Blue Ribbon Leader Challenges Students and Staff to ‘Dream Big’

Students listen to each other’s stories during a writing celebration

Brown Elementary School Principal Barb Johnson was the special guest at a first-grade writing celebration.

An invitation, written by students on a huge sheet of paper, was taped on Johnson’s office door. “We have been working hard to write like professional writers. We hope you can make it!” it read.

Once inside teacher Ashley Frayer’s classroom, Johnson watched students’ stories come to life on the projector screen. One by one, they proudly read aloud the books they had written. Classmates pointed out the good things in one another’s work like quotation marks, bold words and exclamation marks — the “itsy-bitsy” details, as they called them, that make writing vibrant.

“Mrs. Frayer, this is amazing. These stories are the best,” Johnson said. “We should show the third-graders. They would be impressed. They would like to read them.”

The students seemed to glow from her praise.

With her ever-present smile, Johnson has a knack for motivating students and the teachers who lead them, say staff members and students.

Principal Barb Johnson joins the classroom fun
Principal Barb Johnson joins the classroom fun

Get Ready to Dream

Like the first-graders, Johnson pays attention to the “itsy-bitsy” details, zeroing in on the little things often overlooked. She figures out what makes children and teachers tick, the words and actions that can warm their hearts and the different ways to build the confidence to reach a bar set high.

She not only knows each of her 535 students by name, she knows their reading levels as well. She knows where each student struggles and thrives. She knows what’s going on in her teachers’ lives after they leave the school building for the day.

“I love the whole idea that the head and the heart are both important,” Johnson said. “When it comes to the kids, I want their brains to grow and I want their hearts to grow, so they can be balanced, happy people, so they can be wise, but have love in our hearts.”

Once they are healthy and happy, they can set goals, she says. That message bounces off the walls at Brown.

Written on pictures and signs around the building are the two words Johnson wants every child in the building to hear loudest: “Dream Big.”

“I love kids, and I love helping kids reach their dreams and making their dreams come true,” she said.

Johnson has served as principal at Brown for the past 11 years. Prior to that, she was a reading specialist in Kentwood Public Schools for nine years, and before that a teacher in Grand Rapids Christian Schools. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Calvin College, a master’s degree at State University of New York at Brockport and a doctorate in educational leadership at Western Michigan University. She has three children and three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way.

Brown Elementary Achieves Blue Ribbon Status

Brown Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2015 in the category of “Exemplary High Performing School.”

The award was based on overall academic excellence and progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. A total of 13 Michigan schools received the designation. According to the most recent available data, about 93 percent of students were proficient in reading at the end of third grade and 83 percent of the third- and fourth-graders were proficient in math.

The school washonored as a Reward school through the state of Michigan for being in the top 5 percent of schools in the Top to Bottom rankings in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.

Also, in 2013, Brown was asked to participate in Kent County’s Reading Now Network, an initiative that reached out to“high achieving” schools in the West Michigan area that were considered beating the odds with high free/reduced lunch rates and high third grade reading scores on the MEAP test.

The Reading Now Network did extensive research on Brown, paid visits, conducted interviews and created a video honoring the hard work happening at the school. That research is being shared across the region and state in an attempt to help other elementary schools get all students to grade level in the area of reading.

Every Child at Grade Level or Higher

Her colleagues say Johnson is an eternal optimist. She finds the positive in every situation, including huge challenges like learning new curricula tied to state standards or getting every student to grade level. In terms of student proficiency, Brown is nudging close to 100 percent. (See sidebar)

“She has a positive attitude about everything, a can-do attitude,” said Kari Anama, executive director of Instructional Services for Byron Center Public Schools. “She believes all kids can learn and she has a vision of where she wants to see everyone get to. She helps everyone achieve that, one by one.”

A marathon runner, Johnson said she sees the challenge in chasing a big goal.

“I like a challenge. I think you just have to embrace the challenge. That’s what I try to do, help people stay positive. That’s the way we grow,” she said.

“I think she makes it so we learn a lot and she wants the best for us,” said fourth-grader Trista Cridler, who likes that Johnson recognizes students for good deeds over the school loudspeaker. “That motivates people to do good things.”

Johnson said she uses data a lot in planning the school day. She uses scores from standardized tests and other data to figure out where a child needs more attention. She’s constantly challenging staff to use the information in a positive way.

‘More of a Leader than a Boss’

Second-grade teacher Jessie Funk said people sometimes ask her, “Is that for real?” about Johnson’s constantly upbeat attitude.

“It’s real,” she tells them. “That’s her.”

Funk laughed, looking at Johnson. “I want to know what you eat for breakfast.”

Funk said Johnson has developed a “common language” in the building, centered on believing in all students, setting up high expectations and letting students know those expectations. Students keep track of their own data with goals set for improvement.

The approach works. It’s not overwhelming. Johnson constantly offers guidance, Funk said.

“She’s more of a leader, not a boss. A boss will tell you what to do, and a leader will teach you how to do it. She’s a teacher for all of us,” Funk said.

Principal Barb Johnson looks at a Brown Elementary School students story
Principal Barb Johnson looks at a Brown Elementary School students story

Fourth-grade teacher Stacey Langdon said Johnson teaches them all to be leaders.

“Dr. Johnson’s leadership has been one that makes anyone who works for her strive to be better… She really listens to us and we work together. It’s not just her ideas moving forward, it’s all of our ideas moving forward.

“She truly is the heart of the school.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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