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A profile of Dr. Sara Johnson, who is at the helm of the Crook County Schools, and her team who have successfully navigated the district through the recent pandemic

Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series on school leadership and meeting student needs

PHOTO COURTESY OF CROOK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT - Sara Johnson speaks at a district function at Crook County High School. Johnson cam to the district in 2018."For everyone that is a superintendent--I think they bring their gifts and their weaknesses to the job, and you are always trying to problem-solve and find the best way to do things."

That comment was reflected by Crook County School District Superintendent, Dr. Sara Johnson, whom is the first woman superintendent in Crook County School District. A conversation with Johnson also reveals that she is no stranger to the rural Oregon way of life.

"I am the daughter of people who are from this culture, I was born in Grant Pass," said Johnson.

She grew up in Burns, Oregon, as were her children. She also attended Crane School and Dayville for two years, but the majority of her childhood was spent in Burns. She taught in Burns and was a principal there as well. Her degree is from Eastern Oregon University, and she completed her Doctorate at George Fox University.

"I really am from the ranching, western culture," she added.

According to Johnson, Burns is a great deal more isolated than Crook County, but also very self-sufficient.

"Moving from Burns to Crook County is like moving out of the West, and you are moving into civilization—that is how we looked at it," Johnson said with a smile. "My story is one of cows, horses, chores, and little rural schools, and I know what that way of life is."

She noted that her father had property in Burns and raised cows and horses. She even milked a cow until her brother was born, then milked a goat because her brother was allergic to cow's milk. Her brothers were later involved in the timber industry, and one brother became a commercial fisherman in Port Orford, Oregon.

After high school, she went to college for one year before taking a job as a secretary in a Christian school, where she met her husband, Tom. After they were married, they moved back to Burns, and they both taught at schools in the Burns and Hines school districts. Eventually, Johnson was Principal for Slater Elementary and Hines Elementary.

"When I was a principal at Slater Elementary, we were a national Title I distinguished school, because of the turnaround in the student achievement at Slater. I think that was originally the greatest challenge, was to take a system that really was not producing the outcomes for students that you were hoping and to turn it around," she said of her time ay Slater Elementary.

She went on to say, "The impact at the superintendent level is great, and you also really need people to go into it, because not everyone thrives and embraces the work. There are days when its absolutely exhausting and often days when it is discouraging, but I am really proud of what this team in Crook County School District has done in the last four years."

Johnson indicated that so many things have changed since COVID. She noted that the greatest challenges now are operating in the political arena and meeting the values of the community while operating a public school.

"There is so much pressure from ODE and state level in doing this work, when you have that pressing down on you—that has been the biggest challenge."

She indicated that it can be difficult to gain the trust of the people who are suspicious of public education. She noted it is much harder than it was 10 years ago.

"Really, the service and the schools that our children will get, are going to be based on the people who work in those schools right here in Prineville, in Crook County. That is, where I think the opportunity lies, because we can't do everything that we want to, but we can work within the guidelines and have a school (district) that our community can really trust and value."

Johnson emphasized that she has not experienced cultural barriers like women in her field have expressed. Nationally, 72% of K-12 educators are women, but women make up just 27% of superintendents. Of the 16 superintendents in Oregon who have doctorates, 11 are women, with Johnson being one of those 11.

When she was a principal in McMinnville in 2007, she was awarded the Oregon Principal of the Year Award. Other districts began to contact her because they wanted to add her to their team, and she was hired in Lincoln County School District for four years as an assistant superintendent.

Following her role at Lincoln County, Johnson was a superintendent in Sumner-Bonney Lake School District in Washington for three years. It was 12 miles from Tacoma and had a school population of approximately 10,000 students. The culture was very different from the rural districts she had previously led, and although it was a successful three years, she had the opportunity to be near her daughter in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Johnson spent two years in Klamath County, which is 6,000 square miles. She was Director of School Improvement, driving to Gilchrist three times per week, and Chiloquin twice per week.

"I was boots on the ground with those principals, working on making those very rural and very difficult contexts effective, and that was a great experience."

While there she had a new grandson born and she also lost her mother. She found that she really missed the superintendent work, so she applied for the position at Crook County.

"When I applied at Crook County School District, the fit for the job was good, and I have a passion to improve school systems, and that is what I did in Burns."

Johnson's leadership style has resulted in a strong team in her schools, with Michelle Jonas recently named Oregon High School Principal of the Year, and Rob Bonner named Athletic Director of the Year. Crook County High School also achieved a 98% graduation rate in 2021, despite the pandemic.

"I think you have to use a team to improve a district. That is my philosophy, and that is how "I lead," Johnson indicated of her leadership and the importance of teamwork. "Everybody that is in it has a passion and a dream to do something, and just helping them achieve that, then what you get is system improvement and amazing things happen. Look at our high school, our middle school, and our elementaries. It is because of the great people who are doing the work there. What I really do is support and facilitate."

She added that she collaborates with the school board to set the goals and the direction that the district desires to go.

"But we all want to see kids achieve and to do well and be prepared and have successful lives, so it is not like it is hard to agree on what the goals will be, it is just a matter of prioritizing."

Johnson indicated that when she began four years ago, the data for the district was problematic in that they did not know exactly how many students they had, although it was approximately 2,800. She added that one of the first things that she had the staff work on was to make sure they knew every student.

"We knew who was here, and we also knew when they left, why they left, and who was specifically was coming. We did some work on onboarding kids-in other words, welcoming kids and making sure they got connected from the day they came in, and when students left the district to make sure they got where they were going."

She emphasized that they have also streamlined the process for getting records for new students immediately, so that they address their needs and get a plan in place as soon as possible.

"We have trimmed that down to a few days now, so when the child comes in, we call and get those records if they don't come with records. When a child goes out, we do not just leave those records floating in the system without a home."

She added that the district has an individual case plan for every student in the district.

"We are the perfect size; we are under 5,000. We are small enough that we can know every student. We can know their name, their family, and the strengths they bring."

In part two, school district staff weigh in on the five priorities identified by leadership, and how that translates into meeting each students' needs.


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