Barack Obama gives principal Michael Johnston extra credit
At 3:10 p.m. on May 28 — dismissal time on the last day of school at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton — 500 students in the seventh through eleventh grades gave a final cheer that echoed through the gymnasium. "Have a great summer!" a teacher shouted, giving the kids their cue to file out.
"No! No! You can't go!" principal Mike Johnston yelled as he came flying down the bleachers. "I've got another announcement!" Teachers who'd already suspected Johnston was stalling were now sure of it.
A few minutes later, the entire staff was gathered on the floor of the gym, leading students in yet another school cheer, when they saw Senator Barack Obama walking toward them. Obama had been at the school all day, but only the kids in a classroom he'd visited and the few students invited to lead a tour had gotten to see him before he went into a lengthy town-hall meeting, where the Democratic presidential candidate had gone public with details of his national education platform while all the members of the recently graduated class of 2008 stood beside him. "Just three years ago, only half of the high-school seniors who walked the halls of this building were accepted to college," he'd said. "But today, thanks to the hard work of caring parents, innovative educators and some very committed students, all 44 seniors of this year's graduating class have been accepted to more than seventy colleges and universities across the country.
Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts
"I'm here to congratulate you on this achievement," he'd continued, "but also to hold up this school and these students as an example of what's possible in education if we're willing to break free from the tired thinking and political stalemate that's dominated Washington for decades — if we're willing to try new ideas and reforms based not on ideology, but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life."
Now, in his surprise visit to the gymnasium, Obama singled out the members of the junior class and challenged them to continue the legacy the seniors had started. The moment was even better than what Johnston — now one of Obama's education advisors — had promised students on their first day three years ago. Skyview, a large and failing high school in Adams County, had been shut down and replaced with six small schools, including MESA, and the then-thirty-year-old Johnston, who'd already published a book on his experience teaching in the Mississippi Delta, earned a master's in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, and gained the ear of presidential candidates and policymakers, was out to prove what he'd long believed: that in the right setting, all students could achieve, regardless of circumstance.
"Look around," he'd said, standing in a circle of 150 ninth- and tenth-graders. "If we live by the statistics that dominate this community right now, we could cut this circle in half and send that half of you home. Going at the pace we're going, only half of you will graduate high school, and of those, a minuscule number will ever get into or go to college.
"We're here because we believe that's not the way it ought to be. We believe that it's possible to do something different, and we believe that if we dedicate ourselves to that notion, this group of young people right here will make history. And if we're able to do that, three years from now, when you're graduating, people will come from around the district and the city and the country to say, 'This is amazing.'"
Mike Johnston's earliest ideas about education came from his experience in Vail, where he was born and raised. His father, Paul, had moved there from Crested Butte to run a bar for ski racers Renie and Dave Gorsuch, who'd opened a ski shop in the fledgling mountain town. Renie's sister, Sally, had been a teacher in Boston; she met and married Paul in Vail, and the two bought the Christiania, a hotel at the base of the mountain.
Just in time for Mike to start kindergarten in 1979, Peter Abuisi — a former colleague of Sally's, and Mike's godfather — was hired as headmaster of the private Vail Mountain School. "I was delighted to go there, because it was kind of a family operation," Johnston remembers. "It was K-12, so I grew up as a first-grader having classes next to tenth and eleventh graders. You developed a culture where, when you were a first-grader, you really looked up to the eleventh- and twelfth-graders, and when you're an eleventh- or twelfth-grader, you know that and it makes you behave differently."
In a school that small, he had time to bounce ideas off adults, too. "It was a school that took really seriously questions of social justice and moral responsibility and what one's obligation to the world looks like," Johnston recalls. Every year on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, students would do a day of volunteer work. Abuisi remembers a fourth-grade Michael reciting King's unabridged "I Have a Dream" speech, which he'd memorized. That was also the year Johnston started volunteering at Denver soup kitchens. "Michael had that kind of experience all the years he had school here," Abuisi notes. "It was all rooted in the philosophies and values of Martin Luther King Jr. I think that had something to do with the evolution of his value system.... His senior project was about the American character, tracing how American values were shaped over the course of history."
