An interview with Adam Johnson ‘98, Executive Director at Democracy Prep
First off, tell us a little bit about your background. What all have you been doing since you graduated Paideia, and where are you now?
Life since Paideia has been full of wonderful experiences. Immediately after graduating, I spent a post grad year preparing for college basketball at The Berkshire School. From there, I attended St. Michael’s College in Winooski Park, Vermont where I earned a BA in Accounting and Economics and with a minor in Business Administration. After graduating from St. Mikes, I took on a managerial role at W.W. Grainger, Inc. in Washington, DC for eight years. While there, I earned my MBA at George Washington University.
My plan after completing my MBA was to move up the corporate ladder and continue to make my way in the private sector. However, my career took a turn when I began engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility work in graduate school and found that my true passion was to find ways to help my community through education. As a result, I began exploring roles in the nonprofit sector and became Director of Development and Community Relations at Teach For America Las Vegas in 2012. My time at TFA afforded me the opportunity to learn the education landscape in Las Vegas, which lit my fire for supporting students more directly.
After five years at TFA, I transitioned to become Executive Director at Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus (DPAC), a K-12 public charter school in Historic West Las Vegas. In my current role as ED, I am responsible for the overall academic, financial, and cultural success of our 1,100 students, along with supporting our alumni who, in many cases, are first generation college students.
Now in our 4th year of operation, I am excited to accelerate towards achieving our mission by developing our teachers, refining our instructional practices, elevating the academic rigor across our campus, and giving more voice and choice to the people who matter most on our campus: the scholars who work hard every day at growing their leadership and positioning themselves for college success.
With regards to Democracy Prep, tell us about your mission and what led you to come up with this idea?
The mission of Democracy Prep is to educate responsible citizen scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. Democracy Prep was founded in 2006 in Harlem NY by Seth Andrew, and I was fortunate to be selected as the leader to expand the program into Nevada.
My role since bringing the school to Las Vegas has been to help to lay the foundation for long-term academic success and authentic civic engagement from scholars who attend our school.
The mission of our school has incredible meaning to me and our staff because of the current reality in the West Las Vegas community. Today, fewer than five out of 100 people earn a bachelor’s degree, and those statistics mean our community has an average household income that is the lowest in the city of Las Vegas and among the lowest in the state of Nevada. Our goal as a school is to become a vanguard for change that helps return the economic and cultural prosperity that was once a part of the vibrant Historic West Las Vegas community.
What are some ways that COVD-19 has affected your business?
Like many schools across the country, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on the way we deliver instruction. Despite the challenges, our school community has rallied to push forward and continue teaching, learning, and thriving.
A week after COVID shut down our school for in-person instruction, our teachers converted to digital lessons, and our school managed to distribute more than 700 laptops and devices to our scholars to ensure they could participate in our virtual instruction. Moreover, we partnered with local companies to guarantee no child was without internet connection or meals. Almost instantly, our team mobilized to become a virtual hub of learning that could support our scholars (educationally and social emotionally) -- albeit in a new and somewhat unfamiliar manner.
Now that the 2020-2021 school year has started, DPAC is 100% virtual and delivering instruction each day synchronously to our scholars. We monitor our community’s COVID infection levels weekly to determine when it will be safe to move into Phase II of our reopening, which will be hybrid learning (50% in-person and 50% virtual.)
Our goal, after ensuring the health and safety of our entire school community, is to bring as many scholars back onto campus as we can at some point this school year so we can rebuild our school community’s connection to one another.
Anything the Paideia alumni community can do to support you?
There are a few things that Paideia alumni can do that would be helpful to my learning community at DPAC:
- Connect Paideia alumni educators with DPAC educators for collaboration
- Share their college & work experiences with our scholars
- Provide connections to speakers and leaders who can impress the value of college and/or civic engagement
One of the most important things our community continues to need are strong examples of high quality virtual lessons. If any of our alumni are teachers or work in the education space, the DPAC educator community would find great value in learning from other educators across the country.
Democracy Prep is seeking to build a stronger college knowledge base in our scholars and families. We could use support from alumni to help expose our scholars and their families to colleges around the country and the benefits of a college degree.
Finally, if alumni have connections to influential and inspiring speakers who believe in the value of quality education for all children, we would love to connect those people to the DPAC community. While my staff and I believe we can (and quite frequently do) deliver strong messages about the value of education, college, and civic engagement, we believe it would be powerful for our scholars to hear similar messages from stakeholders that come from another vantage point.
Which teachers and/or experiences during your time at Paideia helped shape who you are and what you do?
The two major experiences at Paideia that helped to shape who I am and what I do:
the Boys’ Varsity Basketball team and Peer Leadership.
I moved to Paideia in the middle of my junior year and the transition could have been difficult for me had it not been for the comradery and community of the Boys Basketball program, which at that time was led by Elfrem Jackson (EJ). EJ, as most of us knew him, spent hours talking to me about school, sports, and life, and helped me realize that I had the potential to do what I wanted, so long as I committed myself to being excellent at all times and focusing on the positives. My senior year, EJ put me in a position to captain our team, alongside Andy Wessles ‘98 and Bobby Mercado ‘98. My experience as a captain was both humbling and empowering. The experience helped me learn how to bring a group of people together towards a common goal -- winning a championship. Although we fell two points (!) short of winning Paideia’s first ever state championship, the experience of building relationships, sacrificing for others, and collectively moving towards a lofty long-term goal have helped me tremendously as a leader and father.
My classmates nominated me to be a peer leader, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my high school career. Having the opportunity to mentor a freshman and tutor young students helped me understand the importance of being responsible and a model for others. Moreover, the Peer Leadership program taught me how to reflect on choices and give back to others whenever and however possible.
Whether it is casting a clear vision for a team or being a model for others, I use the lessons from my Paideia basketball and peer leadership experiences each day in my work as a leader at DPAC.
Any favorite teacher(s) you want to give a thank you or shout out to?
Four of my most memorable teachers at Paideia were my two math teachers Susan Ehrhardt (RIP) and Lynn Fryberger, and my science teachers Kathy Brown and Stacey Winston. All four ladies modeled strong women in STEM and pushed me academically. In addition, Susan, Lynn, Kathy, and Stacey made classes engaging, fun, and relevant. I can clearly remember Stacey telling me “Athletes are intuitively strong at physics -- I know you are going to excel in this class.” That small statement at the start of my senior year was a boost to my academic confidence and led to the subject being one of my favorite classes of my high school career. I use those ladies as models of excellence when I visit classrooms at my own school.
If you could go back and time and give the high-school version of yourself advice, what would it be?
I make a point to reflect often, and to use those reflections to grow as a father, husband and school leader. When I reflect on my experience at Paideia, I realize I did not take advantage of the community and the resources as best as I could. The number of adults who were willing to help and the services available were plentiful. Unfortunately, my 17-year old self neglected to leverage them properly, but I appreciate the availability of them now that I am a school leader.
As a result, I use my personal lessons to help my children take advantage of available resources. Moreover, I try to recreate the adult structure and resources for scholars who attend DPAC.
Paideia continues to shape what I believe to be possible for a K-12 community, and I am thankful I had the opportunity to have Paideia as a part of my educational journey. My two-year HS experience at Paideia played a major part in the development and shaping of the experience I am working to create for the thousands of scholars at DPAC. While Paideia, like all places, is continuing to evolve and grow, I hope the leaders at Paideia realize how much they have and continue to impact lives. Paideia is a special place that I hope more students (of all experiences and backgrounds) have the ability to experience.