Jessica Johnson was appointed to the APS Board District 9 At-Large seat in January 2023, replacing Jason Esteves, who is now a state senator. She is now up for her first election. Johnson is the founder and executive director of The Scholarship Academy and has a background in civic engagement. She has received numerous awards, including the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 40 Under Forty and United Way’s Spark Prize, highlighting her impact in education and community service.
Background & Experience
- BA in Journalism/Public Relations, Howard University
- Masters in Public Administration, American University
This candidate’s June 30 disclosure is being resubmitted.
- Total cash on hand:
- Largest contributors:
- At $1,500, the largest contributor for the June disclosure is Emma Bloomberg, one of former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s daughters.
- Plans to make advanced coursework and programs more accessible
- Wants to tie budget items to district goals and student outcomes
- Aims to engage high-impact community partners to improve student outcomes
Where did you grow up and how has your personal background influenced your perspective on public education?
I grew up in a small town in West Tennessee-Jackson. As a third-generation educator, I grew up with an understanding that my public school education would equip me for college, introduce me to careers, and connect me with a community of caring adults.
We want to know about your involvement in the community. Please list any volunteer or mentorship activities, professional boards you sit on, and community organizations that you’re affiliated with.
- Pi Alpha Omega Chapter
- Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
- LEAD Atlanta
- Fulton County Workforce Board- Youth Council
- Dell Scholars National Selection Committee
- APS Equity Taskforce
Why should voters support your candidacy for the APS School Board?
I am the combination of being both experienced and an outsider. I am a third generation educator and I have been working on educational equity for years. I joined the Board this year, and I chose to run because I believe we can effectively leverage our resources to make a difference for our children. There is a version of a saying that says, “The past is the best predictor of the future.”
My roots and passion are in serving kids and families. I chaired the Workforce Development Youth Council for Fulton County and served on the APS Community Equity Committee before joining the Board in January. I believe voters should support me as their At-Large Seat 9 representative because I was doing the work prior to the formal Board position and have a solid familiarity with both the strengths and opportunities throughout the District. As a member of the APS equity committee, I had an opportunity to utilize the equity audit to help draft the District’s first draft of the equity policy that was approved by the Board.
I also lead an educational nonprofit that is laser-focused on positioning thousands of students to enroll in college with the least amount of debt each year. I bring to the Board role my expertise in federal budget management/compliance, best practices in college access, critical managerial and organizational development skillsets, and a genuine heart for supporting young people.
The Atlanta School Board did not renew the contract for former school superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring and hired Dr. Danielle Battle as the interim superintendent on Aug. 7, 2023, while they conduct a national search.
Why do you think there’s so much superintendent turnover at APS — and what do you think can be done to address it?
Nationally, the average Superintendent has a three-year tenure. Our school system is large (nearly 50,000 students) and complex. It requires a number of partnerships at all levels collectively leaning into the district’s biggest challenges. As the needs of the District have shifted (both pre and post-pandemic), we must acknowledge that there are more opportunities before us for the next leader to equitably distribute resources, address the gaps in achievement, and empower our school leaders to make critical decisions to improve student outcomes.
But here’s what can be done: This moment gives us an opportunity to be transformative and better stewards of tax dollars. We can sustain district leadership by involving more stakeholders in the hiring process, closely aligning our performance reviews with our identified student outcomes from the onset of their tenure, and facilitating more opportunities for community partners, stakeholder groups and philanthropy to “lean in” on our priority areas in true partnership with the next leader.
What qualifications and qualities do you believe are essential for the next superintendent?
We are in the beginning processes of building a superintendent profile from community input, but I believe that the superintendent’s number one commitment must be student achievement, with a specific emphasis on a proven track record on improved literacy outcomes in Districts of comparable size. Previous successes in areas such as teacher/principal retention, innovative approaches to school overcrowding, and evidence of a commitment to equity via resource allocations would be essential.
In regards to specific qualities, what I have heard from various communities across the city is an appetite for a leader who is willing to allocate more resources directly to schools, authentically engage the community in key decisions, and strike a unique balance between district mandates and school autonomy.
While we cannot expect any one leader to “solve” all of our challenges across the District, what will serve our students well is someone who is willing to address equity gaps head-on, tackle our school utilization challenges, and empower our principals, teachers and support staff.
APS is in the third year of a five-year strategic plan that ends in 2025. What are your thoughts on how that plan is going, and what would you do differently? What should the next five-year plan address?
