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Riverton • Patrice Johnson weaves in and out of classrooms at Rose Creek Elementary. Her visits are brief but her homework for students is big.
"Do you know what? I need you to do something very, very important for me this year," Johnson says to a room full of first-graders at the year-round school. "I need you to work hard for your teacher every day not every other day, not once a week, but every day. Come to school and work hard for your teacher. Will you do that for me?"
A sea of tiny hands give her a thumbs up.
As the new superintendent of Jordan School District, Utah's fourth-largest, Johnson's focus is boosting achievement for Jordan's nearly 50,000 students. But she also knows she plays a key role in helping the district heal after its painful breakup with the upstart Canyons District two years ago.
Since starting her new job on June 1, she has met with focus groups of teachers, principals and support staffers. From those meetings, another common goal has emerged: Build trust.
Amid the rancorous split with Canyons, many pointed fingers at Jordan's administration for failing to stop the breakup and even for sparking it as disgruntled east-side neighborhoods sought new governance for their schools. In the first two budget cycles after the break up, Jordan laid off a few hundred employees and approved an unpopular tax hike. The budget for 2011-12 was rosier, with no job cuts and no tax hikes.
"That's just the stormy history," Johnson says. "That split word is a five-letter word, and it's behind us. So we're moving forward. To me, it's a new dawn."
Johnson's arrival alone heralds a fresh start for Jordan. Not only is she the first woman to take the helm in the district's 105-year history, she's also the first superintendent to be hired from outside of Jordan's own ranks. Previously, she worked as an associate superintendent of Nevada's Clark County School District one of the largest in the nation.
"She's just a breath of fresh air," says Michelle Peterson, principal of Rose Creek. "It just feels really different right now. Instead of 'We're going through a split, we don't have any money, we're laying people off,' [Johnson's message is] 'We've hit the bottom and now we're moving up.' "
The freshman superintendent plans to visit each of Jordan's 53 schools before winter break she already has been to 11 year-round schools.
"That's the best part about being the superintendent being in the schools," Johnson says. "That's where the joy is."
At Rose Creek, Johnson engages with the students, asking them about the day's lesson, but she also quietly thanks each teacher for the work they do. In many classes, she asks the students to tell her what they like about their teacher or what they think about their principal.
"I get to work alongside Mrs. Peterson so you've got to tell me," Johnson says to a combined classroom of fifth- and sixth-graders.
The students say Peterson is "awesome," "fun" and she "does cool things." Last year, Peterson dyed her hair pink and climbed onto the school roof when students exceeded their goal to read 10,000 books in a month's time by 3,000 books.
Johnson understands the value in building up the teachers and principals around her, in part because she's been there herself. She began her career 34 years ago as a teacher in Fort Knox, Ky., where her husband, John Johnson, served as a military officer.
Later, the couple, who met in high school in Long Beach, Calif., returned to the Golden State. Patrice Johnson worked her way through teaching kindergarten through eighth grade as her five children advanced in school. She remembers her son Jared, who was in her kindergarten class at the time, pulling on her skirt at home and calling her "Mrs. Johnson" when "Mom" failed to snap her out of a potato-peeling daze.
In Lemoore, Calif., in the 1980s, Johnson led a rally for teachers' raises outside her husband's financial planning office. She was president of the teachers union, and he was a school board member.
When asked about the outcome, she laughs, "We're still married." But in hindsight, Johnson regrets the "adversarial" approach she took.
"From that time forward, I've said I've got to take the higher road," she says.
As an administrator, Johnson has emphasized collaboration. For the past two decades, she has worked as an elementary-, middle- and high-school principal and as a district administrator in Clark County.
"She is very collaborative in the way that she is the leader. It's never a situation where this is the boss barking orders," says Shalee Wells Okelberry, who worked for Johnson in Las Vegas both as a teacher and as an administrator over student discipline. "She really knows how to celebrate your strengths and then also recognize if there are areas where you need to grow."
At Rose Creek, Johnson already has begun recruiting the next generation of teachers. In a sixth-grade classroom, students are writing down lifetime goals and Johnson urges them to share. Most students want to play professional sports football, softball, basketball or lacrosse.
But one, Emily Bohling, raises her hand and says, "I want to be an elementary school teacher."
Johnson gives Bohling a high five.
"Oh, I love you," she exclaims. "When you are all done, you come see me. We're going to give you a job right here at Rose Creek."
Age • 57
Nicknames • Patsi and Dr. J.
Family • Married to John Johnson; five children and 10 grandchildren.
Education • Doctorate in public school administration, University of Southern California; master's in public school administration, Fresno Pacific College; bachelor's in elementary education, Brigham Young University.
Career • Worked for 32 years in education, teaching and serving as a middle- and high-school principal. Most recently, she was associate superintendent of Clark County School District in Nevada.