Cool School

When high school principal Michael Johnston settled in, like 33 million other Americans, to watch Barack Obama's thirty-minute prime-time infomercial on October 26, he had no idea the school he leads was about to get a nationwide shout-out.

The $3 million commercial was a feel-good address with clips from Obama's speeches set to music, documentary-style footage of families struggling with health care and mortgage costs, and details about how he would tackle major issues like education.

That's when the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton briefly took center stage. "Now is not the time for small plans," Obama proclaimed in a clip from his August speech at the Democratic National Convention. "Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education.... I'll recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries and give them more support, and in exchange I'll ask for higher standards and more accountability."

The piece then cut to Obama talking straight to the camera.

"We can create schools that work, because I've seen it," he said. "Three years ago, only half the high school seniors at the Mapleton school in Thornton, Colorado, were accepted to college. But after a rigorous school reform program this year, all 44 seniors were accepted. And under my education plan, those students could get a tax credit to cover their tuition at public colleges and universities in exchange for serving their community or their country."

Johnston was thrilled, and the school was abuzz Thursday morning with excited teachers and parents. Although not many students had seen the infomercial, they rushed home at the end of the day to pull it up on YouTube.

Still, this kind of fame wasn't new to the kids. They'd been in the national spotlight before ("A Matter of Principal," August 28). Last spring, the Obama campaign named Johnston, 33, one of the candidate's three advisors on education, and on May 28, Obama came to MESA to congratulate those 44 graduating seniors and unveil the details of his education plan. At the time, he held MESA up "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."

Since then, Johnston has hired a counselor — with the help of a grant from the Rose Foundation — to track and support recent Mapleton graduates, helping them start and stay in college. While the school has had a full-time counselor to help students apply to college for the past three years, getting accepted to college doesn't mean they'll be prepared academically, financially or even emotionally. "The numbers change a little bit week to week, but our goal was to try to get 75 percent actually enrolled by January," Johnston explains. Right now, 24 of the 44 are in school; another seven are enrolled for January.

Of the students who aren't enrolled, Johnston says, some decided to work, but most want to go to college if they can save enough money or get financial aid.

Johnston has campaigned for Obama. Last month, he debated John McCain's education advisor at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. And he helped organize a program called Closing the Gaps. "We're working to close the achievement gap, but first we have to close the vote gap, which is the gap between the number of votes that Bush beat Kerry by in twenty crucial swing states," Johnston says.

So what would he do if Obama asked him to join his administration? Johnston says he has no plans to leave MESA. "But I'm happy to help in ways that I can. My goal is to help get the right policies in place, to prepare the administration to make progress on the things that matter to kids."

As far as Johnston's concerned, the thing that matters most – and the thing Obama highlighted in his DNC acceptance speech – is teacher recruitment. "The only magic about MESA are the teachers who work there," he says. "So, for us it's all about getting the incredible people who will do whatever it takes."

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Jessica Centers

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