Introducing Collegiate Baton Rouge’s New Principal: Sam Johnson

By Myeia Donald, Abramson Sci Academy Class of 2019

Collegiate Academies is thrilled to officially welcome Sam Johnson to her new role as School Leader of Collegiate Baton Rouge, as of January 2022! Johnson was a founding team member at CBR, helping to lead the school to an unmatched record of student academic growth: in every year since its founding, CBR has been #1 among all open-enrollment high schools located in East Baton Rouge Parish on measures of annual academic progress. 

Collegiate alum Myeia Donald (Abramson Sci Academy, Class of 2019) recently spoke with Johnson to learn more about her leadership journey. Johnson shared the path that brought her to Collegiate, her vision for CBR (and schools more broadly), her passion for growth, and the impact she aspires to have on the world, starting in Baton Rouge.

The transcript of their conversation is below and includes minor edits for length and clarity. 

How would you describe yourself now compared to when you were a student in
high school?

The first word that comes to mind is different! When I was in high school I was really into social justice issues and I strongly believed  in the power that folks, as individuals, had to change their life trajectories. I believed the main thing standing in the way for people was lack of awareness and access to information. While that is part of it,  I was also  very naïve about the systems and structures that exist to make this change really complex and challenging.  I think now I feel a lot more grounded in the work and I understand why it’s called work. This work is something you constantly have to remind yourself why it’s important and really have to energize yourself to do.  

What is one thing that you wish someone had told you right after high school?

I wish they told me how much relationships matter. I think I heard it colloquially: “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.” Things like that. But I had no idea how important it was to have a network and sustain relationships and really learn to connect with people as people first. I was and I am a pretty introverted person. I love my team and our students, but since I’m not the most extroverted I had to get creative about building connections and I had to learn a lot of tough lessons in my career. People need to feel connected to you and I wish more  people had talked to me about that as I was heading to college. 

Describe the path you took after graduating from high school up until now.

I graduated from high school and then I went to Stanford for undergrad. I was the first of my family to go to college. I chose Stanford because my principal — who I had a really close relationship with at the time — and his wife went to Stanford. I remember really clearly that we went to Stanford  on a college trip my sophomore year  and he said to me, “I can see you here.” And from then on,  I was like okay I’m going to Stanford.. That was where I was going to go. Miraculously I got in and I went.  During my time in college I experienced a ton of culture shock and even more  imposter syndrome. I had many moments where I thought: I just can’t do this. I thought I was academically prepared, but I definitely wasn’t. I had a lot of feelings about that. 

But then I eventually graduated… and I didn’t have a job. I put all my eggs in one basket and they said no. So I moved back home. And as I was reflecting on my life  I went  back to my charter network, where I had gone to high school, and I told them I did all the things that you told me to do and I don’t have a job.So I asked for help and they  hired me. I ended up working there for a year as a founding fellow at a middle school that they just opened. During that time  I taught girls PE and I did operations and I just wore a lot of hats. I also worked at a campaign strategy firm for a little under a year and I really liked it. It was a lot of fun, but I’m a very routines oriented person and this kind of work was seasonal. So I decided to go all in on education and decided  if I’m going to end up doing this education thing for real, I want to go to places that are doing really well and innovating. I want to learn from the best. 

So I moved and  ended up doing a  year of service in  Boston (because I really thought I wanted to experience all four seasons, it's very overrated). While I was in Boston I did Match Corps with little kids (third and fourth graders) and I was like this is really cute, they give a lot of hugs,  and they draw you pictures. But I was like this isn’t it for me. Middle school or higher is where my heart lies. An awesome side effect of that year was that  I fell in love with intervention.   I was part of a tutoring corps and I worked with kids who were 3 to 4 grade levels behind and through that small group intervention they grew so quickly and I was like, why isn’t everyone doing this?

After my year of service, Collegiate Academies first came on my radar, I interviewed for a role, came out to New Orleans  and was able to learn a lot about CA and I loved my experience. But I was applying for a lot of roles. One of the other roles that I was applying for was to be a tutorial director of a program that was very similar to the one I just finished and that was in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I ended up getting that job and joining a founding team at a charter network out there. I joined that leadership team that year and had a really tough year because it was in a smaller city that never really had charter schools. It was a high school only charter school — which I'm really committed to — but high school only charter schools come with a lot of unique challenges that can make culture really challenging. I was in New Bedford for three years and during my second year I became the Vice Principal and I was teaching leader.  

