion, he recalled.

One morning, Price received a request from an appropriations chair at the General Assembly to consider calling an emergency meeting of the state board to address an additional funding allotment. Price went to discuss it with Johnson but found the superintendent’s door locked. Instead of being welcomed in, Price watched as one of Johnson’s new hires, policy advisor and legislative liaison Kevin Wilkinson, carefully opened the door and slid out.

“I explained what I needed to discuss with Mr. Johnson, and Kevin stated someone would be in touch with me later that day,” Price recalled. “He had to knock to get someone to let him in since he had locked himself out. I don’t recall them getting back to me. The legislator decided on a different approach.”

Wilkinson said the superintendent and his team handled the matter on their own.

“From (Price’s) own account, it is clear that the work our team did on the situation cleared the issue,” Wilkinson said in an emailed response. “It will surprise no one that we have a better relationship with the General Assembly than June Atkinson’s CFO did.”

Looking back, Price said he thinks the superintendent kept his distance from agency leaders for a reason.

“I believe he felt all of us were loyal to, and only supportive of, June Atkinson and the Democratic party,” Price said. “While I will admit I enjoyed working for Dr. Atkinson, I also enjoyed working for (State Board of Education Chairman and Republican) Bill Cobey. I also worked with every superintendent and state board member since 1978.”

Overall, Price is very critical of Johnson’s leadership thus far.

“(He) had a very seasoned professional team waiting for him to direct them just like the superintendents that preceded him. For some reason, he decided not to take advantage of the team. Instead, he has brought on an increasingly large number of what he calls his own employees, most of whom lack any experience in this area, to accomplish his agenda, which is still largely unknown,” Price said. “He often outlines his plan to operate with urgency, ownership, innovation, and transparency. Unfortunately, his actions have not been in line with his plan.”

Transitions are tough and you can not please everyone, said Wakely, who was hired as Johnson’s senior policy advisor and chief legal counsel in January.

“There are obviously people who are very upset that he won, but there is only so much we can do to help that,” Wakely said in an emailed statement. “Reform is never popular with those who represent the status quo, and much of the criticism he faces stems from that fact.”

Wakely did not know Johnson before he was elected superintendent, but said she has “come to respect his knowledge, commitment, and vision for public schools in the short time we have worked together.”

One of the reasons the transition may have been so tough, according to Garland, the former deputy state superintendent, is because Johnson was not part of the state’s education establishment. DPI staffers and leaders were used to working with people they already knew in one capacity or another.

“I think the other thing that people forget: this was really the first time, and it really doesn’t have to do with party, this is the first time that anybody had come into the department to lead…who didn’t have a reputation in the education arena and was an unknown quantity,” she said.

The lawsuit between the State Board and Johnson likely exacerbated tensions between the new superintendent and staff as well, according to Garland.

Felts said if anyone is responsible for a rough transition, it is Atkinson.

“The transition was as productive as Dr. Atkinson set it up to be,” he said. “If she or her staff found it to be unproductive, they should look at her for answers.”

In late February, Price and Garland left DPI, along with several other senior staffers, including the director of human resources, legislative and community affairs director, and senior research and evaluation coordinator. The announcements came as Johnson said he was seeking ideas about “organizational and staff changes to make the department run more efficiently.”

Jeter, the communications chief, retired this summer. Several other top leaders recently announced they were leaving, including the State Board of Education attorney, K-3 literacy program director and the career and technical education director.

“It does seem like we’ve lost a lot of our best staff,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said after the most recent announcements. “We have been losing staff ever since I got here (four years ago), but it seems like we’ve lost more than usual.”

Cobey attributed the rise in departures to “a combination of people getting good offers (and) of course, retirements.” Johnson did not comment on the number of staffers leaving but said he wishes them well and thanks them for their service. 

On Jan. 5, Johnson took his seat at the head of the State Board of Education’s table, alongside board Chairman Cobey.

“I want to share with you why I’m here,” he told the audience.

It was Johnson’s first state board meeting and his third day on the job as superintendent. To introduce himself to his new colleagues and the public, he decided to share a personal story.

“My grandfather grew up poor…dirt poor,” he said, pausing between words. “My grandfather did not graduate from high school.”

Growing up in Covington, Louisiana, a town with fewer than 10,000 residents, Johnson had a much different life than his grandfather. He not only graduated high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and political science at Emory University and later enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law where he graduated with honors.

