Vail native changing education on the campaign trail |

Vail native changing education on the campaign trail

vail daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Vail Daily/ Kristin AndersonMichael Johnston, an education adviser for Sen. Barack Obama, listens as an audience member asks a question after Johnston's speech about education Wednesday in Vail. Johnston graduated from Vail Mountain School in 1993.

VAIL ” Read through Sen. Barack Obama’s education platform, and you’ll see the influence of Michael Johnston, a 1993 Vail Mountain School graduate.

Johnston is one of Obama’s education advisors, co-author of Obama’s education platform and often speaks on Obama’s behalf on education policy.

He says his life’s work ” as a teacher in a impoverished school in Mississippi, to founder and principal of an innovative school in Thornton, and now as a policymaker on the presidential campaign trail ” really began with his education at Vail Mountain School, his home from first grade to 12th grade.

In headmaster Peter Abuisi’s history class, he became endlessly fascinated and touched by lessons learned from the Civil War, World War II and the civil rights movements ” all stories of how people of the United States sought to change and overcome what was wrong in the world.

“History is something you can touch, history is something you can reach, history is something you can change,” he said.

Johnston describes the school as a place where everyone looks out for each other, where seniors in high school take kindergartners under their wing, where intolerance as unacceptable, and students were taught to not only learn, but to engage the world.

One of his favorite memories is the school’s long-held tradition of doing service work on Martin Luther King Jr. day, when other schools take the day off. He remembers working in a soup kitchen in Denver and meeting a homeless man who, at a better time in his life, was captain of his high school football team.

“What we ought to do is deeply engage in the practices of service,” Johnston said.

It’s the kind of world view that led him to join Teach for America, which places fresh college graduates in struggling, high poverty schools throughout the country. He wrote a book about his experiences teaching Greenville, Miss., called “In the Deep Heart’s Core.”

A few years ago, he founded a school in Thornton called Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, made up mostly of low-income and minority students. While not all of his students will end up attending four-year colleges, gaining admittance to one is a key requirement at his school, which he says sets a high bar of achievement.

Obama said of Johnston, “We need a Mike Johnston in every school.” Johnston was also named one of the top school principals in the Denver area.

Recently, Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts became the first public Colorado school to have 100 percent of its seniors admitted to a four-year college.

“We’re trying as best we can to imitate Vail Mountain School,” Johnston said.

Abuisi said Vail Mountain School still puts a big focus on community and global citizenship, and teaches its students to be active, contributing members of society. He admires how, right after high school, Johnston immediately went to work and acted on his belief system.

“I think part of our responsibilities as educators is to prepare students for an effective role in the world,” Abuisi said. “It won’t be Anglo-centric, and it won’t be with the United States at the hub of the wheel, at least to the degree it was when I was student. Now it’s through partnerships that we’ll be a success.”

Obama platform

Johnston says he’s just one of Obama’s many advisors. They all pitch him ideas, and he keeps what he likes. Obama has a gift, he says, for connecting big policy questions on a national scale to how they affect individual families and schools.

Obama’s education platform places a lot of emphasis on what Johnston calls “human capital.”

He says there’s a lot of great teachers out there ” the trick is getting them to where they’re needed most, and keeping them in the teaching field. One of Obama’s goals will be to make teaching more desirable to bright, intellectually curious professionals, Johnston says.

Expect to see “Teacher Service Scholarships” that cover college costs for teachers if they work in high-poverty schools or hard-to-fill positions, like in science and teaching English as a second language. Expect to see more alternative ways to get a teaching license, so professionals, say an experienced scientist or engineer, could become a teacher.

For the youngest students, Obama’s platform calls for more investment in early childhood education and Head Start programs. For students entering college, he’s proposing $4,000 tax credits for students willing to perform service work for their community or country. That, Johnston said, would pay about 75 percent of a student’s way to college.

Johnson says another key to education reform will be choice. He hopes to see school districts create “portfolios” of schools, so students who learn in different ways can choose a school that best fits them, whether it’s a math- and science-centered school, a language school or an arts school.

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