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Surprised Crook County schools leader Dr. Sara Johnson named Oregon’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year

Dr. Sara Johnson emphasizes the importance of collaboration in leadership

(Update: Adding video, comments from Johnson, COSA official)

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson was shocked to find out that what she was walking into Wednesday morning wasn’t at all what she thought it was.

In a surprise announcement surrounded by students, staff, and community members at Crook County High School, Johnson was officially recognized as Oregon’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year.

“Oh my gosh, this team -- unbelievable, this team!" Johnson expressed in gratitude. "It isn’t a surprise to me that we’re successful. It is a surprise that I’m the superintendent of such a successful district."

Representatives from the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) made the trip from Salem to present the prestigious award for outstanding leadership in four essential areas: Leadership for Learning, Communication, Professionalism, and Community Involvement. Dr. Johnson will now be in the running for national Superintendent of the Year.

“It is astounding, overwhelming. I look at my team and I think, 'They're amazing.' You just don’t do it alone, you know," Johnson said.

In highlighting one of the many reasons Johnson was selected, COSA Deputy Executive Director Krista Parent said, "It’s never about her, it’s always about doing the best for her kids. She’s an ever-learner. She is always seeking new learning for herself in a way that she can help all the people that she works with also improve."

In light of the celebration, Parent read aloud what different nominators had to say about Johnson.

“Dr. Johnson has prioritized creating a safe and secure learning environment, where it is safe to take risks and where failure becomes an opportunity for growth. She does this not just by hardening the exterior of our schools to make them safer, but by softening the hearts of those inside those schools."

Johnson is now in the running for National Superintendent of the Year.

Here's the rest of the school district's news release on the honor:

The award is a crowning achievement for the district, as Crook County High School Principal Michelle Jonas was Oregon’s Secondary Principal of the Year last year and CCHS Athletic Director Rob Bonner 5A Athletic Director of the Year. School Board Chair Jessica Ritter says awards like this are possible when exemplary leadership exists at the top.

“I was thrilled earlier this year that our high school received so much attention when their administration team, principal, and athletic director all received state-wide recognition for their achievements. I am blown away by this crowning achievement for our whole district, recognizing we have the best superintendent in the state,” said Ritter.

“Crook County is fortunate to have a leader like Dr. Sara Johnson at the helm during the pandemic and after. I believe we soared above the rest due to her problem-solving abilities, creativity, and grit. As a mother, I am grateful. As a school board member, I am proud.”

Dr. Johnson was recognized for many successes, including safely reopening schools during the pandemic before most other schools in Oregon, increasing the graduation rate at Crook County High School to 98%, successfully opening Steins Pillar Elementary School, creating a new hybrid learning program called Grizzly Mountain HomeLink, prioritizing improved school culture, and giving more voice to students and staff through yearly surveys and initiatives.

Those results have also led to consecutive years of enrollment growth, when many districts face declines, the school district said.

Long-time school board member Doug Smith says Dr. Johnson’s constant collaboration with the school board and community stakeholders during the pandemic led to districtwide improvements that are now considered “COVID Keepers.”

“Dr. Johnson’s decisive and collaborative leadership has led to unprecedented gains within the district. I believe we have the best superintendent in the state,” said Smith.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joel Hoff said he is proud to have his own children in the district and works directly with Dr. Johnson on student assessment, school culture, and other improvement initiatives. He says her unwavering commitment to excellence is paying off.

“Her leadership has reshaped the possibilities for what a small rural school district can achieve when combining quality leadership with a well-communicated vision for the future. The data clearly shows that achievement, school culture, and satisfaction of students and families have improved since Dr. Johnson arrived in Crook County,” explained Dr. Hoff. 

Prineville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kim Daniels is the mother of two students and said she appreciates Dr. Johnson’s steady leadership during turbulent times.

"Dr. Johnson has not only been an amazing superintendent and leader of our school district, but she has also been a valuable community partner for Crook County. This recognition is well deserved," mentioned Daniels.