It was his grandfather’s success as a door-to-door salesman that “changed the trajectory for my family,” he explained. “My family had every educational opportunity that we could want, need, or desire.”

In 2006, inspired by his grandfather and determined “to go make a difference for students who didn’t have the same opportunity that I had,” Johnson joined Teach for America, a national corps of college graduates who commit to teach at a low-income school for two years.

He taught ninth-grade science at West Charlotte High School from 2006 to 2008 and remembers it as “a very tough place to be a teacher and even tougher place to be a student.” The experience, he says, helped shape his thoughts on education policy.

The poverty was especially striking. Johnson remembers one female student who lived in a hotel and often moved around. Some students struggled to afford food and were only able to eat breakfast because the school provided it. Other students had given up on their education, including one who told Johnson, “What does it matter? I’ll just be in jail in a few years anyway,” the superintendent recalled.

But the student Johnson said he remembers most was a 16-year-old ninth grader, who was “usually more interested in goofing off in class or skipping class.” One day, the student waved Johnson over and quietly asked for the reading assignment.

“I was through the roof with excitement. This is a teacher’s dream moment. I had finally reached my hardest to reach student,” Johnson recalled. “Five minutes later, he again quietly waved me over, and with a horrible look of defeat in his eyes that I still remember to this day, he told me, ‘Mr. Johnson, I can’t read the words in this book.’”

In the years that followed, Johnson continued to think about that student.

“When I had to spend nights away from home (campaigning for superintendent), when I spent early mornings away from my daughter and my wife, when I had to miss time with my daughter to be at school board meetings, that’s the story I carry with me,” Johnson said. “Because the system had failed that young man.”

Determined to make a difference, Johnson decided to enter the policy world and was elected to the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education in 2014.  

Before getting into the race, he met with a number of longtime members and the system’s former superintendent. They were impressed, they said, with his experience from Teach for America, his energy, and the fact that he was an attorney.

Johnson joined the board during a time of intense turnover. He was one of six new members elected to the nine-member board, winning his at-large seat by 303 votes. He chaired the board’s buildings and grounds committee, putting him squarely in the mix as the system pieced together the $350 million bond package that would go before county voters in November 2016.

Voters approved that bond, but Johnson was already on to other things. He filed paperwork to run for state superintendent in August 2015, eight months into his four-year term.

“I didn’t have to serve very long to discover that DPI’s leadership had no urgency to take ownership of problems and implement innovative solutions,” he said. “When I sized up my opponent, I decided I had a good shot at winning the election and transforming the status quo.”

But those who knew him during his time on the school board were surprised he sought the state’s top education job so quickly.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s a big step to go from one year on the school board to state superintendent,'” said Don Martin, the local school system’s longtime superintendent and now a Forsyth County commissioner.

Jill Tackabery, a 12-year board member who left the board just before Johnson joined it, said she “probably was a little disappointed that he didn’t serve at least one term.”

“But I truly understood his reasoning,” she said.

Martin said Johnson seemed to think Superintendent Atkinson would not run for re-election, leaving an open seat and an opportunity. When asked, Martin had difficulty describing Johnson’s vision for the state superintendent’s job.

“He’s a smart guy, and I think he’s up to the task, but it just takes — he’s got to work on the task,” Martin said.

Since he became superintendent, Johnson has remained quiet at times about many of the major issues facing him and the education department. But during one of his stops in July on his statewide listening tour of schools, he spoke more candidly about some of the issues facing his agency.

Among the topics he discussed were the millions of dollars the General Assembly cut from the state education department. Lawmakers voted to reduce the agency’s operating funds by 6.2 percent — $3.2 million — for 2017-18 and 13.9 percent — $7.3 million — for 2018-19. Board members say the cuts will impact low-performing schools and teacher training in the state.

Johnson says he wishes the cuts had not been made at all.

“We got the initial Senate budget, and we went back and said, ‘You know, why don’t you give us the audit and let us determine where we need to move on from here?'” Johnson said.

Johnson said he was not more vocal about his opposition to the budget cuts because he did not think it would accomplish much.

“You know, we have a relationship with the General Assembly, and we were having those conversations,” he said. “You had, again, a State Board that was screaming that the sky is going to fall, and that’s just not productive. You know, it can get you some time in headlines, but it’s not a productive conversation of what do we really need to be doing to improve this department.”

Though he is not happy with the cuts, Johnson praised lawmakers in July for setting aside $1 million for the comprehensive audit of the state education agency, which he hopes will help the department run more efficiently.