When it came time for college, Johnston chose Yale because it was in the middle of New Haven, a city with plenty of poor. "So every day, you can't retreat into your ivy-clad walls and think about important ideas," he explains. "You have to think about what impact this idea would have on real people with real jobs and needs." He mentored a dozen boys in a housing project and started an intramural league for them with Yale's varsity coaches. A philosophy major, he focused his academic studies on poverty and social justice. "The more work I did, the more it became clear that education was the primary civil-rights challenge of our generation," he says. "From the age of fifteen to twenty, I had this wistful feeling like I missed a chance to be a part of history. If only I was born in the '60s, I could have done something really important. I could have been a Freedom Rider. I could have marched to Selma.... But the more and more I read and researched, I realized the civil-rights movement lifted all of these formal barriers to equality so people could vote and sit on the front of the bus, but what remained was this inequality in access to opportunity."
His senior year, he applied to Teach for America, the national organization that places outstanding college graduates in urban or rural schools for two years. Johnston asked for a Southern school and was assigned to Greenville, Mississippi. "I had spent ten years of my life wanting to get to Mississippi," he remembers. "It just embodied so much of what was noble about the civil-rights movement, and really troubling. The idea that this one place had given birth to so much conflict and courage was fascinating to me, and it lived up to its billing."
At Greenville High, he soaked up as much culture and history as he could, working with teachers who'd taught in segregated schools and had been among the first at Greenville when it was integrated, asking random strangers about the remaining racial tension in their town. Courtney, a fellow Teach for America participant who'd grown up in Memphis, became his tour guide, someone he could spend hours talking with about the South and race and class.
"It was a hard two years for both of us," Courtney remembers. "It definitely changed both of us, but I think for the better. Teach for America really does inspire a generation of young people to go beyond two years and care passionately about issues affecting children forever."
In the rural delta, Johnston had expected a small-town school. But Greenville High was home to 2,000 students and had the same lack of strong relationships between kids and adults that were missing at big urban high schools. With a lot still to learn about teaching, he struggled in the classroom and tried to get through to kids by getting to know them outside of class. He coached soccer and track and directed plays. A chess club formed in his room after he bought a few boards, taught one kid to play and others became curious.
In his second year, he began writing a book — In the Deep Heart's Core, essentially a collection of stories about the kids he got to know. Students with difficult home lives, who'd become desensitized to tragedy so that even a fellow student getting shot felt commonplace; students who possessed profound potential and resilience but were lost in a system where nobody paid attention to them.
The story that said it all was Mario's. He started the semester by tagging Johnston's classroom with the words "Don't fuck wit Colombo," after the small gang he ran with, and failing all of his classes except for one D in English. When Johnston, his English teacher, noticed that Mario was actually a gifted writer, he praised his work, reading one of his essays aloud in class. Mario perked up and began working harder on each writing assignment. By the end of the semester, he was at Johnston's door, beaming as he handed him an honor-roll report card.
But then a new semester began. Johnston didn't have Mario in class anymore, and he lost track of him. One day he ran into him in the hallway, all glassy-eyed and giggly. Johnston grabbed him by the arm, pulled him down the hall, then got in his face like a deeply disappointed father, scolding him for not realizing that he was better than that. A few days later, Mario appeared at Johnston's door and nervously asked if he could do some research on his computer. After a long time, Mario asked him a question.
"Mr. Johnston, is a carpenter a good profession?"
Soon after that, Mario disappeared again. All Johnston knows is that he spent some time in jail, then moved away from Greenville. "Mario was the one I really felt like if I had been able to keep a handle on him, I would have been a much more positive force in his life," he says. "It was hard for those kids to navigate high school because right when they got their hand on one anchor they could hold onto, then they lost it and had to start all over again."
As a way of diminishing the dangerous anonymity that made kids feel that nobody cared if they succeeded, Johnston gave a proposal to the school's principal, suggesting that he take one wing and assign four teachers — one each for math, English, science and social studies — to a hundred kids, and have those teachers work with just those hundred kids for the year. Instead, the next year the district merged Greenville High with another 2,000-student school.
