When people think of Rockville Centre schools, one name comes to mind almost immediately: Dr. William H. Johnson. The longtime superintendent of schools has been a staunch advocate for students of all abilities during his 40 years in the district, which he made into one that, by many accounts, people are proud to both work and live in.
“He has made Rockville Centre an innovative school district,” said Audra Cerruto, president of the Rockville Centre Education Foundation. “I don’t know what our district would be like without him.”
Johnson, 75, first came to the district in 1978 as a consultant, never expecting to become superintendent. But he became the director of special education in late 1979, and was quickly and steadily promoted until an opening arose in 1986 for superintendent, a position he has held for nearly 34 years.
According to Johnson, he fell into this career path by accident. “I had a very interesting beginning,” he said.
He planned to attend medical school after college, and become a psychiatrist. While a student at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the late 1960s, however, he volunteered to work with young children who had been thrown out of school in Bridgeport. “I discovered I loved the work,” he said.
He found it so inspiring that he switched his coursework, and focused on special education in Fairfield’s graduate program. His first teaching job was an eye-opening experience that shed light on how children with special needs were treated, and sparked his desire to change the system. He was tasked with teaching a group of 14- to 17-year-olds in an elementary school building, with no support from the principal and no proper teaching materials for the first two weeks. He was not allowed to use the library or gym, but was told he could set his own hours for the class, so he set to work teaching students who had spent most of the previous year making potholders and learning no academic skills.
“I fell in love with that group of kids,” Johnson said, “and by the end that year, I got them out of that building.”
He worked for Fairfield University for 10 years starting in 1969, and while there he earned a doctorate in special education research from Teachers College, Columbia University. “At that time, I never ever thought I was going to be a school district administrator,” he said, noting this his mentor pushed him to get a credential.
He came to Rockville Centre while still employed by Fairfield, to consult on the district’s special education program. The superintendent at the time soon decided that the district should have a director, and encouraged Johnson to apply.
For the next eight years, he wore many hats in the district, and worked under three superintendents. “Before I became superintendent, I literally held every position in central office,” Johnson said. “So when people leave jobs, I’ve always been able to do their work.”
And right from the start, he set about implementing changes, in the interest of improvement. Early on, he ended the district’s five academic tracks — Regents, non-Regents, special education, accelerated and honors — and under his watch, South Side High School became one of the first South Shore high schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate program.
Cerruto was in high school when the IB program began. “From day one, he was always trying to improve the school system,” she said.
In recent years, Johnson has been an advocate of challenging state curricula, which he has called unfair to students. In particular, he has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that have created high levels of anxiety among students — particularly elementary school students — and their parents.
The village’s deputy mayor, Kathy Baxley, who serves as liaison between the village and the school district, worked closely with Johnson while serving as president of the PTA at various schools as well as president of the Council of PTAs. “One thing that stands out is that he would attend the monthly meetings with the PTA presidents,” Baxley said. “He heard our concerns, and would work collaboratively to come up with solutions. That doesn’t happen in other districts.”
She said she has come to respect Johnson tremendously over the years, and has enjoyed being able to continue working with him as liaison.
Darren Raymar, principal at William S. Covert Elementary School, who has worked with Johnson for 21 years, views him as a mentor and someone he has great admiration for. “He’s the only superintendent I’ve ever known,” Raymar said. “He’s really transformed this district. He’s a strong proponent that every child should have access to the same programs, the same curriculum. Every child is expected to learn and given the same opportunities, and in many districts, that just doesn’t happen.”
Because of Johnson’s advocacy for equity in education, the district has moved toward the inclusion model, with no self-contained classrooms. He has said he believes that every child should be given the same opportunity, regardless of disability or socio-economic standing.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that all kids can learn at high levels,” Johnson said, “as long as you have high expectations that essentially are equal across every population of child that you have in the school district.”
District administrators and teachers, he said, have created a system that has helped increase student achievement over the years. “I can count on one hand the number of kids who leave us each year without the skills to continue their education,” he said.
As a boss, Raymar said, Johnson is there to advise, but he lets principals maintain some creative control of programs. “As long as you keep student growth as your guiding principle,” Raymar said, “he’s extremely supportive.”
