Top honor for Sanger superintendent

Marc Johnson built trust among teachers

The American Association of School Administrators has named the superintendent of a small, poor rural district near Fresno as its national superintendent of the year.

Three years after becoming superintendent in 2003, Marc Johnson led Sanger Unified out from under federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind through a commitment to teacher collaboration, a persistent use of data, and a system of identifying and responding to individual student academic weaknesses, known as response to intervention. The progress has continued to the point that 11 of the district’s 13 elementary schools are above the state’s goal of 800 API on standardized tests, and a dozen schools have been named Title I Academic Achieving Schools.

The district, a quarter of whose 10,800 students are English learners and three-quarters of whom are low-income, has become a magnet for school officials who come to observe the district’s methods of improvement. Johnson praises how teachers have embraced a culture of working with one another, opening up their classrooms for observation and holding each other accountable for putting best practices to work.

In a testimonial for the award, Illinois consultant Richard DuFour,  who works with districts to create professional learning communities, said, “I have worked with districts in all 50 states and every province in Canada, and I consider Marc Johnson the most effective superintendent I have ever seen.”

Blunt but open, Johnson, 57, grew up, attended college, and has spent his entire career in Fresno County. Though offered higher-paying jobs in larger districts, he says he plans to stay with Sanger until he retires.

Sanger was one of seven districts that guided the state’s application in the second round of Race to the Top. It is now among the seven founding districts in the nonprofit CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, which will continue the collaboration begun under Race to the Top, including designing curriculum lessons for Common Core standards. Sanger was not as well known, at least until now, as reform-minded as Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified, with which Sanger has worked closely. Superintendents Mike Hanson of Fresno and Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach praised Johnson in a letter supporting his selection for the national award. “His leadership transcends the poor, rural California school district he leads – the net effect of his leadership has impacted more than 160,000 students and their families. … (H)e has helped build capacity in us personally to lead the third and fourth largest school districts in California,” they wrote.

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