Disappointed, Johnston decided to go back to school, choosing Harvard University's one-year master's program in education policy. There he met John Schnur, who'd spent the last six years in the Clinton administration as Vice President Al Gore's senior advisor on education policy and assistant to the Secretary of Education on pre-K through 12 education. During that time, Schnur had done research across the country and discovered that many cities had a few schools that got high results from low-income kids. What these schools had in common were effective teachers and great principals. Schnur believed principals were crucial to school reform, but he also thought the federal government was ill-equipped to create a program to recruit and train them. He'd come to Harvard hoping to translate his ideas into a business plan for a non-profit organization.
Schnur noticed Johnston in a business class on entrepreneurship and the social sector, where his comments blended a strong analytic ability with a real understanding of urban kids. Schnur asked him to grab coffee after class. "We compared notes about why we were there," Schnur remembers. "I told him about my idea for New Leaders for New Schools, and he was incredibly interested and passionate, and also had at the outset terrific insights about what it would take to make something like this succeed, and we were off running." Along with three other students, they put together an independent-study program and wrote a serious business plan for NLNS. Johnston became the key author of the vision and goals, as well as the talent piece — how NLNS would attract and select its principals.
At the time, Schnur was still advising Gore. "I was putting together plans for him around universal preschool and quality, and I started talking to Mike about policy issues I was thinking about for Gore's presidential campaign," he says. "I was impressed with his questions and insights and began to really rely on his good insight and counsel in terms of thinking about education policy at the national level."
But while Johnston continued to work with Schnur, he was off on his next venture, Yale Law School. He didn't intend to practice law; he just wanted to use the law to leverage education reform. While still in school, he started advising political candidates on education. By the fall of 2002, he was juggling his studies, a national book tour and working on Tom Strickland's Senate campaign in Colorado.
"When you're running for office and have somebody like that walk in and want to be part of your effort, it's a dream come true," Strickland says. "Mike was immediately identified as a bright star, really, really smart, terrifically idealistic and engaged — great energy, very upbeat, and not tied down by past approaches. He's charismatic and people relate to him, so the power of his thoughts and ideas are that much more effective because he's able to inspire people and doesn't seem to be in need of a lot of attention himself. That's a wonderful combination of qualities."
In 2003, Johnston returned to Colorado with his law and master's degrees and started looking for his first principal job. He was hired by the Joan Farley Academy, a high school in Denver that serves kids in the custody of either youth corrections or the Department of Human Services. The next year he married Courtney, who'd become passionate about child-abuse and -neglect issues while in Mississippi, worked as a caseworker in Atlanta, gone on to the University of Denver law school and is now an attorney with the Denver District Attorney's Office. But she's never forgotten the kids she worked with. "I got a call on a moment's notice from this girl — I used to be her therapist — and her three-year-old was being removed from her," Courtney remembers. She paged her husband twice, didn't hear from him, so she went to the Department of Human Services to pick up the girl, thinking they'd keep her for a couple of days. "We ended up keeping her ten months. Michael was so sweet about it. It ended up being a really beautiful thing, and we both are still very close to her. He was very kind to open our home that time, and then he did it again with a teenager I had taught in Mississippi."
The teenager had been a "challenging" fifth-grade student whom Courtney had stayed in touch with for years. When her mom kicked the now-nineteen-year-old girl and her two-month-old baby out of the house, Courtney flew them both to Denver, where they lived for five months while the young mother earned her GED. "We believe you find one issue, one little piece of the world that you're passionate about, and just try to make a difference in that area," Courtney says. "Anybody can do it."
In 2005, Mike Johnston got his chance to make a difference. Mapleton Public Schools was about to become the first school district in the country to transform its entire system into small schools. Not even NLNS had attempted anything that ambitious. "What we've seen in education reform in the last decade is that you can create outstanding pockets of excellence within a school district, one or two good schools or after-school programs," Johnston notes, "but we've yet to see a district that can do that at scale, an entire district that can get work done."
When superintendent Charlotte Ciancio began looking for principals to lead the district's conversion (see story, page 20), Johnston's name kept coming up. He was so impressive that she had to meet him, everyone said.
"Whatever," she'd reply. "Tell him to apply like everybody else."
She was wary that "impressive" meant Johnston was self-serving. "I'm not interested in administrators who are going to point at themselves when things are wonderful and point at everybody else when things are bad," Ciancio says. "In fact, I want very much the opposite, that you own your failures and give away your successes. That's the kind of thing I saw in Michael. He's very mission-oriented. He has a purpose that's bigger than him, and I appreciate that."