The audit is not just a financial one, he explained, but more of a vision-setting audit — a chance to see what works at the agency, what roles are duplicated, and how the department needs to change moving forward.

“I did not seek this role to shirk away from the challenges of leadership,” Johnson said. “We need to set big goals for DPI that are measurable — measurable goals that we can actually benchmark, are we meeting what we say we are doing for schools? Right now, under the previous leadership and under the state board, DPI has been kind of just a machine and just rolls along.”

During the July interview, Johnson also touched on his legislative agenda. Early in his term, he said he would be laying out an agenda separate from that of the state board. In May, a spokesman for Johnson released a list of priorities the superintendent shared with lawmakers.

His priorities included:

  • Greater education finance transparency in N.C. public education
  • State superintendent operations
  • Teaching Fellows
  • Early childhood education
  • Achievement School District startup fund

Johnson said he had some successes, including funding for business system modernization at the agency and a birth-through-third grade council.

So far, Republican lawmakers say they have been pleased with Johnson as state superintendent, but that is not surprising given the number of legislative concessions they have granted him.

It began during a special session in December, when the General Assembly passed a bill that would grant Johnson powers previously held by the State Board of Education. The change would give the superintendent more control over the state’s education budget, more authority to hire and fire senior-level employees, and more oversight of charter schools, among other powers.

The state board quickly filed suit, claiming the law diminished its constitutional authority and raised “significant legal concerns.” A three-judge panel reviewed the case and found in favor of Johnson in July, but the board is appealing the decision.

Court records in the case revealed the numerous clashes the superintendent and board have had over staffing changes at the agency. Johnson accused the board of severely limiting his authority and ignoring his requests to hire people for certain positions.

As the superintendent and board battled, lawmakers stepped in to help Johnson again. This time, they included $700,000 in the state budget for him to hire 10 staffers without the approval of the state board. They also provided him with $300,000 for his legal expenses while barring the state board from using taxpayer money to fund its lawsuit.

As former state superintendent, Atkinson says she has followed the ongoing legal battle and “was a little perplexed as to why the superintendent didn’t think he had any authority to run the Department of Public Instruction and make personnel decisions.”

The agency has 11 positions that require the approval of the state board when it comes to hiring, she said, but there are hundreds more employees at the agency who answer to Johnson.

One of the complaints Johnson cited in court records is that he was not able to hire a chief of staff without state board approval. Board members ultimately gave him authority to hire the position without seeking their input, but Atkinson said all that fuss was unnecessary.

A number of high-level positions at the agency serve at the pleasure of the superintendent, and Johnson could have eliminated any of them and transformed one into a chief of staff position, Atkinson said.

“I don’t know if because of his newness in the department he did not know that, or he knew that and decided to go in a different route,” she said.

Felts, Johnson’s former transition chairman and spokesman, said the lawsuit between the State Board and Johnson has complicated personnel decisions, but said “we are glad” that Atkinson supports Johnson’s “pending personnel decisions.”

“Based on her previous lawsuit against Governor Perdue, we know she supports a strong chief executive at DPI with the power to hire and fire whom the Superintendent believes best serve public education needs in NC,” Felts said in an e-mail.

Atkinson successfully sued former Governor Bev Perdue for creating the role of chief executive of the public school system and installing Bill Harrison in it. The move also made Harrison the chair of the state board, a role he continued to occupy after the lawsuit.

Johnson also said in July that the board’s resistance to him having more control is a problem.

“(We) have high-level vacancies still at that department that I could fill instantly if the state board did not continue to drag out this court case,” he said. “Now the state board is appealing and really prolonging the change where I could immediately get in and do some things to redo the org chart.”

Part of Johnson’s appeal, according to his supporters, is that he is an outsider and not a longtime state education employee, like Atkinson, who worked at the agency for 40 years.

Johnson, who taught for two years, is sometimes criticized for his lack of education experience. But Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, an influential legislator on education issues, says that lack of education experience is exactly what one should expect from this elected role.

“We want public education overseen by the public,” he said. “We elect the common person to come and oversee how government runs and ensure that it stays in touch with the people. I think the same holds true in education. Education should be responsible to the community, not the other way around.”

Horn has high praise for Johnson, calling him a break from the status quo.

“First and foremost, the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me about my impression of Mark is he is absolutely focused on the student,” Horn said.

This becomes particularly evident, Horn said, when he watches Johnson interact with students. He says the fact that Johnson is a father helps foster that connection with students, but he also points out Johnson’s lack of education administrative background as another possible factor.

