For Greg Johnson, becoming the superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 is about building on the foundation he has already helped lay down.
In the last five years, Johnson has worked first as an assistant and then an associate superintendent under current Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, who plans to retire at the end of this school year.
The D200 school board unanimously approved Johnson’s appointment at a regular meeting on April 22.
“It’s thrilling,” said Johnson who is set to start his new position July 1. “I feel incredibly excited about it.”
An Oak Park resident and father of two OPRF students, Johnson, 46, said he feels fortunate to be in this situation where he can be “involved in something I truly care about and am passionate about, but I can also continue the work that I’ve been doing the past few years.”
As Johnson thought more about his role as a superintendent and the many responsibilities he will carry, he also talked about his other priority: to find the fun in his job and focus on the now.
“We don’t want to think of our students as what they might become only 10 years down the road or 20 years down the road,” he said. “Our students in front of us right now are smart, creative, brilliant, you know, thoughtful, funny.
“We have to understand that strength that exists in the moment right now, not something that we are simply trying to create in the school, but something that students possess. What we are trying to do in the school is enhance those qualities that exist in human beings.”
Directly ahead is work that entails executing the district’s 2020-25 strategic plan, which among many things aims to detrack courses for incoming freshmen, hire more teachers of color and build a better support system to help students’ social-emotional needs. Other areas of focus include completing a series of upcoming capital improvement projects, engaging with district families and offering more services and resources for students.
The plan is about mapping out goals “and asking ourselves and challenging ourselves to follow this map to improve how the institution serves our kids,” said Johnson.
Divided into five priorities, the plan – which was first released in 2014 and has been updated yearly – allows school officials like Johnson to focus on questions like “How welcoming is this community?” or “What kind of environment are we creating for our students?”
“This is definitely something that is always kind of iterated back and forth,” Johnson said. “It’s always kind of personal. It’s always identity work. If you’re not challenging yourself personally and individually, it’s going to be almost impossible to take any sort of real, authentic steps.”
During the interview, Johnson reflected on his own upbringing, his nearly 20-year career as an educator and the lessons he has learned as a white cisgender male along the way.
“It’s easy to think that the worldview that we are automatically ingrained in thinking about is ‘the worldview,’” said Johnson, who said he grew up in suburban Elmhurst.
“You constantly have to challenge yourself to be conscious of, and that never goes away,” he said.
When Johnson headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue education, his own world cracked open. And it continued to open after he began working at Urbana High School and Centennial High School in neighboring Champaign. Johnson taught English at Urbana High for nine years before becoming the school’s associate principal. He also later served as principal at Centennial.
According to the Illinois Report Card, Urbana High and Centennial are both racially mixed. Roughly half of the student population at both central Illinois schools come from low-income families.
“It helped me in every way to kind of understand the dynamic reality of our world,” said Johnson, adding his work at both schools prepared him for his role at OPRF.
In addition, Johnson said working alongside Pruitt-Adams over the years has given him the chance to have a better understanding of OPRF as a whole. Johnson said that he and Pruitt-Adams have different personalities and style approaches, which gave them “so much opportunity” to grow, hold conversations and forge a new direction for the school.
“She has been so unfailingly supportive of the process for moving forward as a school,” he said, adding Pruitt-Adams has been a strong leader and showed him the virtue of patience and being a good listener.
“She, without a doubt, has been a huge influence on me, and she will continue to be an enormous influence on me moving forward,” Johnson said.