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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

A Portrait of Felton (Buddy) Johnson

Superintendent Felton “Buddy” Johnson can cut student failure rates, budgets, and teachers' resistance to change, but his school board has nonetheless declined to retain his services.
In May 1991, Chancellor Joseph Fernandez appointed Felton “Buddy” Johnson as Superintendent of Schools in District Nine in the South Bronx. Johnson's three-year contract gave him a clear mandate to reform the district. In two years, he took three major strides in that direction.
Even so, last December, Johnson's local school board notified him that his contract would not be renewed in June. This bombshell made the front page of the New York Times. The article portrayed Johnson as an “activist and Mr. Clean” administrator who refused to “cut deals” with a historically corrupt board.
Since the notice of dismissal, a collective outcry has deplored the board's decision. The protesters have included current Chancellor Ramon Cortines, state officials, business executives, and parents. A majority of the District Nine board members, however, remained adamant, and despite a court battle recently Johnson was ousted (see editor's note).
To appreciate who Buddy Johnson is and, if it matters, whether he stays or goes really requires some knowledge of where he started and what he has done. Here, then, is his story.

A Good Education

Born in Harlem, Buddy was raised first in a crowded Manhattan apartment and later in the Bronx Eastchester Projects. At Evander Childs High School, he was an honor student. Obviously, he had accepted a piece of his parents' advice. “Get a good education,” they told their five children, and “you will not have to work as hard as we do to make a living.”
Accepted at the City College of New York in 1962, Buddy received a free education. He spoke of how much that help was worth: “I paid only eight dollars as a student fee and bought my own books. That was it. Going through the city system helped to shape a lot of my thoughts on public education.”
After graduation, Johnson taught at his old high school. His teaching years, he said, convinced him that he “would like to have even more impact on students, and at an earlier stage of life.”

Things So Horrible

In the spring of 1968, history intervened in Johnson's life. Lieutenant Buddy Johnson had trained in ROTC during college, assuming that by the time he graduated, the war in Southeast Asia would be over. It wasn't, and he was called to active duty. After a year in military intelligence, Johnson was assigned to the First Infantry Division in Vietnam.
His job was to advise a group of Cambodian mercenaries, who led American soldiers to caches of ammunition that had to be destroyed. For seven months, Johnson “experienced rocket attacks so intense that I lost count of them. I witnessed youngsters blown apart—dead and dying—and people living in squalor beyond comprehension.” Ultimately, Johnson and his men adjusted to these “things so horrible” in their surroundings. Survival became instinctive. After all, Johnson explained, “when you live in a society of wolves, you learn to howl.”

The New Administrator

On his return to civilian life, Johnson enrolled in an innovative urban studies program at Queens College. The program concentrated not so much on courses in administration as on conditions in the city and the nature of bureaucracy. Johnson quickly realized that “our educational and social service systems develop a life of their own and forget whom they're supposed to serve.”
His master's degree and school administration certificate in hand, Johnson became an intern in a Bronx school. Despite the building's origin as a bowling alley, the setting demonstrated exciting possibilities. Principal Ted Sumner, Johnson found, “ran a school that was innovative, creative, forward thinking, fun for students—and there was a lot of learning going on.”
Conditions elsewhere were less satisfactory. It was 1972, decentralization was beginning, and communities were trying to make the new system work. As a new assistant principal at P. S. 64, an elementary school, Johnson attended his first school board meeting, a memorably “raucous affair.” At first, Johnson was impressed to see so many interested people present. During the next two hours, however, factions argued heatedly over who would have power, the president of the board cut the microphone wire, and a melee ensued that had to be quelled by the police.
P. S. 64 seemed to be equally ungovernable. The school had exhausted five principals in four years. Johnson was offered the principalship several times, but some board members insisted on complete control and allegiance. Johnson couldn't accept such conditions. In 1976, he left to become principal of I. S. 229, a new District Nine school. There, Johnson would make his reputation.

