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Tommy Johnson, principal of Oak Ridge High School, reflects on his career as retirement draws near

May 5, 2019

Tommy Johnson has eight similar-looking pins from Conroe Indepenent School District: each pin represents five years of service in the district. Some people may have that many years of service in education, he says, but not a lot of people have them all in one district.

As Johnson’s career in the district winds down, he sat down with The Villager to reflect on the past 41 years, where the high school is headed under new leadership and what’s next for him in retirement.

QUESTION: Where are you from and what brought you to Conroe ISD?

JOHNSON: I’m originally from a little community outside of Crockett, Texas, called Latexo. I graduated from college on a Saturday morning in August 1978, I got married that night and then moved to Conroe on Sunday and went to work at Washington Junior High on Monday morning…41 years ago. And I’ve been here ever since.

QUESTION: What prompted all of that at once?

JOHNSON: I didn’t have a job, and my college roommate had gotten a job here in Conroe. One of the junior high coaches had resigned, and my roommate called me and told me to apply. I started there as a football and basketball coach teaching Texas history.

QUESTION: What was your progression through the years?

JOHNSON: I was at Washington Junior High for two years, then I was the freshman football and basketball coach there at Conroe High for 21 years. During that time, I became the head basketball coach in 1988 until 1998. Then, I became an assistant principal, and in 2001 I joined Dr. Chris Hines at Oak Ridge High School as the associate principal and then in 2003 I became the principal here at Oak Ridge High School.

QUESTION: Did you always know you wanted to be in education and coaching?

JOHNSON: Early on, I knew. In high school, I always enjoyed school, so I knew from early on that I wanted to be in education.

QUESTION: What have you enjoyed most about your career?

JOHNSON: I’ve enjoyed every aspect of my career. I love coaching when I did that, it was fantastic. I have fabulous memories of all the players, and I developed great relationships with the community through that. Being an administrator has been very, very rewarding. To come to Oak Ridge as principal has been a huge task, but it’s been rewarding. Anytime you take a campus from around 1,900 students to 4,400 students, you’re going to have lots of issues. But, through all of that, it’s been a wonderful journey.

QUESTION: Did that growth happen underneath your leadership?

JOHNSON: Yes, we were growing about 200 students per year for the last 10 to 12 years. When ExxonMobil came in, it sped up tremendously. That’s the hardest thing to do as a principal, to decide how you establish an organization that has so much change. Some years you bring in 50 new teachers, so you always have that change of staff. That’s been a challenge for us, but we’ve been really successful at it. And, adding that many kids every year, trying to bring them into your culture and how you do things. . It’s been a wonderful journey for me. Just being in this one district for the entire time, I’ve seen it grow and change tremendously.

QUESTION: How would you describe the culture here?

JOHNSON: What’s special about Oak Ridge is that we are so kid-friendly. I think it comes from the view that we value all kids, and we believe that all kids can learn. From that basic belief, we bring people in who like kids. The kids react to that: they have a feeling of belonging and understand that people care about them and are trying to help them in any way possible.

QUESTION: What prompts your retirement now?

JOHNSON: After 41 years, and I feel like Oak Ridge is in a great place. We’ve increased our advanced placement participation—even though the student population increased 38 to 39%, we’ve increased our advanced placement participation in those harder classes by 125%. We’ve raised our SAT scores 57 points overall and have raised African-American students’ scores 80 points.

With what we’ve done with the High Reliability Organization Model and the Marzano Foundation , I feel like it’s the answer. In the last three or four years, it has made a tremendous difference in my campus that we now know how we want things taught. We never had a clear picture of that in the past. We knew what good teaching was, but we never had a model of instruction to follow like we have now. There is an art to it, but there’s also a science to it. You have to be able to control people, motivate people, get them to learn. There is a science in how to teach, and that’s what’s come to the forefront for us.

I think we’re in a great place and I feel that it’s time for someone else to take it on.

QUESTION: Speaking of your replacement, where do you see Oak Ridge headed? Even though you won’t be the principal anymore, how are you excited for the school’s future?

JOHNSON: Dr. (Anthony “AJ”) Livecchi was an outstanding choice (to become principal at Oak Ridge). He understands us, he’s been with us, he has the same belief system and values that Oak Ridge has. The community needs to understand that they’ll be very fortunate for their child to come to Oak Ridge High School under his leadership.

QUESTION: Do you plan to stick around? What are your plans as far as involvement with Oak Ridge once you retire?

JOHNSON: My plan at first is to get away and let Dr. Livecchi establish himself. But, I’ll always be checking in on Oak Ridge and the kids and seeing where we’re going, because I have invested so much time and effort into it, and we’ve been so successful in many areas—from the fine arts to career and technical education, to the athletics. So, I have a lot of relationships with the staff and the kids. I’ll always be coming back and checking on them, making sure they’re doing OK.

QUESTION: What are you looking forward to in retirement?

JOHNSON: The main thing I’m going to do is try to spoil my grandchildren. I have two hobbies, golfing. Going to try to golf a little bit. And I’m an avid hunter, so I’m going to take a safari to Africa and go to South Africa next April and see what that’s like. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m looking forward to taking a safari.

QUESTION: What advice would you give to teachers or staff?

JOHNSON: My advice to young teachers is to realize that it needs to be a calling. You have to like people. We’re in the people business. You have to know what you believe, and it has to be about kids. That’s what’s made me successful, and I believe in kids. That’s what’s guided me through my entire career. Other than that, it’s just hard work, showing up every day.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com