On April 6, Dr. Anthony Johnson and a group of founding parents submitted a petition for Promise Academy, a new school in downtown San Jose to the San Jose Unified School District board. The petition included 300 signatures of parents who are interested in sending their children to the school when it opens in fall 2018. The K-12 school will have a family feel with a focus on science, math and technology enhanced by a partnership with The Tech Museum of Innovation.
When you ask these parents why they are excited about Promise Academy, most will tell you it is in large part because of the school’s founder, Dr. Anthony Johnson, and his vision for an innovative school. Dr. Johnson is Innovate Public Schools’ first Entrepreneur-in-Residence, with Innovate providing support on school design and community engagement over the two-year period leading up to the school’s launch. Learn more about Promise Academy.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.
I began my career in education about 12 years ago. I started my career as a high school teacher, taught English and language development to students who were learning English as a second language. After a few years, I had the opportunity to move into school leadership. I was the assistant principal of a pretty large high school of almost 3,000 kids, and we conducted a school turnaround. I was really proud to turn the school around in three years. And it ended up going from a mid-600 API school to an 800 API school with a lot of community support, and a lot of teachers working really hard.
From that experience, I moved into school leadership. I was a founding principal of a large tech high school of about 1,600 students. We began with a vision and a core group of parents who saw their vision through and they had a lot of success. I’m really excited to go through that process with some incredible parents here in downtown San Jose.
You’re planning to start a school called Promise Academy. Can you tell me more about the school?
Promise Academy will be a small, tuition-free public charter school located here in downtown San Jose. It will eventually have grade levels from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. We’ll open with transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade and also offer a middle school option of 5th and 6th grade. By about 2025, it will be a school of 490 kids, TK through 12th grade. So, our families will have an opportunity to begin with us and stay with us and be family.
Why did you decide to start this school?
Well, first and foremost, I’m a parent and I look at the type of school and the type of environment I want my son to be in. My son is of age to attend Promise Academy when it opens and it was something that I thought needed to be done.
Also, what inspired me was our current parent leaders. When I first moved to the Bay Area almost a year ago, I met with parent leaders from downtown San Jose who were concerned about making sure their kids got to college. They were concerned about making sure they had a great school option at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. So we started putting our brains together and going out and doing a lot of research in high-performing schools with demographics that looked like our kids, and we came up with a pretty solid school design in Promise Academy.
That’s the main reason that we wanted to open Promise Academy: because we’re parents. We want the best for our children and we know other parents do as well.
Tell me about the partnership with The Tech Museum.
Well, first of all, they’re just an amazing organization. Their mission and their vision of using tech and inspiring the use of tech for global good is something that is very motivational. It’s very awe-inspiring when you see some of the work that their tech laureates do throughout the globe. So it’s an honor to be considered a partner of the Tech Museum. Also, the practical part of it for us is that we really need their expertise if we’re going to do science and math and technology instruction well, especially at the elementary levels. So it makes sense because both organizations are vision-aligned.
I also feel that they have a lot to gain from partnering with a school like Promise Academy with our school design because it helps them to continue to have a deeper reach into communities that typically don’t have a lot of access to science, math, and technology.
Tell me more about your background, your educational experience. Did you go to public schools, what was that like, and how has that motivated you?
I grew up in a very poor town. I grew up near the Mississippi delta, and my school experience was pretty uneventful in my mind. I grew up with a mixture of my parents and my grandparents and they were really focused on making sure that I was a great person. Making sure that I was going to church, making sure that I was respectful of adults, and I really appreciate the upbringing that I had.
They weren’t so aware of what was going on at school, and how I was applying myself academically. Because of that, I probably slacked off growing up, until I got to the 11th grade and a teacher pulled me aside. She showed me my work and she showed me the work of others and she told me that I should be in advanced placement, or AP classes.
Initially, I did not want to be in advanced placement classes. I was going to be a senior the next year and I only had two classes left to take! But over the summer, she changed my class schedule and she put me in advanced placement classes.
