Get to know your principal: Challenger High School’s Jeff Johnson

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Jeff Johnson

When Jeff Johnson signed on to become Challenger High School’s principal in 2013, he knew he had a monumental job in front of him.

Not only was it his first time leading a school, but it was his first foray into the complicated world of alternative education. On top of that, Challenger was facing a multitude of problems in seemingly every aspect of the school, from slipping academic standards to poor facilities.

Needless to say, Johnson had his work cut out for him.

“Part of my job that first couple of years was putting Challenger back on the map in the community and the district,” he said. “I was just going out there saying, ‘We’re here and we’re doing the same work as the other high schools, we’re just doing it in a different way.’”

As an alternative high school, Challenger often has to overcome the false perception that it’s a school for students who couldn’t cut it at a “normal” comprehensive high school.

“This is not a school for bad kids,” Johnson said. “This is a school of choice. Kids choose to come here.”

Johnson, who grew up in rural Pierce County, didn’t have any personal experience with alternative schools, but he has a long history in the realm of education. His mom taught at a local elementary school and he spent countless hours helping her in the classroom. Those early years helped shape his love for education, and that love has stuck with him ever since.

As a high school student Johnson kept himself busy with school activities. He played tennis and was in a several clubs and school bands, and he eventually earned a music scholarship to Western Washington University.

While he loves music, it wasn’t something Johnson wanted to pursue as a career. He ended up graduating from WWU’s Huxley College for Environmental Studies with a geography degree, but he wasn’t at all sure about what he was going to do in his post-college his life. He toyed with several career options, including designing furniture, but nothing felt as right as teaching.

“I initially wanted to try something different from education, but I figured out that I was an educator at heart,” he said.

After earning his teaching credentials, Johnson headed to Auburn Olympic Middle School to teach seventh grade geography. It was a tough job, but Johnson credits it with giving him a solid foundation for his future career.

It was early in his teaching career that Johnson began thinking about shifting to an administrative role. He loved being in the classroom, but he knew he could be an effective leader and he thought he was ready for a larger challenge.

While in Auburn, Johnson began doing his masters work at UW Tacoma with a focus on at-risk populations. He continued teaching in the district for nearly 10 years before accepting the position of Dean of Students at Auburn High School.

A year later he moved to Curtis High School in University Place, where he was an assistant principal for six years. By the end of his tenure at Curtis, Johnson was certain that he was ready to lead his own school. He had a few options, but decided to take the the job at Challenger because he saw incredible potential in the school.

Johnson hit the ground running, adopting a new school curriculum and beginning the tough work of making Challenger a place where students and educators wanted to be.

“We had to raise the level of expectations and rigor levels,” he said. “If you come here you’re going to be getting a Bethel School District diploma, and you have to meet all the same competencies as any other school.”

Johnson had high hopes for the students at Challenger, but he was taken aback by just how amazing the kids turned out to be.

“They have a lot of different needs, but to a T they’re just very honest and straightforward,” Johnson said of his students. “They’re not pretentious. They’ll let you know where they’re at.”

When he’s not at school, Johnson loves spending time with his husband and two children, as well as volunteering in his community. He is currently on the Board of Directors for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation and OASIS Youth Center in Tacoma.

“I like giving back to the community,” he said. “Both organizations are very important to the community, so it’s nice to get connected.”

Helping kids learn is the driving force behind all we do in the Bethel School District.

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