Of course, all good things must come to an end. In late August, Johnson announced his retirement, effective at the end of this school year. While many have expressed their disappointment and tears have been shed, the community has been supported his decision. The Board of Education immediately began the search for his successor, which is continuing.
“When he announced his retirement, the entire auditorium stood up and clapped for him,” Raymar recalled. “I cried — he’s loved.”
Several years ago, however, Johnson made a similar announcement that was not taken well. At a school board meeting in January 2017, a month after the news became public that he had submitted his resignation, dozens of community members expressed their displeasure with the decision, which came after failed contract negotiations. Some of them wore T-shirts that read, “Keep RVC Schools Great! Keep Dr. J,” with Johnson’s picture in the middle.
At the time, Johnson planned to retire on June 30, 2018. His contract was set to expire at the end of the 2016-17 school year, but the board had given him a one-year extension, according to its president at the time, Mark Masin. On Sept. 6, 2017, however, it was announced that his contract had been extended to June 30, 2020.
“Dr. Johnson represents the voice of all of our children,” said Viri Pettersen, president of the Rockville Centre Teachers’ Association. “He possesses a wealth of knowledge, and is well regarded by all educators.”
Throughout the state, Johnson is known for his advocacy as well. “Everybody associates Rockville Centre with Bill Johnson,” Raymar said. “He’s really renowned, like a rock star.”
Johnson has become an expert on state aid over the years, serving as chair of the State Aid Data Analysis Group for three decades. He has also served on the Salerno Commission on Financial Reform and the Governor’s Education Reform Commission, and is a past president of the Nassau County and New York State Council of School Superintendents and a co-chair of the state Council of School Superintendents’ Curriculum Committee. He was named the state’s Superintendent of the Year in 2005.
“I have an insatiable appetite for getting involved with either organizations or activities that I believe intersect with our school district that deal with laws or regulations that will have a direct impact on the students of Rockville Centre,” Johnson said. “It’s been a fascinating and interesting odyssey on my part to be exposed to the incredible variety of communities that we have in the state of New York, and trying to come up with solutions for treating each one equitably.”
Equity is an issue at all levels, he said, from the village to the state to the entire country. “There are incredible gaps in various subgroups in our population nationwide,” he said. “I won’t say we’ve done it perfectly, but if you take a look at our disaggregated data, you’ll find that those gaps don’t exist here in Rockville Centre.”
Those gaps have closed during his tenure. “When I first came here, we had under 10 percent of special education population graduating with Regents diplomas,” he said. “It’s now about 97 percent.”
He added, “It took a long time to get there, and we have to continue to look at what we do and reinvent ourselves over and over and over again to make sure kids have the opportunity, we have the expectations and that we both have the resources to get that job done.”
Johnson’s dedication has been recognized by various organizations in recent months. He was an honoree at the Rockville Centre Guild for the Arts Guiding Light Gala in October, and will be honored at the Education Foundation’s gala in March. Cerruto said that Johnson is the only person the foundation has honored twice in the 30 years it has held its gala, but foundation members wanted to commemorate his career.
“It’s a diverse group, so for everyone to agree isn’t an easy process,” she said, “but in this case, it was a no-brainer.”
For the Herald, he was the obvious choice for Person of the Year, and others agreed. “The . . . Board of Education is so proud of Dr. Johnson’s outstanding accomplishments over the past 40 years in our district,” board President Tara Hackett said. “It seems only fitting that he be named Person of the Year as he prepares for his retirement after 33 years as superintendent. His commitment to the children of Rockville Centre is an inspiration to us all. From early on in his career, he believed that all children can succeed, and he built the [district] around this foundation. Providing opportunities for all students will be his legacy, and we know is the thing he is most proud of.”
Johnson and his wife, Mary Anne, have been married for 52 years, and they have two sons, Billy and Tommy, and four grandchildren, one of whom attends Riverside Elementary School. Though he will have more time to spend with them, with his retirement still six months away, Johnson said he plans to keep focusing on what he has been doing every day for the past 33 years, and not think about what will come next.
“This is where my heart is,” he said. “I’m sad that I’m leaving, but it’s time.”