Dr. William H. Johnson Creates A Meaningful Place For Learning

Dr. William H. Johnson (Photos courtesy of Odette Peralta)

He was never supposed to be a superintendent, but after 34 years on the job, Rockville Centre School District Superintendent Dr. William H. Johnson, or “Dr. J,” as his staff calls him, will retire in June. This has happened once before in 2018, Johnson was going to retire before signing a two-year extension. However, this seems like the farewell.

“You just hope that what you put in place outlives you,” Johnson said.

The 75-year old still wants to be involved in education, whether it be at another school district or at the state level. Johnson still has the energy to do it, he has been running every night since his early 20s and his grandson recently calculated that he has ran more than 80,000 miles in his lifetime. He has no plans to move to Florida.

“I’m exploring a number of different opportunities right now,” Johnson said. “My goal is to continue to have an impact on the structure of school districts. I would like to operate at the policy level, whether it be at a school district level or a state level.”

Johnson was rumored to become the next education commissioner for New York State, which did not come to fruition after an interim was announced in December. It’s not something that Johnson rules out for the future, right now he’s focused on the task at hand. It’s part of the reason he did not leave in 2018 after deciding to retire.

“I just felt that a lot of the work that I had underway was just not done, the dream was that I wanted every child in this school district to have an opportunity to experience exposure to high-level curriculum,” Johnson spoke on the reasoning for extending his contract.

Johnson is no stranger to moving around and changing plans at a moment notice. He was born on a military base in 1944 while his father served in the Air Force and then subsequently moved around before the family settled in East Rockaway. He never went to public school and initially went to the seminary to become a priest.

But that all changed after he met some kids from Bridgeport.

“I started doing some volunteer work in Bridgeport with kids, young kids who had been thrown out of school and fell in love with the work, enrolled in the grad school at Fairfield that January and then started working in Bridgeport,” Johnson said. “That was 1967. I worked there in special education for three years. The third year, I was working part time in Fairfield. My fourth year in education, Fairfield hired me full time to teach.”

South Side High School

Johnson went on to earn his doctorate in special education research from Teachers College, Colombia University. He then started consulting for school district and ended up helping out the Rockville Centre School District in 1978. He was hired as the school district’s director of special education a year later.

“From 1980 to 1986, I held every single job in central office,” Johnson said. “I kept moving from position to position to position. I took over curriculum and personnel and then the last two and a half years I was the business official.”

In 1980, Johnson brought the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to the high school and decided against the Advanced Placement program that many school district were adopting. His versatility and research background proved invaluable for the school district and was named superintendent in 1986.

Johnson wanted to reshape the structure of the school district curriculum and create a one-track step for students as the current model had several different tracks.

“What I discovered was that many of these kids did exceedingly well in regular classes,” Johnson said. “You put them in a special classes and both their behavior and their performance deteriorated. The environment that we were creating for these kids was not producing the results that we would hope that they would produce. In the years that I began here in 1986, we kept moving in that direction as a school district, eliminating all the tracks, consolidating all of the tracks, and then ultimately getting to the point in 2014, we literally had a single track throughout the entire school district.”

Part of that one track concept was giving every student a chance to take an IB class. In recent years, the school district has made some of these classes mandatory, but has also expanded its reach by adding IB business to the curriculum.

“The IB program is not exclusive,” Johnson said. “It is to be inclusive and it’s designed to reward kids who are willing to put in the time and effort and do the work in order to get prepared for college. We opted for the IB because it had all of the elements that the colleges and universities were telling us that kids needed to have at their fingertips when they went off, when they left high school and went to college.”

A program once meant for international businessmen and diplomats’ children living abroad has now become the school district crown jewel, leading many other districts to adopt the program. It’s all part of Johnson’s mantra, “all means all,” something he has told to his faculty every year at the opening of school.

“Simply by doing a great job here, this becomes a lighthouse school district,” Johnson said. “This school district has developed an incredible reputation statewide. And consequently, I have been able to use that platform to help change the minds of the people at the state level.”

‘‘I started doing some volunteer work in Bridgeport with kids, young kids who had been thrown out of school and fell in love with the work.’’
—Dr. William H. Johnson

The school district’s reputation has also led to Johnson needing a bigger wallet, as he is the third highest paid superintendent in the state and first on Long Island, making $458,386 annually. Part of that is because Johnson has influence on the state’s educational direction and was a critical voice against the common core curriculum when it was first introduced.

“The common core really is a set of standards and that set of standards I have no problem with,” Johnson said. “It is connected to preparation for college work and it was supposed to be universally applied to everybody. What New York State did in the beginning was to put together these things they call modules. And these modules essentially became curriculum and that you had to kind of work through these prescribed set of lessons. Standards were never designed to be that way. They walked into a world that they don’t belong and they went further than they should have.”

While New York State did make changes to the curriculum after its initial launch after starch criticisms from educational leaders like Johnson, there always ways to improve in his eyes.

“I really want to see the state move in a whole different direction and I believe they’re going to get there,” Johnson said.

For all the success Johnson has had over his 34 years in reign, the last 12 months the school district has faced many challenges outside of the classroom.

In September, Joan F. Waldman, principal of Floyd B. Watson Elementary School, was relieved of her duties. No reason was given as to why she was removed. Johnson stated that the district was currently in litigation and chose not to comment on the matter.

This past summer, the school district was under siege after a virus, known as Ruyk, encrypted files on the district’s servers. The ransomware attack led to the district paying out $88,000 to get the data back. Insurance covered most of the cost, leading the district to only payout $10,000.

Johnson did not leave the district for 18 straight days after the virus was found.

“This happened on a Friday,” Johnson said. “Sunday night I was sitting over eating pizza with 12 to 15 people who are helping us then recover. We had to go to every single computer and had to completely clean it out and then re-image it.”

This past fall, the school district suspended South Side varsity girls soccer Assistant Coach Chris Aloisi for four games. Aloisi, who recused himself from tryouts, allegedly used his position at East Meadow Soccer Club and as a private trainer to guarantee spots on the varsity team. The varsity team ended up with only 20 girls on the roster, a far cry from past year, and a junior varsity team that struggled to fill its roster.

“We can’t go back and fix what happened,” Johnson said. “What I can do is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and that what we can do is to write a policy which is clearer in the delineation of our expectations of what staff should or should not be doing.”

Above all else, Johnson wants equity to be prevalent within the school district and that started in his childhood, to his time as a researcher and now as superintendent. In that equity fight, he sees his two brothers that are disabled, one did not make it past his early 20s, but the other is still alive today.

“I’d love to be able to rewrite the history of their lives so that it would be different for them when I grew up,” Johnson said. “I can’t rewrite it for them, but I can rewrite it for the population of kids that we have in this school district.”

Johnson’s legacy as superintendent is yet to be put in stone, but he has clearly made it a lighthouse for everyone to see and follow.

“I just want it to be a meaningful place for every single kid who shows up at our front door and that whatever their color, whatever the languages that they speak, whatever their income is, they find a home in a place in Rockville Centre,” Johnson said with an Apple AirPod in his right ear. “It’s up to me to create an institution that makes this a welcome
place for everyone of those kids.”


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