At the start of my third year, it was clear it was time for me to move on. The work I was doing wasn't something that I could see myself being happy doing long term. I wanted to go somewhere where I felt the culture was really positive and where it didn’t snow. I also really wanted to live in the south because I really wanted to work somewhere where I could work with Black teachers. At my school in New England, I was the only Black teammate for a little over a year and we never had any  Black teachers. The other Black folks that join the team were in support roles. I wanted to work with Black teachers and I also really want to unapologetically work with the Black kids. So I  knew I needed to move to the South. I reached out to Ben [Marcovitz] again because I was transitioning and I had had such an amazing experience three years prior. So then I really was shooting for New Orleans, one of my favorite cities. But then he introduced me to Kelsey Lambrecht [Collegiate Baton Rouge’s Founding School Leader] and she convinced  me into moving to Baton Rouge instead. 

So, in 2017, I moved into Baton Rouge and became a Founding Dean of Students [at CBR]. And my first year was a whirlwind . At this point, CA was the fourth charter network that I worked at. While there were some similarities and a lot of things were  very different. The culture was so feedback heavy, which I loved. I’m a huge fan of growing. I want to grow. I want to  be the best and I want to have the tools to do that, but the first year was really tough. But I ended the year feeling like I grew and was becoming a better version of myself.  Our second year was definitely my hardest year at CA — one of my hardest years in education. And then in the third year, I finally hit a flow. My team was rolling and we were making progress. I was finally getting the restorative approaches down. I was feeling really good. I fell in love with my founding Class of 2021 — 2021 will always have my heart. And then COVID happened and that was really awful for all of the reasons that all of us know. At the start of the 2021 school year my School Leader (Kelsey) told me that she was wrapping up and she asked me to apply to be the school leader. A lot of unpredictable things happened between then and where we are now. But I ended up accepting the job and now I’m getting ready to take over in January.

Describe what made you want to be a teacher for Collegiate Baton Rouge.

One of the big points that really compelled me to come to CBR was a statistic that  Kelsey had shared with me that the graduation rate for Black boys in the city is about 50 percent. And I was just like, wow, that just seems criminal.  This city needs really amazing schools. I also believed in Kelsey and I believed in her vision for what the school could be, what we could accomplish as a team. I believe that CBR has the ability to change how some kids experience school for the better and I wanted to be part of that.. Those are my big reasons for coming and staying.

What did Collegiate Baton Rouge offer you professionally or personally that you believe you couldn’t get at any other school?

I say this and it sounds super wild and a little unbelievable. Working with Collegiate made me a better person. I’m just a better human when I think about myself in 2017 versus where I am now as a person and professional. I'm just undeniably better. One of the first signs that this was a place for me was when I got feedback that I have gotten my whole career: folks find me a little intimidating or not personable enough and they’re not sure how to connect with me.  I agreed with the feedback, but nobody really told me how to fix it. They were just like this is true for you. So I’d gotten into this very fixed mindset about myself and I was just like I’m not gonna be able to grow there. Wherever I’m gonna go, they're just gonna take it or leave it. 

In my first year at Collegiate working with Kelsey and she was giving me the feedback that I had kind of heard before. She was like, “Do you know what? Let’s try this thing.” She was like when I see you and if you seem checked out or uninterested, we’re going to have a cue and I’m just going to ask you, “Are you okay?” And that’s going to be the cue for you that you’re doing that thing. And I was like okay. The first couple of times she did it, I just realized how unaware I was of how I was showing up in spaces in the moment. Like I wouldn’t even be aware of how folks were perceiving me. From that first action step I was able to grow a ton in it and then the feedback started changing. 

I can change and grow here. I can get better at things here. They’re not just gonna tell me the things that they need me to fix, they're going to tell me how to fix them. I do really inherently believe that if you’re working at a school that you wanna be sustainably successful, it has to be a place where adults can grow too. Because if adults aren’t growing, kids aren’t growing. Just my commitment to growth and my belief that [CBR] figured out something that other folks are still trying to learn is what really kept me here.