I believe that we are in progress and I am excited about the direction in which we are headed. One of the boldest moves of the APS District was to adopt the Student Outcomes-Focused Governance model. This approach, coupled with our strategic plan, gives the public an opportunity to maintain a regular “pulse” on how we’re doing as a District.
With a clear focus on increasing percentages and closing the gaps, there are some areas of progress that it is important to recognize, specifically working on closing the literacy and math gaps. I want to see us focus on this and working to better serve our students with special needs.
How should the District best address the understaffing and retention of teachers and staff?
This question is personal for me, because I grew up watching both of my parents pour tirelessly over their classroom plans with very little thanks. First, we need to create a supportive and affirming work environment. Teachers should enjoy coming to work. Right now, teachers are overburdened by mandates that prevent them from truly empowering students to succeed. We have to change that.
As we peel back some of the layers of mandatory survey distributions, excessive testing and poorly implemented curriculum practices, we will have an opportunity to reinvigorate our educational leaders with professional development opportunities, reduced class sized, and innovation funds to support deeper learning.
Second, we need to increase the baseline pay for teachers. Home prices are increasing are rapidly within the city, making it difficult for Atlanta’s teachers to actually live in Atlanta. We have a unique opportunity to explore affordable housing initiatives in partnership with the City of Atlanta that would create pathways for our employees and our families to own properties in the city.
Finally, we must invest in solid principal selection, leadership development and retention so that strong teachers are met with the necessary supports to promote student success.
More than 5,000 APS students have a disability or special needs. What can the school district do to better serve those students, especially when it comes to allocating resources to schools?
I do not believe that a student’s zip code should predict their chance of success in and beyond APS. Unfortunately, that is not the case currently. Based on what I have seen before joining the Board and on my tenure, I believe we need to focus on two things:
- A baseline of success for all students
- Equity across the clusters by giving the administrators and teachers and staff in each cluster what that cluster needs beyond the baseline. If we address the inequity, we can address the disparate outcomes.
Only about one-third of APS students are at or above the proficient level for reading and math with reports saying that COVID learning loss is still a factor. How can the District ensure children meet or exceed the reading and writing standards?
This is a major problem. Like many school districts across the country are doing, we must return to the “Science of Reading.” It is time for us to make significant financial investments in ensuring that EVERY English/language arts teacher is properly trained in phonics instruction in our schools. For our middle and high school students, we have become too reliant on computer-based instruction to attempt to close gaps. We need research-based solutions that can be quickly accelerated to all schools throughout the District. I believe the same is true for our math instruction. We must be willing to review curriculum choices, as well as our fidelity of implementation across the district and make faster decisions that will ensure our students are learning on pace.
Identify three ways the Atlanta School Board can better involve youth, parents and caretakers in the Board’s decision-making process?
I have held a number of meet and greets, town hall events, and small group meetings across the city. From those, there are three recommendations I believe we can do:
- We can re-activate the Cluster Advisory Council that would have the ability to have representatives from each cluster that will help set our goals for the next superintendent, and provide input on the strategic plan
- Re-design the “GO TEAM” model (get rid of the scripts) and more closely align with its original purpose with appointed parents and teachers to be part of working groups at the cluster-level
- Provide quarterly opportunities for teacher-led forums on core priorities areas across the District (timed with board voting cadence) to provide an open opportunity for feedback on pending decisions
Is the APS property tax burden too high for most Atlanta residents? Do you think commercial property owners are paying their fair share of APS property taxes?
We have held the line on millage rates. People are paying more because their homes are worth more. There are two questions that must be asked:
- Are we doing the best we can with the tax revenue we receive? I think there is space to improve our resource allocations. As mentioned above, we need to do better by our students with disabilities and we need to pay our teachers better, provide more school resource officers and increase the number of counselors that are available to our students(I voted for a teacher pay raise.) We need to make improvements to our facilities as well.
- What would be impacted by a change in the tax rate, up or down? If we do not have a specific plan that is tied to improved student outcomes, then we cannot ask for more revenue. If a reduction negatively impacts our student success, we should avoid that.
I do think that for our more vulnerable citizens, those at 60% of AMI or below, there should be some considerations in terms of exemptions. I also believe commercial properties, particularly some of the large corporate developments that are moving into our city, can take a bigger ownership in the tax burden.
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