At a ceremony in Orlando this evening, Apalachicola Bay Charter School Principal Chimene Johnson will be honored for something rare and wonderful, not only for Franklin County and throughout the Panhandle, but for the entire state.

And it will be for an achievement that many even here in the county don’t always realize or acknowledge – the ABC School is populated by students with similar racial and economic backgrounds as the district as a whole.

Based entirely on an objective analysis of the data, with no nominations accepted, Johnson will be among six principals throughout Florida to receive the third annual TaxWatch Principal Leadership Award, the only honor given to those whose schools exceed expected learning gains for at-risk students in low-income, high-risk schools.

It’s a prestigious honor, particularly since the two elementary, two middle school and two high school principals who have earned it were selected from among the state’s more than 3,000 schools.

Recognition is based on an analysis of student gains in reading and mathematics in schools that have high percentages of students with disabilities, students designated as English as a Second Language learners, and those eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch.

“We want to focus on principals working with limited funds, maybe not with the same support and infrastructure as other schools, highlighting those going above and beyond and doing incredible things,” said Morgan L. McCord, a spokesperson for Florida TaxWatch.

Bob Nave, vice president of research for Florida TaxWatch, said the awards program is part of the Florida TaxWatch Principal Leadership Initiative, made possible through a partnership between the Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance & Accountability and the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University.

The goal of the initiative is to improve student achievement in high-risk schools and close the achievement gap by studying the identified principals and changing state policies to reflect their successful practices. 

“These six principals are breaking down barriers to achievement for at-risk students by creating a quality learning environment, hiring and motivating exceptional teachers and working with parents to ensure student success,” said Dominic M. Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research institute. “This year’s honorees prove that by fostering student achievement at the highest levels of school leadership, every student can be successful in the classroom, regardless of race, wealth, zip code, or school zone.”

At the Sept. 10 meeting, the school board honored Johnson, and tonight at Orlando’s Buena Vista Palace, Johnson will be presented a $5,000 financial award sponsored by the Florida Lottery, Kyra Solutions, the J.M. Rubin Foundation, State Farm, Wells Fargo, Brighthouse Networks, BrightStar Credit Union, MAXIMUS, Life Touch and Ajax Construction.

The six principals will also be recognized at the state board of education meeting Oct. 28, with an event at the ABC School also slated for next month.

With 32 years in education, Johnson’s road to today’s award began in Leesburg, Georgia, a town about the size of Apalachicola, in Lee County, in southwest Georgia, near Albany.

Being an educator in her blood

Daughter of a mom who was a special needs educator , and a father who was a civil servant, a Navy veteran. Johnson comes from a long line of educators, including two of her grandparents.

After studying at the University of Georgia and Valdosta State University, she earned a bachelor of science in early childhood education in 1984, and four years later, a masters in elementary education from Georgia Southwest College.

For the next 17 years, she taught kindergarten, first and second grades in her hometown, while she and husband Darren began their family. The South Georgia rural farm community had a high-performing school district, with more than 1,000 students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

In 2001, the family decided to leave Georgia, where Darren Johnson’s father operated a store, and move to Franklin County, where he would run Sellers Tile in Eastpoint.

The move proved to be “a little bit of a culture shock” for daughters Kati-Morgan and Parrish, since they were accustomed to a nearby mall, movie theatres and lots of available extra-curricular opportunities.

Together with Darren, who Chimene calls “her best supporter and cheerleader,”  she did not plan to teach that first year, and set about picking a good educational fit for her daughters.

“I did my research, I knew the school picture. I even toured the campuses unannounced,” Johnson said. “I also knew I could homeschool if necessary.”

But it all worked out, with Parrish going to Brown Elementary, an A school at the time, and Kati-Morgan to Apalachicola Middle School, where she learned from such teachers as Valerie Clayton, Patti Bouington, Vickie Fuentes, and Polly Edmiston, names Johnson can tick off without hesitation.

