William H. Johnson

Understated Leadership for Pressing Times by Jay P. Goldman

 In more than two decades as an administrator in the schools of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Bill Johnson has dealt with many human crises. But nothing over that time could have prepared him for the aftermath of the terrorist acts of Sept. 11.

Twenty-seven families in the mostly well-to-do district in Long Island’s Nassau County were directly affected by the crushing loss of human life in the World Trade Center’s obliteration, and 16 Rockville Centre students lost a parent. Johnson found his even-tempered, detail-oriented brand of leadership put to the sternest test.

The superintendent did everything in his power to maintain a sense of normalcy in the 3,600-student district, keeping schools open, attending to security needs both real and perceived, and mobilizing staff within hours of realizing the devastating impact close at hand. He convened the seven building principals every other morning in the district’s board room for the ensuing two weeks and brought in social workers and psychologists to deal with the immediate grief and the longer-term effects on children.

“The more a system can reinforce a sense of normalcy, the more likely kids can come in and learn effectively,” says Johnson, who came to the district in 1979 as director of special education.

With a degree of confidence that accompanies a 15-year tenure as a district’s chief administrator, Johnson was a stabilizing force in a community unaccustomed to such upheaval. Some observers found it especially telling that while his leadership was on display at many hours, the leader wanted no undue credit for his work.

Angela Marshall, editor of The Herald, Rockville Centre’s weekly newspaper, cites Johnson’s reaction to seeing a photo on her publication's front page showing him at the head of a prayer vigil, attended by more than 1,000 district residents, a few days after the terrorist acts. “When it came time to produce the next school district newsletter, he specifically asked us to find a photo that didn’t include him in it. He said this was about children, not him.”

Johnson consistently finds ways to put students' interests first in a district often considered to be upper-middle-class, yet one where nearly 15 percent of the children qualify for the federal lunch program. He considers his finest moment the culmination in 1993 of a 3-year struggle to get all staff to agree to remove entrance barriers to higher-level courses, namely Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate.

Until two years ago, Rockville Centre was the only school district on Long Island to offer the IB program.

“We had to break the mindset about the abilities kids bring to the table and … remove all the gates in the broadest sense to let them enter higher-level courses,” Johnson says. “It was a symbolic turning point in our school district.”

After several years of heated discussion, Rockville Centre eliminated classes segregated by ability level up to 10th grade. When 8th graders of all stripes were thrown into the same algebra classes, 90 percent passed the state Regents exam in the first year, affirming one of the superintendent’s core beliefs.

“Over time, the system makes good decisions for kids,” Johnson says. “My relationship, a trusting relationship with my board and community, [means] we’re not going to make bad decisions. … The stability of this office is crucial to that.”

Johnson, who is serving in 2001-2002 as president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, is also known as someone willing to pore over state aid data and the state education department’s thousand-page documents that are shipped regularly to superintendents. Says the council’s deputy director Tom Rogers: “He almost always finds the flies in the ointment. He is legendary for being on top of every misstep.”

Johnson takes no glee in the latter role, even while serving as an occasional critic of state policy, the Board of Regents and Education Commissioner Richard Mills. Johnson is self-effacing, unpretentious and private—to the extent that he didn’t tell colleagues about a grave illness last summer that left him hospitalized for two weeks. “I try to keep my personal life separate from my professional,” he says.

Johnson’s attributes play well in a community full of go-getter types. Jeff Greenfield, a local insurance agent and self-described gadfly who closely follows school board activities, is effusive: “His brand of leadership translates into better schools.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:

Bill Johnson