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Johnson's School Record

Carol Johnson's appointment as Boston's new schools Superintendent won't officially be complete until the the city's School Committee approves her contract. The members are scheduled for a vote on June 27th.

If approved, Dr. Johnson would take up the Boston job in August or September. As WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports, she'll bring with her a record of some success and some controversy.

TEXT OF STORY:

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Carol Johnson spent most of her career in Minneapolis Public Schools. She taught elementary and then worked as a principal before taking the helm of that district. During her six years as superintendent, test scores improved, but only slightly. Still, many people who worked with her say she strengthened the district.

LOUISE SENDIN: Carol really didn't have an enemy in the world in this town.

TONESS: Louise Sendin headed the Minneapolis Teachers' Union while Johnson was superintendent.

SENDIN: She worked really hard at gaining the trust and support of all the facets of this community.

TONESS: Sendin and others describe Johnson as politically savvy and a consensus builder.

But former school board member Judy Farmer says sometimes building consensus took too long of didn't get the results Farmer wanted.

FARMER: It's not Carol's style to tell people what to do. She can do it, but she would much rather convince them to do it. Rather than top down "you do this". And we disagreed about that sometimes.

TONESS: But Johnson still made some courageous moves, according to Farmer. In the face of budget cuts, for example, she slashed administrative positions to pay for new all-day kindergarten.

Johnson left Minneapolis in 2003 to go home to Tennessee and run Memphis City Schools. The district is larger than Minneapolis and educated a more challenging student body. About 80 percent of Memphis students live at or below the poverty level. Johnson has established an expectation that all students would go to college.

She has also reconfigured troubled schools under a new policy called "Fresh Start". In this internet audio, Johnson explains the approach earlier this month at a congressional hearing in Washington.

JOHNSON: Our restructuring program begins first by replacing the principal. And then we have flexibility in our collective bargaining agreement so we can hire teachers out of seniority order and alter the compensation structure so they get rewarded for actual results.TONESS: Through this and other programs, Johnson is credited with helping about 80 schools get off Tennessee's list of failing schools.

Her ban on paddling in schools isn't as popular. Memphis fifth-grade teacher Nona Allen says before the new policy, when students misbehaved she could send them away and get immediate action. That is, a spanking. But now, she has a book full of other strategies all based on rewarding tudents for good behavior and that take a lot more time.

ALLEN: Meanwhile, as a teacher I'm not spending as much time on the curriculum and the lesson as I need to because I'm having to document the strategy I use with a certain child. Also, while I'm performing this strategy with this child because of behavior, the rest of the students are not getting the attention that they deserve.

TONESS: Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum agrees. He says the new anti-paddling policy isn't working to curb bad behavior among elementary and middle school students.

WHALUM: We've got some serious problems with troubling statistics. We've got kids attacking teachers, and involved in drug activity, gang activity.

TONESS: But Whalum thinks Johnson will have more success with discipline in Boston, where the school district is almost half the size of the Memphis system. Whalum calls Johnson one of the most compassionate people he's ever met. And, except when it comes to discipline, she's done a great job in Memphis.

This program aired on June 19, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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