Kati-Morgan, a 2007 graduate of Apalachicola High School, went on to the University of Florida, and graduated from Florida State University in 2012. Now a teacher at Franklin County High School, she is married to Ricky Hathcock, and the couple has daughter Kaia, 4, and a baby on the way

Daughter Parrish, a 2009 Franklin County High School grad, got her degree from FSU in 2014, and has a son JohnTalon Mathes, 5. She too has begun teaching at FCHS.

As it turned out 14 years ago, Johnson did not remain a stay-at-home mom, and was urged by the wife of the pastor of St George Island UMC Church to interview for a job at the soon-to-be opened ABC School, to be housed at the community center at Battery Park.

Principal Jeff Weiner hired Johnson to teach third grade just two weeks before school opened in fall 2001. She would later move to the first grade, and remained in the classroom until 2004, when principal Don Hungerford asked her to become assistant principal, in charge of reading intervention, curriculum and assessment.

She continued to handle some one-on-one teaching responsibilities, until spring 2010, when she was named principal to succeed Hungerford.

“The vision was already in place. I knew what the vision was,” she said. “It did have a strong foundation, that I was able to perfect.”

‘A stronger rapport and relationship’

If there is any doubt about the success of the ABC School under Johnson’s tenure, Florida’s school grades and results of end-of-course exams have thoroughly dissipated it.

In 2014, for the third year in a row, and the fifth time since 2009, the school earned an A. Its desirability has led to a waiting list of nearly 70 students for grades kindergarten through six, and capacity enrollment of 366 students.

“At first many parents were hesitant because it was a new school, just getting started. Parents are giving their prized possessions when they enroll their children in school,” said Johnson. “Because of continual performance, they have developed more of a trust in what we can provide for their child. We have established a trust in the community that we are teaching all students and educating all students and meeting their needs.”

In addition to that success, Johnson has been able to forge the closest ties yet between ABC and the school district of which it is a part.

“We have developed a stronger rapport and relationship with the Franklin County school system,” she said. “We have Title I grants, we collaborate and we’re part of school turnaround, with a team that shared ideas for best practices.

“Our relationship has strengthened over time and become more amicable,” Johnson said. “There is still some opposition that lingers, but for the most part the relationship is amicable. We’re able to share our needs, and for the most part we work together.”

Part of that change has come about because Johnson, as evidenced by her daughters’ careers, is a firm advocate for students completing their education here, after they’ve left the ABC School after the eighth grade.

“First and foremost, I want every child to get the best education and for Franklin County to be a high-performing district,” she said.

‘What we want is student’s full potential’

Johnson reflected on some of the components that have helped her, working closely with a committed faculty and staff, to make ABC the success it is.

“It takes recognizing every student has different learning styles and learns in different ways,” she said. “You must analyze data (to help) drive their instruction, to help a child understand concepts and master the skills.

“Small group instruction is important,” said Johnson. “And really understanding where a child is in their achievement level, so the instruction is specific to their appropriate level. Assessments are important, and progress monitoring is essential where teachers recognize where students are.”

However, she continued, “testing for testing purposes is not good. It’s when teachers are utilizing and reviewing and analyzing these in order to develop lessons and plans, that’s the key.”

The 52-year-old principal also stressed how important it is for administrators to help mentor teachers, “I look at the talents of my educators and their best placement for instructional purposes, not necessarily where they feel like is their best placement,” she said. “Teacher performance and evaluation is essential, to provide feedback to the teacher on strengths and areas of deficiency that can be molded. Then you know you’re going to retain some quality educators. You will see growth and change, just as you do in a student.”

Johnson said crucial to the success of education is to bring parents into the picture, and to forge ahead with steady improvement.

“Parent involvement is important. You the parent have to be involved educationally with what’s going on,” she said. “It’s growth over time. We don’t expect straight-A students, we don’t expect all 4s and 5s (on standardized tests). What we want is the student’s full potential, socially and emotionally and academically, that’s our mission, to show growth over time, and provide a high-quality education for our students.”