When Johnston was hired to lead MESA, it had already been decided that the school would follow the Expeditionary Learning model, which had grown out of Outward Bound, and would also have an arts focus. Beyond that, the school was his to mold. From the start, Johnston knew his most important task was hiring the right staff. "We were looking for people who believe that all kids can achieve regardless of what they came in the door with and who are relentless about not giving up on that belief," he says.
The result was a crew of energetic and very young — either in age or tenure — teachers, many of whom had taken non-traditional paths toward education. MESA was the first and only place social studies teacher Eamon Leonard applied; he'd been passing the time since college graduation substitute-teaching and bartending at Lola. Robert Hudgins — the big teddy bear of the school, known as "Hudge" to all the kids and staff — was a college dropout who'd been a jack of all trades, working in sales, banking and restaurants before he went back to school at forty to get his teaching degree. Mike Kelly had been an engineer for thirty years; while back in school to get certified in math and science, he'd started tutoring at Skyview and fallen in love with the diverse group of kids. Art teacher Courtenay Hammond had taught six years at a traditional Kansas City high school until her interest in school reform led her to graduate school; she moved to Denver for MESA after completing her master's. A friend told Lucas Ketzer, a science teacher in Adams County, about what was happening at Mapleton; he thought Ketzer — who's passionate about framing education around community and character-building — would be a perfect fit.
For every grade level at MESA, a team of five teachers would be assigned to work with those students, and only those students. And they would stay together as a team, and with those kids, for a full two years. Each grade level would have no more than a hundred kids, who were divided into five crews. Each teacher — aka "crew leader" — would become like a second parent to the twenty or so kids in his crew. Whenever a student was late, absent, causing trouble, not doing his work or having any problem, a teacher was supposed to let the crew leader know, so that he could notify the student's parents. And instead of parent-teacher conferences, the teachers would oversee student-led conferences at which the kids had to explain how they were doing in each subject.
The five-teacher team would meet for an hour every week, to talk about kids and planning. There would be no textbooks. Teachers had to write their own curriculum and integrate art into it. Social studies and English would be combined into one humanities class. And everything would be structured in the form of "exhibitions" that went in-depth on one content area or "big idea," such as World War II or the civil-rights movement, for months.
"We did a lot of work over the summer to get ready for it, and we weren't quite sure what we were working toward," Leonard recalls. "I was naïve, and I'm thankful for that. Had I really known what was coming, it would have been more daunting....We got together as a staff on the last day before school started and talked about where we were at personally. There were people in tears, laughing, people who couldn't say much at all. We were nervous, but excited at the same time. And then the kids came."
It was loud and hectic, but classes ran relatively smoothly at the start, thanks to all the planning. As the weeks wore on, though, planning periods were taken up by discipline and other unforeseen problems. Just when Leonard felt like he couldn't keep up and the kids were catching on to him, it was time for Outward Bound. With funding from a Bill & Melinda Gates grant, the school took the ninth and tenth grades on separate six-day mountain trips.
Some kids loved it and thrived. Billy Gomez, a freshman, was already starting to feel at home at MESA. A Mexican immigrant, he was still learning English and had only understood about a quarter of what was said in any given class at his last school. But Leonard, his crew leader and humanities teacher, spoke Spanish and would stay with Billy until he understood a difficult concept. On Outward Bound, Billy's classmates and teachers became his friends. Trust activities were metaphors for what he'd already seen happening at the school: "Like if someone falls, don't let them fall, try to pull them up. That's basically what we do here if someone's going down and we're going up: We try to pick him up."
Jeremy Brittain, another freshman, had come to MESA in part because he'd already met Johnston, and his enthusiasm was so contagious. He was looking forward to the Outward Bound trip, even though he wasn't going to be able to stay the whole time. That summer, he'd gotten into trouble with fireworks, setting a neighbor's house on fire with a bottle rocket; his court date was the week of the trip. "Johnston called me up and said, 'No, man, I'm a lawyer. I'll go to court for you.' He wrote me this letter for the court, and he went to my court date for me and really vouched for me," Jeremy remembers. "I knew then that he really cared about me. I mean, how many principals go to court for you?"
