Bernadeia Johnson, slated to be the next superintendent of schools in Minneapolis, says it wasn't easy to get where she is.
"You see success, and people don't share how they got there, and you think it just happens," Johnson said Wednesday, a day after the school board announced that in the interest of continuity, it would forgo a search and interview Deputy Superintendent Johnson alone for the vacancy that will open when Superintendent Bill Green leaves in June. "But nothing just happens. It's hard work."
Johnson, 50, will assume the reins at a critical time for urban education in Minnesota. Schools are scraping for money, the district faces a $13 million deficit next year, and the achievement gap persists.
But her history of overcoming obstacles, including segregation in her native Selma, Ala., and a personal bankruptcy in 1991, followed by her ascendancy into the top ranks of educators in the state, shows that she's no stranger to hard work.
She said her experiences have taught her that "you don't have to be limited by the color of your skin, and that everything takes a lot of work, and nothing comes easy."
She grew up in Selma, during what she called "a period in history that is written about in every history book." She attended segregated schools until fifth grade, when her mother paid a cabdriver to drive her and her siblings to a white school across town.
She said her uncle Ulysses Blackmon was one of Selma's "Courageous Eight," a group that registered black residents to vote "at a time when it wasn't OK."
She said that, as a kid, her heart often was in Minneapolis, where she'd go to visit her grandparents. Grandmother Hallie Hendrieth-Smith was principal at Willard Elementary and Loring Elementary. Hendrieth-Smith, 93, recalled Wednesday that Johnson "was a bookworm. Everybody else would be out playing, and she'd be in her room, in her bed, reading a book."
Trips to Minneapolis let Johnson see some of the world beyond Selma. Once, when her sister told a teacher that she'd been on an airplane, "the teacher told my Mom that [my sister] was making up stories," Johnson said. "... People couldn't believe that a little black girl could have that type of experience."
Johnson attended Alabama A&M University on a music scholarship and played clarinet in the concert and marching bands. She graduated with a degree in speech pathology.
A summer job in Minneapolis as a bank teller led her into a career as a financial analyst at First Bank, but she was laid off in a 1991 downsizing. The next year, she and her husband filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which requires people to repay debts.
"It was hard," she said, "I ... couldn't find a job, and I had to pay for day care and had all of these challenges."
She said that having lived through "situational poverty" now helps her identify with district families who struggle to pay bills.
'Make a difference with students'
But the layoff also opened the door to a new career. She'd volunteered in schools and decided that she couldn't stay away. "I just felt like I could make a difference with students," she said.
She enrolled in a University of St. Thomas program that trains mid-career professionals as teachers.
Valeria Silva, the St. Paul superintendent, was an assistant principal on the team that hired Johnson for her first teaching job, as a fifth-grade teacher at Highwood Hills in St. Paul.
"You could feel and sense that she was ready to change the lives of students," Silva said.
Johnson moved into the leadership ranks in St. Paul and Minneapolis before moving to Memphis to work under former Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson (no relation) in that 120,000-student district.
"She really is someone that is very passionate about the issues of both excellence and equity," said Carol Johnson, who now leads the Boston public schools. "For Bernadeia, children always come first."
When Bernadeia Johnson's mother died, her grandparents, who had moved south with her, wanted to return to Minneapolis. Johnson came with them.
"I wanted to be somewhere where I could see or connect with them, or understand how they were doing," she said.
Carol Johnson said Wednesday that the superintendent's job in Minneapolis, which "has an international population of students," requires understanding "that there are diverse communities that have to be connected to the schools."
She added that, "Building the confidence of their communities, to invest their children in the school district, is going to be very important."
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460
BERNADEIA JOHNSON'S RÉSUMÉ
August 2005-present: Deputy superintendent of schools, Minneapolis
April 2004-2005: Deputy superintendent of schools, Memphis
July 1999-March 2004: Principal, Elizabeth Hall Community School, Minneapolis
1991-1999: Assistant principal, Saturn Riverfront Academy, St. Paul; Fifth-grade teacher, Highwood Hills Elementary School, St. Paul
1979-1991: Financial analyst, First Bank System, Minneapolis