That changed my trajectory. It caused me to see myself as a serious student. I went on to get my bachelor’s at Jackson State University. And that was a great experience. From there, I played a little minor league professional baseball in the Washington Nationals organization. Then, I moved on to graduate school here in California. I got my master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, and I got my doctorate in Educational Leadership with emphasis in Human Capital.
Tell me about your family.
I’m a father of four. My wife and I have a blended family. My wife is an elementary teacher as well and so there’s a lot of education going on in our family.
[Being a father] is my hardest job. That’s the job that I’m most dedicated to and I honestly feel that that makes me a better school leader.
Having grown up in poverty myself, now I’m able to give my kids some of the experiences and the things that I only dreamed of. That’s a pride point for me and I know what helped me to get to that point and to be a better father was having a great education, being afforded the opportunity to go to college and to do well in college and go on to grad school. Every kid should have that opportunity. It’s a right. It should be a right and I’m just really focused on making sure that that becomes a reality.
How has being a father shaped your view of education?
It’s kind of amazing, but the older my kids got the better I got as a school leader because I could really empathize with parents and what it took to be a parent, especially when you have some difficulties with your own children. I went from, eight years ago, going into school leadership thinking I knew exactly what parents needed to do for their kids, to really becoming a partner with parents and saying, “Look we’re figuring this out together, let’s work together.”
I think parents genuinely see that when you’re a parent you can empathize with what they’re going through, and I think it makes for a better product because the kid knows they’re supported on all sides. So that’s been something that I’ve been very passionate about: partnerships with parents and making sure that their goals become my goals for their students.
What do you think makes you the right person to open Promise Academy?
Well I think founding a school is hard. It’s very, very hard. And I’m telling you this because I’ve gone through it before, and especially founding a large comprehensive high school. I founded a large comprehensive high school in the Central Valley of California, and when I say founded, I mean from the ground up. It was an over 90 million dollar construction project. I had to work with parents, garner community support, and really become family with our parent group as we designed that school. I know the pains of it, but I also know what it feels like to open a school and to have a great educational option for parents in the community. You get a rush from that, knowing that you quite possibly are going to change the trajectory of students’ lives, much in the way that my previous teacher did for me.
When you talk about why I would be the best person, that’s a really tough question, but I do know that I’m committed beyond measure to making sure that these parents have a great school for their children.
What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
I love teaching. I still teach as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Merced. I think the best thing about teaching is looking into a kid’s eyes and knowing when they’re engaged and finding out what they’re passionate about because you can use that. You can use that to take them to the next level in whatever concept or topic that you’re teaching them. I think my favorite part of teaching was making things relevant, which we’ll do at Promise Academy. The structure of the school is set up for that. I’m excited to work with teachers to make that experience the school experience at Promise Academy.
What makes Promise Academy unique?
What makes Promise Academy unique is the design of the school and the role that our parents played in designing the school. Their values permeate every part of our school plan.
We’re not totally reinventing the wheel. We’re pulling from a lot of the highest performing schools from across the nation. Schools that are doing great things for students who demographically look like our community. We’re asking them, “What works? What are you doing?” And we’ve found that what works for kids is you have to personalize their experience.
You have to give them smaller class size ratios. At Promise Academy we’ll have a 23 to 1 ratio of students to teacher, and a 12 to 1 ratio of students to adult in the classroom. We know that we need to focus on personalized learning: kids need more individual attention.
You have to use academic rotation so that you can deliver concepts for the first time in a smaller setting. We want to make sure we meet kids where they are. We’ll offer one to one meetings for kids with their teachers every week for planning and role setting.
We’ll also offer a really cool portion of our school day: a partnership with the Tech Museum of Innovation, where kids will get hands-on applied math, science, and technology instruction each day. You have to give them an opportunity to innovate and to use their creativity because you don’t want them to lose that.
Who should apply to Promise Academy?
Promise Academy is a school for everyone. We are passionate about serving students in the center of their community. That includes all students – students with disabilities, students who are English learners, everyone.
If you live in San Jose and this school choice appeals to you, then please be a part of our family.