“One of the challenges that we have, in my opinion, in education at every level, is we lose sight of the customer. And the kid is the customer,” Horn said. “We oft times try to adjust how we fill the customer’s need based on how we want to deliver it.”

While Johnson’s lack of experience is not necessarily a negative trait, it does make his learning curve steeper, according to Atkinson.

“It’s a big lift for someone to come to that department to be state superintendent without having experience working in administration or having more experience as a teacher,” she said.

But others argue that what Johnson is bringing to the agency is education reform.

“North Carolina has gone in the wrong direction in education outcomes,” Horn said. “Now in the last few years, that’s turned around. But still you’ve got a choice between doing the same thing that we have been doing or doing something different.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, also touched on the theme of change when talking about Johnson in written statements.

“I’m optimistic that he will bring a fresh perspective to the challenges facing our public schools and will work to execute the platform voters elected him to do,” Berger wrote.

As superintendent, Johnson “is fulfilling his promise to prioritize student achievement and the academic success of North Carolina’s schools by bringing real change to our education system,” Moore wrote. “He is a natural leader committed to improving classroom performance where we need it most, and as a public school parent, I’m encouraged by his determination to provide an excellent learning environment for every student he serves.”

In an interview in July, Johnson also touched on the theme of change.

“There is a need for change in the department. We need to stop doing more of the same. And I think there is frustration in the General Assembly that that change is not happening,” he said.

When asked for specifics about his plans in a recent interview, Johnson spoke generally about his vision, reiterating the need for urgency, ownership and innovation, while pointing to a few specific items he has championed.

He talked about the importance of children learning to read, and discussed his NC Reads program as one tool that will help achieve the goal. NC Reads focuses on making sure young students can access books during the school year and the summer, and it replaces a prior reading program created in 2013 under Atkinson.

“NC Reads is going to be building out over the course of the next few years to reach out to parents of children who aren’t school age yet and really encourage them and empower them of the knowledge of, even if it’s just one to two books a day, even just reading to your student, just that little amount will help them to be kindergarten ready,” Johnson said.

Johnson says he also advocated for a new DPI position — associate superintendent for early childhood education — and championed the creation of the birth-through-third grade council. He said everybody knows that pre-K education is a good investment, but the council is needed to work out the details. He said it will be bipartisan and cross agencies.

“It’s saying once and for all, let us come together and decide what the best early childhood interventions are so that we can help prepare students for their K-12, which will help them succeed later on,” he said.

Johnson also discussed the importance of personalized learning and how he has witnessed it being implemented in schools around North Carolina.

“This is the type of positive transformation in education that is going to be possible in the next few years and something you’ll see our office really driving to expand across the state,” he said.

Johnson said he worked with the legislature on its Future Ready Students Act, which he said will encourage local school districts to connect with community and business leaders to address needs in the community and schools.

And he talked about the importance of students realizing there are multiple pathways to success, not just a four-year degree from a university. He said his office will be a “bully pulpit” for getting this information out.

But most of all, what Johnson reiterates again and again, is his desire to do something different from what has been done before.

“I’ve worked very hard to get here because I am determined that in my lifetime I will see every student in our nation have that opportunity that I had, that my daughter has,” he said. “Every student in this country deserves that, and we’re not going to get there with the status quo. It is going to take positive transformation of our education system, and we are working on that every day in this office.”

Some, like North Carolina Principal of the Year Jason Griffin, are eager to hear more concrete details about Johnson’s ideas for transformation.

Griffin, who serves as an advisor to the State Board of Education and knows the superintendent through that role, said he is impressed with what he has seen so far. He is especially glad the superintendent has been touring the state and hopes Johnson will visit his school, Hertford Grammar School in Perquimans County, in the coming months.

“I think he’s doing a good job. He’s listening first, he’s responding second, and I think that’s a great quality of any leader,” Griffin said.

Griffin says he and other school leaders would like to meet with the superintendent to hear his ideas and help spread his message.

“I think that people are waiting to see some of his ideas,” Griffin said. “You know, he’s been listening awhile, and I think people are ready to see his vision take shape.”

This story was reported in partnership by EducationNC reporter Alex Granados and WRAL reporters Kelly Hinchcliffe and Travis Fain.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.

Kelly Hinchcliffe

Kelly Hinchcliffe is an education reporter at WRAL in Raleigh, where she has worked for 10 years. She was previously an education reporter at The Herald-Sun in Durham and at The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md.