Training Hurdles

At I. S. 229, Johnson's first staff development effort failed. The school was an open space building, but the teachers had no experience with the open corridor concept of education. Despite excellent training by Lillian Weber from City University, teachers built their own “walls” of furniture and chalkboards.
When the next staff development opportunity (on mastery learning) materialized, Johnson changed strategies. Aware that teachers would resist automatically if he tried to mandate mastery learning, he instead interested two teachers in summer workshop training. They returned in the fall “effusive in their praise of mastery learning.”
Johnson asked the two teachers to present what they had learned to the faculty. Afterward, he asked if the staff wanted to learn more. They said yes, so Lou Leonini, the coordinator for the mastery learning program of the New York City Board of Education, was brought in to do a workshop. The response was so good that Johnson made arrangements for his entire staff to receive 11 more days of intensive training. Leonini would spend a day on theory and the rest helping teachers to develop a table of specifications, two formative tests, and corrective and enrichment materials. Teachers would then be ready to begin applying mastery learning.
Training took place during school hours, and Leonini returned to the school one day a week for the rest of the school year. He helped teachers over hurdles and prevented reversions to old habits. In addition, the two teachers who attended the original workshop were given reduced schedules for a year so that they could help colleagues.
Johnson also enlisted support for mastery learning among parents and with the union. Parents were told of the program's “great benefits for students,” and the union welcomed the idea because it promised to upgrade teachers' performance.
In sum, the new method was chosen, not mandated. Training was thorough and practical. Teachers were given time to focus on it. Everyone on the staff was trained. And community and union support was secured. After one year, Johnson said, I. S. 229 was “a mastery learning school with a common language.”
Still, there was more to do. Reading scores were poor, so Johnson made sure that each day every student had a period of English and reading. By 1980, I. S. 229 had the fourth highest reading score gains in the city.
The school also began a mentoring program that Johnson said “linked youngsters with people who made it to the top of their professions.” One student, for instance, worked with Judge Elbert Hinkson of the New York State Supreme Court. At first, the girl was very frightened, for Hinkson, she reasoned, was “a judge who puts people in jail.” In time, though, the girl came to know the judge as a person, not just as a judge. “He showed the youngster pictures of his family,” Johnson said, “and kind of adopted her.” Ultimately, the girl entered Andover.
Johnson's success in his 12 years as principal (1976–1988) did not go unheralded. The capstone of his recognition came in 1987, when I. S. 229 was named as one of the nation's exemplary junior high/intermediate schools. This achievement was extraordinary. “District Nine,” as Johnson pointed out, “is in the poorest congressional district in the country” and had to compete “against public, private, and parochial schools.” Thus, it was a proud moment in the White House Rose Garden when, on October 5, 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Education William Bennett recognized Buddy Johnson and his high-performance school.

New York Working

In 1988, Buddy Johnson was asked to direct New York Working, a school-business partnership program that set up employment centers in high schools. Although Johnson had arranged dozens of scholarships that placed youngsters in New England's best preparatory schools—Choate, Kent, Andover—he knew that most students from poor neighborhoods do not go to college. They needed to acquire good work habits and attitudes and to learn practical information, such as the right way to dress for an interview.
Johnson expanded the New York Working program from 8 to 16 schools and focused on providing counselors and career specialists with ties to the business world. Over a three-year period, the program provided career counseling and job placement services to thousands of high school students. Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole and New York Governor Mario Cuomo both hailed Johnson's program as “one of the best in the country.”

Reforming a Chaotic District

By April 1991, Chancellor Fernandez had received a disturbing report about District Nine. The report, Johnson said, characterized the district as being in “complete chaos.” It was $500,000 in debt, staff morale was low, and some members of the central office staff had been chosen “for reasons other than competence.”
Fernandez urged the District Nine school board to consider Johnson for superintendent. Ultimately, the board agreed to a contract that would allow Johnson to make sweeping changes.
During his first year as superintendent, Johnson concentrated on making the district run efficiently. He brought in a “really good and competent” central office staff, balanced the budget, and purchased a telephone system, fax machines, copiers for schools and the central office, and an automated system for school-based record keeping.
Next, Johnson turned his attention to instructional materials. The district's 30,000 K–8 students were using materials most accurately described as a disgrace. In September 1992, Johnson launched a systematic program to provide new books, manipulatives, calculators, science kits, books in English and Spanish, and other supplies for teachers and students. Excellent materials were to be available for every student—mainstream, LEP, and special education. “We had to send the message that every youngster is valued,” Johnson explained.
Simultaneously, Johnson set out to change the culture of the district by training 2,000 teachers and 220 administrators in two years. Every two weeks, 40 teachers and administrators were to receive training.
  • Efficacy training stressed the importance of moving away from innate ability theory and toward incremental successes that build youngsters' confidence.
  • Leadership training was conducted by IBM, one of several corporations working closely with the district.
  • The Results-Based Education Model (R-BEM), an outcome-based, interdisciplinary instructional system, emphasized that while assessment measures performance, it must also be part of the methodology used to improve performance.
When the 300 participants returned to school in September, they encouraged others to participate in training. By June 1994, virtually every professional staff member will have been trained. Further, the training appears to be having a positive effect—both reading and mathematics scores are beginning to move up.
Johnson planned to stay in the district and continue his work, but now, that is not possible. Indeed, the work already done may unravel. As Johnson observed, “permanent structural change” is needed to make a lasting difference in education, so “we need a system where people can stay long enough to make that difference.” Boards need to allow “superintendents to make changes,” he added, “without regard to political considerations.”
Buddy Johnson is no crusader against school boards, and he supports the concept of decentralization. His differences, he stressed, are only with “this particular school board.” More specifically, according to the Times article, board members want to place their associates in school jobs. Such favoritism may be what Buddy Johnson was thinking about when he warned, with regret, that “God will have to have mercy on the children because some of the people in the system don't care.”

Mark Goldberg has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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