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.
"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."