Dr. Johnson was born and raised in Burns and has taught or led in mostly rural Oregon schools throughout her career.

One of her new priorities is to help overcome the mental health challenges many young students are facing post-COVID. She is currently enrolled in a program at George Fox University pursuing a degree in Child Psychology in hopes of leaving a lasting legacy of healthy students.


And here is the Coalition of Oregon School Administrator's announcement:

Crook County School’s Dr. Sara Johnson named Oregon Superintendent of the Year for 2023

(Salem, Ore.) The Oregon Association of School Executives (OASE) and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) have named Dr. Sara Johnson, Superintendent at Crook County School District, (CCSD), the 2023 Oregon Superintendent of the Year. This award automatically places Johnson in the running for National Superintendent of the Year awarded by the American Association of School Administrators.

Johnson has been superintendent at CCSD since 2018 and has already left an indelible mark.  Her philosophy is that all students will learn, that all voices will be heard, and that behind every data point is a face and a name.  It is personal for Johnson, and every student matters.  Under her leadership, CCSD’s 4-year graduation rates have grown to 98.17%, the top 1% in the state, and the graduation rate for students receiving special education services is 88%, as compared to the state average of 66%.  Her leadership has created an environment where students can thrive and feel connected. 

“Dr. Johnson’s decisive and collaborative leadership has lead to unprecedented gains in our District,” said School Board member Doug Smith.

Johnson’s commitment to improvement is seen throughout the district.  She has prioritized engaging and communicating with families throughout the district, and began an initiative called “Voices” at every school site where families can give input to the district on topics and issues of importance.  Johnson paid particular attention to assuring the voices of those who were historically underrepresented were heard. She also formed partnerships with community members and local community organizations to gather additional constituent input and lead the work of forming a 501c3 foundation which raised over one million dollars in private investments for the community’s schools.

Innovation is a large part of Johnson’s leadership.  She has worked to engage families K-12 who prefer to educate their children at home, opened a new elementary school based on storyline instruction, and led the growth of the district’s Career Technical Education (CTE) programs in the middle and high school, including CTE internships with local private industry.  Johnson’s leadership and innovation have created a culture of learning, a place to safely take risks where learning opportunities come from both hitting and missing the mark.

“She does this not just by hardening the exterior of our schools to make them safer, but by softening the hearts of those on the inside,” said Sean Corrigan, District Human Resources Director.

Her commitment to continuous improvement is the foundation of her expectation for each staff member in the district to continue their professional growth.  Staff not only have her example but have her support in growing as professionals.  She leads by establishing relationships.  Twice monthly she provides professional learning sessions for each of the district administrators, is a frequent presenter at state conferences for COSA, and OSBA (Oregon School Boards Association), and is pursuing a degree in School Psychology.

Oregon superintendents commended Johnson on her leadership and ability to move a community through the difficult times brought on by the pandemic. 

“I am thrilled to see Sara honored as Superintendent of the Year. She is an experienced leader who delivers consistently strong results for students without fanfare,” said Heidi Sipe, Superintendent of the Umatilla School District. “Her work is student focused and her leadership was unwavering despite the obstacles of COVID. She is a leader for us all to learn from and I appreciate the opportunity to see her shine in the coming year.”

Johnson will be honored at the 2022 Oregon School Boards Association Convention in November, the 2023 OASE Winter Conference in January, the 2022 AASA National Conference in February, and the 2023 COSA Annual Conference in June.

"Dr. Sara Johnson has led the Crook County School District to new levels of staff, student, and community engagement.  Her work in empowering school leaders, teachers, and staff has led to deeper relationships in schools, the community, and stronger graduation outcomes for students," said COSA Executive Director Craig Hawkins.  "COSA is honored to have Dr. Johnson as the 2023 Superintendent of the Year."

Article Topic Follows: Crook County
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Bola Gbadebo

Bola Gbadebo is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Bola here.

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