Jeremy's best friend, Ulises Cano, had been in trouble, too, but MESA made him start to take school seriously. "It was just like, this is getting old," he says. "It's not even worth it, and at MESA the teachers really care and want you to succeed. When you go to a school that's one of those big factory schools, if you don't work, they don't care. It's your loss. At MESA, they want to help out."
Other students didn't take so easily to teachers and administrators trying to "build relationships"; they felt like guinea pigs thrown into an experiment. "For the vast majority of these kids, Outward Bound was so far out of their element, so far out of their safety bubble," Leonard says. "You saw some absolutely cave, doing a ropes course or climbing or simply camping or going to the bathroom in the woods." Freshman Jimmy Ferrari was one of the worst. "Jimmy gave every effort to sabotage all that we were doing up there," he remembers. "He was doing his best to be a problem, and he did it really well. By the end of that trip, I didn't have much desire to see him anymore."
The feeling was mutual. Jimmy thought Leonard was the meanest teacher in the world. "I would want to cut his class because I couldn't stand him, but he was my crew leader, so I was with him a lot during the day," Jimmy says. That first year, they struggled to just co-exist. And then sophomore year came around, and something clicked. Jimmy and the other kids came back to the same teachers and crew leaders and started to see them as more than teachers. Leonard listened when Jimmy needed to talk about stuff going on with his family, or his friend who'd passed away. When it came time to finish his Passage — a portfolio the kids put together of their best work from the past two years that they present to a panel of adults like a dissertation — Leonard stayed at school until 7 p.m. to let Jimmy work. Hammond helped Jimmy, too. She saw that he had a passion for art and spent extra time with him. She managed to be wacky — spontaneously breaking into a dance or song in the middle of class — and professional at the same time. It made Jimmy, a flamboyant kid with blond streaks in his hair and bright-blue contacts, feel like he could be successful and not have to give up the quirks in his own personality.
"By the end of the year, it was entirely fun to go into school and work with them," Leonard says.
But the goal wasn't to have fun. The goal was to prepare the students for college — and then get them accepted. And in order to do that, they'd have to change the kids' own expectations for what they could do, make them believe that college was both an attainable and worthwhile goal. "We just make it so it's not an option: 'You're going.' And it's funny how it works over the years," Kelly says.
For the class of 2008, no teacher reiterated that message more than Hudge. When he'd taught at Skyview, he'd had thirty kids in each class and was lucky if fifteen showed up every day. There were kids who never set foot in his classroom, even though they were in the school, roaming the halls. "There's no way I could call all those parents," he remembers. "You taught the kids you had. It was all you could do." When he found out he was going to be at MESA, he started recruiting some of his freshmen to enroll. And because he already knew some of the students, Johnston let Hudge teach sophomores when the school opened. As the weeks and months rolled on, Hudge grew more attached to the kids. He told Johnston he'd like to stay with that class as long as he could. He ended up looping with them all three years.
"Our kids are tough," Hudge says. "Many of them are lost. They don't know what the future holds. Some of them have terrible home lives. A lot of them are poor. They're in single-parent homes. Mom or Dad works two jobs. A lot of kids are having to parent their own siblings. I relate to that because I have a similar background, and that's one of the reasons we get along so well. I really understand what they're going through. I'm always telling my kids, whatever your lot in life is right now doesn't have to always be your lot in life. There's something better. But you've got to have an education. I'm always preaching that. Some get it, some don't. I can't say how many times I've had kids get in my face: 'I don't care what you're trying to teach me. You don't know what's going on in my life.' I know I don't understand, but I want to understand. All the time, I say, 'You can have anything you're willing to fight for. Just don't give up on yourself and don't burn the bridges of the people trying to help you. Where else in the world are you going to have a group of individuals who are going to do everything they can to make you successful?'"
At first, successes came in small doses, like the kid who'd always showed up thirty minutes late coming in on time and then telling ten other kids who showed up late that it was unacceptable. But Hudge lost some of the sixty students who started as sophomores. He still obsesses over two sisters, obviously intelligent, who kept getting into trouble. When they were suspended for three months, Hudge hand-delivered lessons to their home every day. Then they transferred, and neither graduated.
