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Newly Appointed as State College Area Superintendent, Curtis Johnson Ready to Take on Challenges and Opportunities

Curtis Johnson says it was luck that brought him to the State College Area School District.

After graduating from Penn State with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Johnson started out his education career in Reading and in 2003 decided to try to find a job in Philadelphia. He interviewed for a grade-level principal position in State College as a kind of “warmup” for his Philly interviews.

When then-Superintendent Patricia Best offered him the job after his second interview, it didn’t register at first. This was, after all, just a warmup.

“She said ‘you really need to think about coming here.’ And I was like ‘ohhh,'” he said on Tuesday at SCASD’s Panorama Village Administrative Building. “It was at that point that I ended up here and I just never left. It was just the community, the administrators, the support, the teachers, the students — I fell in love with them all, and so I never left. Through the support and people pushing me to accept the various challenges that came in front of me … it just all fell in line that I’m now here today, but it’s all due to the support that I’ve received throughout those 20 years that I’ve been here that I’m here right now.”

A tenure that has included time as assistant principal and principal at State High, assistant superintendent for secondary schools and, for the last year, interim superintendent has led him to becoming SCASD superintendent, following unanimous approval by the school board on Monday night.

Johnson’s selection as the top administrator for a district of 6,800 students, 1,900 employees and a dozen schools comes after a 10-month search process following former superintendent Bob O’Donnell’s departure last year. Johnson was one of three finalists to emerge in the process that involved extensive community input and assistance from consultant Tom Templeton.

For the school board, the experience and vision for the district Johnson has developed over his decades of work made him the right fit for the job.

“For the board, it really was that he has such an integral working knowledge of the district that really set him apart,” Board President Jackie Huff said. “I think C.J. was a little modest. He talks about all the support he’s received here at SCASD but he himself has created a lot of support structures, not just for students but also for teachers and administrators to grow professionally. In looking at the work that he’s done across the district and listening to his vision, he was so obviously the top candidate for me amongst those finalists. The other finalists were fantastic as well. It just really was the correct fit for what we needed right now to have Mr. Johnson step into this role.”

With the interim tag now removed and a five-year contract in hand, Johnson also becomes the first person of color to serve as SCASD superintendent.

“I think it’s an extremely important role. I think every day in this district I’m breaking down stereotypes, especially for a Black man to be in a position of this caliber,” he said. “For our students to see me in this role, and be responsible for me to be in this role because it’s because of their successes and what they have spoken about to their parents and the community that lands me in this position… Having been an administrator here for 20 years I’ve gotten to know a lot of them now that they have kids going through the system. I have been in this position for quite some time and I think my accomplishments kind of speak for themselves, in a manner of speaking.”

Huff said the board is inspired by Johnson’s “vision to make SCASD the best district it can possibly be,” capitalizing on its strengths and moving it forward “to be even more exceptional.”

That vision includes measures to bolster student performance and success that are emphasized in the district’s strategic and comprehensive plans, both of which he worked on during his period as interim superintendent.

“One of the things I want to do is make our school district one of the best school districts in the state of Pennsylvania,” Johnson said. “We have been ranked in the top quartile of our state and I would like to see us in the top 10%.”

SCASD’s annual four-year high school graduation rate hovers between 92% and 95%. He has set a goal of bringing that to 98%, though wants to see it be 100%. For students who are struggling to graduate, Johnson said virtual programs can play an important role.

“I think if we learned anything [from the COVID-19 pandemic], it’s the benefits that virtual schooling would have for this particular group of students,” he said. “I plan to work with our virtual program — we have one that’s in house — to help navigate that curriculum for our students for them to be successful so that they don’t face the stigma of having to come back and repeat a year. We can work with them from home. We can provide them with teacher support and curriculum, address their areas of need.

“Although virtual is not the key to learning, it’s a great supplement for learning to get students across the threshold and provide them with a different mechanism for learning. I think that is one area that COVID has shown us we can do a much better job at.”

He’s also set a goal of boosting the percentages of students demonstrating proficiency on standardized tests and improving student performance starting with foundational skills at the elementary school level.

A new reading program to be implemented at the elementary schools will be critical in that effort.

“It all starts with reading,” Johnson said. “With those types of skills and skillsets in front of them it just makes it easier for our students to move through the curriculum — math, science, social studies and English. We’re working on the basics first and grow them from there.”

State College Area School District Superintendent Curtis Johnson and school board President Jackie Huff laugh during a press conference on Tuesday, March 14 at the Panorama Village Building. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com

The challenges ahead, Johnson said, include continuing toward “getting things back to normal” for teaching and learning following COVID disruptions, and bringing the school and local community together to work toward common goals.

“I would say that a lot of communities are working on being collaborative, working together,” he said. “There’s diverse perspectives. I think we need to get together and come up with some common points that we can come together on to move the district forward. I’m interested in meeting with various stakeholder groups to find those common interests. One of the things that we have to do for the following year is come up with a new comprehensive plan, so I plan on inviting members of the community from both sides of the fences to be a part of that collaboration.”

He added that it’s important for district administrators to be visible in the schools and available to address the needs of students, teachers and staff. Having spent most of his SCASD career at the secondary level, he made sure to spend time in the elementary schools during his tenure as interim superintendent. And he worked with the board to establish a new approach to committee meetings that has freed up administrators to devote their time to being in the schools.

“I think it’s key for a superintendent to be visible, to be present and to listen to what our stakeholders are talking about, what they’re struggling with, what challenges they have and how I can assist them,” he said.

Johnson said he is looking forward to working with students, families, staff and community members to address the district’s challenges and “to extend a proud tradition of high standards and student achievement established over decades.” Having already done the work of superintendent since last June, there won’t be much need for a transition, either. Well, except for one thing.

“Change the sign on the door,” he said with a laugh.