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Q&A with Rockville Centre school district chief William Johnson

William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre school

William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre school district. Credit: Tara Conry

William Johnson has been working in the Rockville Centre Union Free School District since 1979 and is in his 28th year as schools superintendent. Rockville Centre’s South Side High School is one of the top high schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 rankings. We sat down with the superintendent this week to learn about what’s working in the district and what personally inspires him.

When you first came to the district, did Rockville Centre’s public schools have the reputation they do now?

When I moved to Long Island, I was steered away from Rockville Centre. While I think it had a good reputation internally, outside Rockville Centre -- at least among real estate people I spoke to at the time -- it was not a place they were sending prospective buyers... I just met with a couple yesterday who told me they didn’t buy a house, they bought a district.

What was the turning point?

When we began to shed all the really selective programs and to do away with the many tracks we had in the high school. By 1995, I began to realize that we should have one curriculum for all kids and it should be the honors curriculum. That year, we made a really big systemic change, taking algebra, which at that time was a high school course, and moved it to the middle school, making it an eighth-grade course for all kids.

Had you seen that done elsewhere?

I based that on what I had found out internationally is an age when students can learn algebra… The math department originally objected to it, but the very same people who were the most hesitant to implement it turned out to be our strongest advocates once we did it.  Then, I pushed to begin eliminating all the non-honors classes, so almost 20 years later, we basically have everyone [except for a small percentage of special education students] in the same curriculum up through their junior year... Kids learn to adjust upward. High expectations bring about high performance.

Tell me about the International Baccalaureate program.

We literally have 100 percent of our [juniors] now in International Baccalaureate English and next year, we’ll have 100 percent in IB American Studies, so everyone will have the opportunity to take two IB courses. IB is a curriculum and series of assessments that keeps kids on their toes from September to the end of May, so kids are expected to do oral reports, written papers, and all of these contribute to final grades as well as a test at the end of the year. The kids who live through the IB experience come back and tell us they are extraordinary well-prepared for college.

You’ve been outspoken about the state’s implementation of Common Core. What’s your current stance on that?

Some of the things they are suggesting we do with kids may not be developmentally appropriate. If I have already figured out, on the basis of research done by the IB program, what kids need to do well in order to succeed as a learner beyond high school, and I’ve already begun to infuse my entire system with curriculum and instructional activities that enable our kids to do all that, why am I changing what I already know works?

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I have a seriously disabled brother [Paul Johnson], and when he was first born the doctors said, “Don’t bring him home. He’s going to die in two years.” I was very close to him when we were growing up and my parents taught us, ‘Don’t accept what anybody says is a limit.” He would have been institutionalized but… he did very well. He was never able to walk but he went to college, he worked for the IRS, and he’s still alive at 60 years old. Don’t ever tell me that someone can’t succeed.

What’s your vision for the district’s future?

Today about 30 to 40 percent of South Side students graduate with an IB diploma. You have to earn 24 points, write a 4,000-word essay and do community service. It’s a real challenge. When 100 percent of the kids graduate with an IB diploma, I’ll be happy. People tell me I’m nuts to even think that.

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