Still, there were plenty of kids to work with. It was a requirement that they all take the ACT, apply to at least three colleges and apply for at least three scholarships that post-secondary counselor Katie Bailey found for them. "We poked and prodded," Hudge says. "Kids were like, 'We don't care. I don't want to go to college anymore. I hate you.'"
But Anjel Carbajal was grateful, since he'd come to MESA hoping to go to college someday. "It was a goal, but I wasn't really sure if it was possible back then," he remembers. "My family's financial situation wasn't very good, and I didn't know if I was intelligent or driven enough to make it into college." His teachers showed him he was, working with him to vastly improve his reading and writing skills. With Bailey's help, he received a full-ride Daniels Fund Scholarship, and next week he'll start at the University of Denver. "I have a lot of friends who are going to college now who I never thought would have gone," he says, attributing that to Mapleton's reform. "The education we have now isn't working. It's something new. It's something different. It's going to be revolutionary."
Over the course of the last school year, whenever a student was accepted to college, he'd climb the rickety ladder in the gymnasium and sign a banner. All together, the 44 seniors were awarded more than $500,000 in scholarship money. At the start of the year, Hudge had asked each student to write a letter to themselves about what they wanted their senior year to look like. "The last week of school, we cracked open the letters, and a lot of them didn't write them to themselves. They wrote them to me," he remembers. "When you have a kid tell you that if it hadn't been for you, 'I would have never made it. I wouldn't have graduated. I would have been a dropout. There's no telling where I'd be,' that validates your life and makes every second you spend there worthwhile. There were a lot of those."
The class of 2009 will be the first to spend all four years at MESA. And because they've seen what the class before them accomplished, their own expectations are higher. "This year, we're going to have to really push each other," says student Anne Woolman. "Everyone's going to get into college; I know it. Everyone's going to get scholarships. Upperclassmen really have a lot of power. This new senior class is going to try to set an example that we can do what the seniors did, better than what they did. We're setting the bar higher, and Mr. J. is there pushing us, telling us we can be whatever we want. He knows we can be better than anything you think of."
Anne oozes school pride. She keeps photos in her phone of the art projects she's most proud of, projects that also happen to have been the most difficult. She loves it that her school doesn't have cliques. At MESA, it's not unusual to see kids dressed emo, jock, gangster and juggalo all walking down the hall together, hanging out. "Simple miracles happen all over this place," she says. "It's so amazing how much I've seen the school change. The same school some people called 'ghetto' to something really amazing. All my friends do their homework or skateboard and do physical activities instead of going out and getting drunk."
Students like Anne and Jeremy always planned on college, but others say they'll be going only because of MESA. Billy had never thought about college before his teachers told him he could go. Now he, too, is determined to see that his whole class gets accepted. "Even if they don't really want to go, we're going to push them," he says. "Not the bad way of pushing. We'll tell them you're going to go because it's your future."
Jimmy had originally focused on cosmetology school, so he didn't care much about his grades freshman year. "Now I have my heart set on going to a four-year college," he says. "I want to live in the dorms my freshman year and have that whole experience. It was the teachers. They didn't bullshit you and be like, 'You need to go to college in order to be successful.' They said it's a great experience. You don't just do it for the degree. They talked about their own achievements, what they did, why they think it would be good for us. It changes you and shapes who you are, and a lot of people regret not going, and they want to make sure we don't."
From the start, each MESA class has held weekly community meetings that exemplify what the school is all about. The students sit in a circle, make announcements, perform talent, celebrate the teachers and peers who have helped them, make themselves accountable for anything they've done wrong, and nominate a student of the week. At the end of the year, they choose a student of the year. Jimmy's won that award every year. He's gone from a 2.1 GPA to an honor-roll student. His sophomore year, Leonard gave him the award and broke down presenting it, telling Jimmy — in front of his whole class — that if he ever has a son, he hopes he'll be like him. A few weeks ago, Jimmy called Leonard to tell him he'd secured a four-year, $20,000 scholarship to Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.
"Those first weeks, that first Outward Bound trip, you couldn't help but have a little skepticism salting every way you looked at [this class]," Leonard says. "And now they're such an incredibly strong group. Not that there aren't kids struggling and wondering where school fits for them — but those kids who are wondering where school fits, they would be gone. They would not be in school right now. It wouldn't even be a question if they weren't in this small school."
