Curtis Johnson didn’t expect to work in the State College Area School District.
The newly named State High principal said he interviewed for a position at the district more than 13 years ago as a way to practice his interviewing skills for another job.
His original goal was to work in an urban school district in Philadelphia.
But he took a job at State College Area and never looked back.
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“I was trying to get to Philly, but I wanted to work on interviewing skills, so I interviewed here (SCASD) and they said, ‘you really need to consider taking it,’ and I was like, ‘oh, this is just for practice,’ ” Johnson said while laughing about the situation. “But I landed here, and this is a place that is more of a place to retire in this type of position. I was looking to give back by going to a more urban area, and always toyed with the fact of who can use me more. There (urban settings) they could use me as a role model and to interact with African-American students, and here there is no African-American culture really, so it sends a totally different message to students.”
And part of his goal is to promote change at the school that includes what he called “inclusive education.”
“Basically we want a high-performance, great school here, but some of it goes beyond academia,” Johnson said. “We’re always looking to education, and to have an inclusive school. In working toward that effort we’ve reached out to Penn State to offer professional development, and developed a Diversity Club that holds forums in the high school and middle school and in the community.”
The last public forum was held in February at Easterly Parkway Elementary School.
The club developed a “race relations” branch last year after two students were found on social media sites wearing what some thought were discriminatory homemade T-shirts.
“We will continue with those efforts and come up with a restorative practice so when students cross that line there is some kind of education for them like education awareness to help them understand what they did,” Johnson said. “That’s the only way you can get through it. No one talks about it, which is why they call it race relations. People believe stereotypes, and especially in our school with 2 percent population of black and minorities it’s hard for them to get an understanding of what that means.”
He stressed that though there is freedom of speech, it can come with consequences.
The only way to change the culture is if everyone is a part of it. I come from a school (Penn State) where a pep rally meant we’re all united against the other school, not each other. It will be a work in process to change the culture, but I want to leave a legacy behind that is positive and inclusive, instead of pranks and jokes.
Curtis Johnson, State High principal
“The only way to change the culture is if everyone is a part of it,” Johnson said. “I come from a school (Penn State) where a pep rally meant we’re all united against the other school, not each other. It will be a work in process to change the culture, but I want to leave a legacy behind that is positive and inclusive, instead of pranks and jokes.”
But even with some of the obstacles, it’s a position Johnson said he’s looking forward to working with into the future.
“I’m excited about the things I can do,” he said. “I have a daughter in first grade here (at Easterly Parkway Elementary School), so I see myself here for a long time. … I think the school needs stability.”
Johnson is the third State High principal since he started in 2003.
But he said the former principals are the kind of educators who have mentored him.
When asked what the best advice he was given, Johnson said, “to be patient, that we’re here to educate, and that discipline is a form of education.”
Johnson has been with State College Area School District for 13 years
Johnson started 13 years ago as an associate principal at the high school. When former principal Scott DeShong resigned last summer summer, Johnson was named interim principal of State High.
On Monday night, the nine-member State College Area school board unanimously appointed Johnson as the school’s official principal.
“I don’t look at it any differently now that it’s official,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 months, and glad I’ll be able to see out some of the things we’ve been working on.”
Other goals include establishing more time for teachers to participate in professional development opportunities, and helping students succeed by encouraging them to take new classes.
He added that the block scheduling at the high school, which was implemented this school year, allows for students to take more classes, and for teachers to have more preparation time.
All this comes while also dealing with high school construction that is expected to be completed by the 2019-20 school year.
“I am uncovering every hidden resource we might have to assist with that process,” Johnson said.
State High has about 1,400 students
While overseeing a student population of about 2,000, Johnson said a day in the life of a State High principal is a little bit like playing dodgeball.
“You never know what’s going to walk through the doors,” he said with a laugh. “It’s dynamic and it is mobile. You’re constantly, not so much putting out fires, but trying to mitigate things. It’s a little bit like dodgeball, and like I’m the only person in the dodgeball triangle, and they’re throwing balls at me in every direction — coming through the windows, coming through the doors — but it’s how you react to those issues that are coming at you that can make or break you. I like to have a sense of humor about things, use patience, and deliberate without being hasty.”
But it’s also not a job he said he can do alone.
“State High is like working as a team, and without them it could lead to a burnout,” Johnson said. “It’s impossible to be the one-all-be-all of the high school. It’s more than just me so I rely heavily on a leadership team, administration and staff, and not just teachers, but custodians and secretaries are part of the process.”
Administrators deem Johnson the ‘best choice’ to lead State High
In a unanimous decision by the State College Area school board, Curtis Johnson was named principal of the high school Monday after 10 months in the interim principal role. He replaced former State High principal Scott DeShong, who resigned last year to take a lateral position at Avon Grove High School in West Grove.
“Our district is very fortunate to have Mr. Johnson as our high school principal,” Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said in an emailed statement. “His commitment, vision for our future and his own development over time is really evidence of his ability to lead our high school both now and into the future. Curtis knows our strengths and weaknesses, and he works with our students, faculty and administrative team daily to keep students at the core of important decisions on our high school campus.”
Johnson has been with the district for 13 years, first working as an associate principal at the high school before the promotion.
Originally from Virginia, Johnson attended Penn State from 1987 to 1991, and went back from 1992 to 1994 to get his master’s degree in secondary school counseling.
“I took a year off to play professional basketball and realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; so I looked back to things I loved, and I loved working with kids and I’m good at helping people with problems.”
He worked in the Reading School District as an assistant principal, counselor and behavior specialist, before taking an associate principal position at State High in 2003.
Johnson is also working on his doctorate degree in educational leadership.
District spokesman Chris Rosenblum said the search to hire a high school principal “hinged on timing.”
According to an email from Rosenblum, the district chose to begin the process “in early 2016 rather than during the fall in order to focus on completing the State High project design and bid process,” as well as other initiatives.
“While addressing the principal position, we were working to fill some other roles within the district, and these processes impacted our timing,” Rosenblum said. “The State High principal is a key figure in our school district and community — never more so than now — and the administration believed hiring the right person merited taking the time for thorough deliberation. Based on Mr. Johnson’s leadership and accomplishments during the State High project’s first year, his ties within the school community and the district over time, and his stellar record as an administrator, we believe that he is the best choice to guide the State High community in the coming years.”
About Curtis Johnson:
▪ He has a wife, Susan Bardo, and daughter, Neve Johnson, who is a first-grade student at Easterly Parkway Elementary School.
▪ He called himself an “outdoorsman.” He said he enjoys fishing, camping and kayaking.
▪ Johnson has a love of reading.
▪ He is on the board of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, and on the Big 10 Advisory Committee. He represents Penn State student-athletes dealing with diversity.