Do you have anything that you would like to share with people who are considering applying for a job at Collegiate school?

I would just say if you want to become the best version of yourself as an educator and if you want to really challenge what you believe is possible for adults and kids, Collegiate is the place you want to go. If you want to achieve things that you don’t yet even know are possible, then this is the place to work. You have to be ready and willing to do the work. Our most successful teammates are the ones who make that decision really intentionally and then just go all in and trust the process and are just ready to grow.

Describe the impact that you have had to date on the school and students in your prior roles at CBR.

My main role has been Dean of Students, but I also taught English I, II, and AP Language to the same cohort of kids: 2021. For some kids I was their only English teacher for three years, which was a fulfilling  thing for all of us to experience.  As Dean of Students, I was really able to contribute to flushing out what restorative approaches look like in action for kids and community. I came up with a lot of processes for returning to the community — a ton of trial and error there. Some return to community plans I was really proud of, even to this day, about how they worked. But I also feel like I failed this kid or that family because we tried all these things and they didn’t work. But I think the return and community process — it was definitely a big one for me. Also just figuring out how to push my team’s thinking about what’s equitable and what’s not. 

I think something that makes CBR really special is our team and their ability to reflect and make changes. This is especially true when it comes to Restorative Approaches. Many of us  are  unknowingly holding onto punitive mindsets.  Restorative approaches are very easy to believe in on paper. You think, of course I’m against the student to prison pipeline. Of course kids deserve a chance. Of course kids should self reflect. But when you’re in a classroom and a kid calls you an expletive, it’s harder in that moment for you to be like we just need to repair that harm. 

I think I’ve done a lot of work to get folks to start unpacking that and consider why [they] think that a kid should be suspended for something like that. To ask: why do you think that when we know suspensions don’t work? We all agree they don’t work, so why do you believe so strongly they should be or why do you feel like fighting is an expellable offense? So just having a lot more of those conversations, figuring out where that comes from, and just reiterating to folks that we all grew up and were socialized in an extremely punitive society so it only makes sense that some of our first instincts are really punitive. We have to unlearn those things. 

As the Dean of Students and a really amazing team of behavioral interventionists, I think, during this pandemic, I was able to really unlock what it means to grow folks in a different skill set; grow folks who are not teachers. Because I think Collegiate does a really great job of growing teachers and some middle level leaders. But when it comes to some of our more support staff or folks that are in those roles, I think we have a ton of room to grow in how we support them. I think I was able to make a lot of headway there.

Describe the impact you want to have on the school and students as a principal.

I really want Collegiate Baton Rouge to be a proof point for what’s possible for all kids in Baton Rouge when you are a truly inclusive, open-enrollment school; when you can truly take any kid in the city and you can grow them and they can meet absolute bars and they can achieve limitless potential. They can come here and they can still be struggling with things. You can come here your freshman year and maybe struggling with your impulse control. So maybe you get into a fight or two. That doesn’t mean that you’re a bad kid. It doesn’t mean that you can’t go to college. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have an amazing impact on your community and in the world. We can be the place that lets you practice and lets you grow and lets you make mistakes. Because one reason I’m really committed to high school only charter schools is that I think for many  kids, especially Black kids, their childhood just gets cut so short. It’s like, if you don’t get it by sixth grade then you’re on this path you can’t get off. If you didn’t test into the magnet, if your behavior record is a bit spotty, then you’re not gonna get into a good high school, which has huge impacts on where you can end up. 

I want to make sure that we’re a school where kids can make mistakes and can get back on track and where they still can achieve their dreams. And, also, a place where kids just academically excel and have support into academic excellence. I want us to truly be a community school. I think charter schools are often not based in the community and can seem kind of outside. I want to figure out how we can be a school that is seen as a community school. I really want to unlock parent engagement. I think our parents work really, really hard and they have a really tough job. I want them to feel seen and appreciated by us as educators and really be seen as partners in this work. I want to accomplish a lot of things.

Describe what your impact will be on the world.

I want to create a life changing school — a school that changes kids lives for the better and just changes trajectories for the better. But I also do think I want to be a part of something that just transforms how schools in the U.S. approach discipline in a way that is more fair and equitable and could succeed outside of their four years or so of high school. I think that’s a really big impact that I want to have on this world we’re in.