At their first meeting, Mike Johnston told Superintendent Ciancio he didn't plan on being a principal forever. "I've been worried he would want to leave right away," she says. "He's in year four, so his job now is to train people to follow him. The real indicator of a strong leader is when you leave leadership in place. If the school can only operate because Michael's the school director, than he didn't do anything."
But Johnston's not going anywhere just yet. For now, he likes his position as a rare bridge in the divide between practitioner and policy-maker.
"Mike has a blend of actually running a school day-to-day that's getting these results and then having the policy skill and access to be able to translate what he's learning in school into broader public policy," Schnur says. "If it's not unique, he's one of a very tiny number of people simultaneously driving success and knowing how to translate that into policy. The only thing I don't actually know is whether he sleeps."
Johnston's first priorities are his family — both the one at MESA and at home, where he and his wife have ten-month-old twins. "MESA's success is something that keeps him up at night and wakes him early in the morning," his wife says. "He works harder than anybody I have ever been close to. He survives on four hours' sleep probably 70 percent of the time." And somehow, he still manages to find the time to make significant contributions to national education policy.
In 2006, Schnur was looking for a way to have an impact on education in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. He enlisted Johnston to help lead a national education summit with Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Johnston then drafted legislative proposals that resulted in a $30 million appropriation to attract and retain teachers, with another $30 million for higher education. "The impact has been significant," Schnur says. He points to news articles, most recently in the New York Times Magazine this month, that describe an educational renaissance under way in New Orleans that's been attributed to quality teachers and the presence of institutions like NLNS. "Mike was the key author of the legislative approach that we recommended to Miller on that, and beyond New Leaders, he's involved in discussions on national policy. When people ask who should be at the table, I say Mike Johnston."
It was through Schnur that Johnston got involved with Obama's campaign, advising staffers as they built the platform and wrote speeches. "Over the last year or so, I've been happy to give advice and help craft some policy ideas and give some feedback," Johnston says. "But I wouldn't overstate my importance to the campaign. They call me when they have questions, but they have a very talented, permanent staff that does policy for them."
Then in May, Obama chose MESA as the site for a speech reintroducing education as a major issue in the general election. While acknowledging that "there is still much progress to be made here at Thornton," Obama said MESA exemplified the kind of success that is possible in American education.
That month, the Obama campaign also named Johnston as one of its top three education advisors. Linda Darling-Hammond, founder of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University (Mapleton is one of eight districts with which SRD is currently collaborating), and Christopher Edley Jr., dean at the University of California-Berkeley law school, are also on the list. This summer, Johnston was sent to Washington, D.C., to field questions about Obama's policy from education writers and editorial boards of the country's largest news organizations.
And this past Sunday, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Johnston sat on a "Faces of Change" panel at a gathering of the nation's top education reformers and progressive officials, urging party leaders to embrace Obama's call for change. Joe Williams, executive director of New York City's Democrats for Education Reform, which hosted the forum, says Johnston has become an Obama surrogate on education. When the candidate says "Yes we can," there's Johnston, living it. "In the last year, he's been getting a lot of credit for being a very big thinker around the country in the policy world," Williams says, "and the fact that Senator Obama chose his school early on in the process to visit made a statement not only about Obama's views on education, but Michael's importance in the education arena."
Although Johnston won't claim ownership for any piece of Obama's policy, Schnur recognizes his language and ideas in Obama's plans for recruiting and retaining a new generation of talented teachers.
It's policy informed by practice.
The Obama campaign referred questions about Johnston to Roy Romer, former Colorado governor and Democratic National Committee chair, who cites MESA as an example for good, creative reform, and says Johnston is influential within the Obama campaign. "He brings a willingness to really tackle the toughest problem schools face: improving teaching," Romer adds. "He also believes in higher expectations for all students and having a system that supports teachers in carrying that out."
Ciancio thinks MESA's success is highly personal for Johnston: "He wants to prove it, not just to anybody else, but to himself, that it can be done."
And Johnston is the first person to admit that MESA is "not there yet." The school's 2008 CSAP results, which came out last month, fell far below the also-unacceptable state averages. Johnston found them "deeply disappointing," but says he knew they were coming.
