Johnson High School earned a U.S. News & World Report bronze award this year for its academic programs, ranking it among the best 19 high schools in Georgia.
The school recently celebrated the implementation of the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and students’ writing test scores exceed many neighboring schools in the district.
Yet a dozen parents of Johnson High School students showed up at the Hall County school board meeting this past week to beg one question of the board: What can you do to help us improve Johnson High School’s deteriorating reputation?
Brian Sloan, the South Hall representative on the Hall County school board, said parents of Johnson High School students have been mulling the question over for months. He said some parents have even withdrawn their children from Johnson High School and its feeder middle school, South Hall Middle School, voicing the lack of student and parent athletic involvement.
Tane Shannon, parent of a Johnson High School athlete, was among the small crowd that approached the board for help Monday.
"I really care about this school. I love Johnson High School," Shannon told the school board. "I don’t want to put on another jersey on Friday nights."
Sloan, a Johnson graduate and parent of three children who have or will attend Johnson, said despite Johnson High School’s academic achievements, the school is struggling to fend off a "tarnished" reputation. Sloan said Johnson High School made "Adequate Yearly Progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind mandate last school year, but South Hall Middle School did not due to poor test performances from specific subgroups.
"Parents want their children to be successful in high school and have just this great experience — a great social experience as well as a great academic experience," he said. "Right now we have great academic experiences at (Johnson High and South Hall Middle schools), but we’re having concerns about the social and athletic experiences."
Sloan said in the past few years, some members of the South Hall community have had a perception of Johnson High and South Hall Middle schools that the schools are "lesser somehow" than Flowery Branch High School.
It’s true, said Johnson High School Principal Damon Gibbs, that Johnson High School’s student body is more than 40 percent Hispanic. And the school building itself is more than 35 years old.
Sloan said it’s also true that the Johnson High School building is "aging rapidly," especially when compared to its sparkling 7-year-old neighbor Flowery Branch High School.
Sloan said he was a freshman at Johnson High School the year it opened. As a board member, he said he is very invested in Johnson High School and the school board has recently poured nearly $4 million into the school to "spruce it up."
"I think sometimes we do get a bad rap in the community for whatever reason," Gibbs said. "... Is that because of the Hispanic population? I don’t really know.
"However, we do have the largest Hispanic population in Hall County and the lowest participation rate for our football program in the county."
He said about 32 varsity football players dressed out for the Johnson High School Knights’ last game, compared to the more than 100 Flowery Branch High School Falcons who dressed out for their last game.
"Sometimes (our Latino students) don’t have as much interest in traditional sports that Johnson High School has been involved in," Sloan said. "I think we can build bridges there and involve that population.
"You’ve got to understand how important athletics and extracurricular activities are to some of these families. The parents that have been the most vocal with me are parents of athletes and are concerned Johnson High School cannot draw the numbers of athletes they might because of the multiculturalism, with students who might not be interested in football or basketball."
Gibbs said the participation issue goes further than the South’s traditional flagship sports.
"We’re not just talking about football," he said. "... We want our parents and students more involved in everything. We don’t have the participation rates we want in chorus."
Gibbs said he believes the school isn’t facing a huge problem, but he does aim to work with parents, the school board and school system administrators to increase student participation and parent involvement in athletics and extracurricular activities. He said studies show when students participate in extracurricular activities, high school graduation rates improve.
Gibbs said last year, Johnson High School graduated more than 75 percent of its students, which is above the state average. The 2007-2008 graduation rate for the school was up from the previous year’s 64.2 percent graduation rate, he said.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, school system administrators said they plan to work with administrators in Whitfield County, who successfully boosted participation rates with a similar ethnic population. Alan Long, principal of Southeast Whitfield High School, said for the past five years the school has hosted a parent night for only Latino families every fall and spring.
Long said the school’s ESOL — English speakers of other languages — teachers call Latino students’ parents to inform them of the night the school arranges just for them. At the meetings, teachers and administrators tell Latino parents about the basic structure of American public schools, highlighting the array of athletic opportunities and extracurricular activities available to their children.
"We emphasize that their students’ success goes hand in hand with their participation in extracurricular activities," Long said.
Gibbs, who met with Long last week, said he is also planning to meet with parents on the school councils of the schools that feed into Johnson High School in an effort to reach out to them and build extracurricular participation in the South Hall school district from the ground up.
Sloan said he aims to bridge the gap between South Hall Middle School and Johnson High School’s athletic programs to make the transition more smooth.
"I think we’ll see from these meetings we’re going to find some success. ... We’re going to do some things to get our numbers up and to get our kids excited about what we’re doing here at Johnson High School," Gibbs said. "We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to meet the needs of our kids."
Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said in the past 10 years, Johnson High School has transformed from a "predominately, overwhelmingly Caucasian affluent school" to "having a lot of immigrant children."
"And I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I think (the school’s community) is a little in shock because it’s changed so much in the last decade," he said. "And I think the challenge for us is how we assimilate the changes and how we energize that community to get involved with their school and get participation in those extracurriculars and get kids interested in what’s going on outside of the classroom. And that’s certainly a doable thing."
Gibbs, school board members and system administrators said they plan to sit down with South Hall parents in the next few weeks to review methods to boost community involvement.
"What we’ve got to let the community know is we don’t care where you came from, don’t care what your native language is, you are welcome at Johnson High School. We want you at Johnson High School," Gibbs said. "What we’ve got to do as a coaching staff, as a school, is we’ve got to get outside the walls of the school and into the community."