Elgin principal is passionate about summer reading

Steve Johnson is known in Elgin Area School District U-46 as a "super involved principal, attending summer reading events each week every summer with his school as well as summer field trips and much more."

Johnson, who has led Highland Elementary School in Elgin for 13 years, began his career with District U-46 in 1991 as school social worker, and became a principal in 2004. He holds a bachelor of arts in sociology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master of social work from Aurora University, and has done additional graduate work at several local universities.

His community involvement includes a stint as chairman of the board of the local YMCA as well as work with the United Way of Elgin.

The Daily Herald caught up with this experienced leader to learn how he achieves his goal of "raising every child's trajectory."

Q. You are known for your involvement in Highland's summer reading program. Please explain what you do to encourage kids to read over the summer, why summer reading is so important, and how the program has succeeded.

Steve Johnson. Highland has had the highest percentage of summer reading completion for the past five years. We start by educating students and parents about why it matters.

There is replicated research that students who read regularly over the summer maintain or gain spring reading levels. Of students who do not read, there is often a decrease in spring reading levels. So we are working to maintain or improve spring reading levels.

A great part of the success is the great work of the Gail Borden Public Library. They have great programs and supports for summer reading and engage and partner with schools in many ways. Highland has had a weekly program for the past seven years. We call it Highland Thursday. Here, we gather with students and families to read together in both Spanish and English. Attendance ranges from about 50 to 90 each week. This is a great school community building activity.

We monitor which students are completing summer reading logs and turning them in and remind them to complete it. We celebrate when students turn in their logs. And we have a bulletin board up now at the school where each child who finished the reading program can put up an astronaut or space ship with their name. This is related to the summer reading theme.

Finally, the competition helps. We use the trophy and competition with other schools to increase motivation.

Q. What issues do you see in your community that create challenges in children's education, and what steps do you take to help alleviate them?

Johnson. Over 50 percent of our students are English Language Learners. Our Dual Language program in U-46 honors that students do not need to lose a language to learn a language.

We also offer the program as two-way so that students who are not identified as English Language Learners can be in these classrooms and learn in two languages. Our achievement scores in reading in English are impacted by the amount of students whose first language is Spanish.

Other (issues) include poverty and mobility. We have community partnerships for food (even over the weekends), for shoes, school supplies and other needs. While these are not the only impact of poverty, we do work to lessen the effect. We also have federal Title I funds, which we use for academic intervention as well as enrichment programs that students would not have access to otherwise.

Connecting families to community supports is essential. And our work with the Gail Borden Library is an example - helping families connect to programs that are offered at no cost. We also work to promote leadership and service opportunities for students so they can use these skills for future learning and to access other programs such as the Elgin Youth Leadership Academy.

Q. How effective are bullying prevention programs and PBIS?

Johnson. PBIS stand for Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports. This is a nationwide program that has a significant research base (seven major universities). Highland has been at the highest level of implementation for over five years. We also were the first school in Illinois to implement a research-based bully prevention program developed by the PBIS network and we have presented workshops at state and national levels for this program and other parts of our PBIS program.

The PBIS program allows us to focus on expectations along with supports. Discipline at school is part of the learning for students. We want them to be able to develop skills for lifelong success and that includes skills in self-regulation of behavior.

This is social-emotional learning. The program includes a means for students to be assertive when there are uncomfortable interactions such as bullying. It also addresses the role of bystanders in preventing bully type behavior.

There is a significant amount of evidence that the PBIS programs decrease unsafe and nonproductive behavior. As misconduct occurs, we increase supports all the way up to wrap around plans where a family creates a team and works to support increases in appropriate behaviors in all areas of the child's life.

We have seen referrals go down over our 12 years of implementation. But we also have a significant amount of anecdotal evidence of significant changes in student behavior and academic outcomes.

Q. What would you most like to accomplish as principal of Highland?

Johnson. This year the mantra to our team is that we are raising every child's trajectory. No matter where they are heading right now, our mission is to increase the outcomes. Move some out of poverty, move some into gifted programs, move some to have the skills and experiences to receive grants and scholarships, move some to learn behaviors for appropriate and safe behavior in all areas of their life. We will increase the outcomes for every child.

Q. If you had to give parents one piece of advice, what would it be?

Johnson. Show up. When you attend events that your child is involved in (such as school events), you model that it is important. Then your child will find it important. Show up for art exhibitions, for sporting events, for band and orchestra concerts. Just show up and you will learn with your child.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.