From the beginning, MESA's curriculum was designed around in-depth expeditions intended to be engaging for kids. Teachers planned their expeditions first, then looked for ways to fit in the targets kids were expected to hit. Last year, administrators decided to see how close they were coming. Starting with humanities, they built a literacy map of all the core standards at each grade level. In May, they sat down with the teachers and asked them to code which skills they had taught thoroughly, which they'd touched on, and which they hadn't taught at all. "When we finished coding the map, 80 percent of it we hadn't done at all," Johnston recalls. "It was my mistake. I should have started from day one: 'Let's begin with what these standards are and build a curriculum that matches them.'"
Without giving up the expedition structure, the staff has now developed a four-week assessment program so that they can measure students' progress against those standards every month, and intervene when they don't pass targets. "Our goal is to make kids prepared for college," Johnston says. "If we're not doing that, we're not doing our job."
And in fact, members of the class of 2008 weren't as prepared as they should have been. About fifteen students — 30 percent of the class — will have to take some kind of remediation class because they didn't do well enough on their college placement exams. One student, a recent immigrant who'd received a scholarship to Metropolitan State College of Denver, scored so poorly that his acceptance was withdrawn and he was told he'd have to spend some time at community college before he could enroll. Presented with such obstacles, Johnston worries that those recent grads may abandon college altogether.
This year, he's determined to do better. "We have a lot of work left to be done," he says. "We are responsible for student results, and we'll do whatever it takes to get those results."
On August 19, at MESA's first all-school meeting of the 2008-2009 school year, Mike Johnston stands where Barack Obama stood on the last day of the last school year, and introduces his "dream team."
The day before, he'd gathered those 35 staff members in a circle and reminded them that "45 years ago this month, Dr. King went to the Lincoln Memorial to give a speech. He said, 'We have come to the nation's capital to cash a check. When the great founders of the American republic wrote the magnificent words in the Declaration of Independence, they meant for that to be a promissory note to which every American would fall heir. It's obvious now that America defaulted on that promissory note insofar as its citizens of color were concerned...' When he spoke those words 45 years ago, about 7 percent of poor kids in this country graduated from college. Today, 45 years later, 8 percent of poor kids in this country graduate from college. For 45 years, we've been writing bad checks. For 45 years, public education has been writing bad checks to those kids that we promised to deliver something better to....
"Keeping that promise today means walking into your class with the conviction that every single kid that walks in your door is going to walk out ready for college. That's the promise we made three years ago when we opened this place, and it's a promise we make anew every day when they walk in that door. And this circle is here to remind you that this is going to get hard, but when it gets hard, you've got to know you never walk alone. Everyone in this circle is going to be there to back you up, pick you up, put you on your feet and keep on walking. But the promise can't change, and now it's time to deliver."
And now Johnston is ready to deliver his promise to MESA students. As on that first day three years ago, he wants the kids to know what they're up against. He has half the students stand, to show how many would graduate high school if they went by just statistics. The kids seem unfazed; they've heard this before. Then Johnston has just fifty of the 500 students in the auditorium stand. These, he says, are the only kids who'd finish college.
This they haven't heard before. Everyone stirs, objecting and mumbling questions to their friends.
"That's what they say," Johnston says. "Statistics say only one in ten of us would ever make it to graduate high school, go to college and finish college. To that, we say, 'You haven't met the kids at MESA.'"
Relieved, students applaud and holler.
And Johnston's not done yet. He asks the class of 2009 to stand and face the crowd. Then he tells the school that everyone in this class — at sixty, a significantly bigger class than 2008 — is going to graduate, be accepted to college and do one better: They're going to be prepared for college.
He compares the climb to college with a climb to the top of Mt. Everest. "Our job is to make sure not one of you gets left in the cold," he says. "So when you see the fire in our eyes, when you see a sense of urgency on your teacher's face because you came in without homework ready or you forgot to do that project, it's because what you see in their eyes is the fear that you're going to be left out in the cold when the year's over.
"You're going to see us this year working harder than we did last year, and you're going to see us now look at giving you assessments along the way. We're going to try to measure more and better and faster so we know exactly how we're progressing on this climb. We will make sure every single one of you gets to the top and walks in the doors of college and they say, 'I can't believe how well prepared you are.'"
At that, the students cheer.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.