By Jennifer Ginn
When people talk about the need to increase the number of women in science, improve communication between industry leaders and educators, or get more parents involved in schools, they’re all kind of talking about Alesa Johnson.
A resident of Somerset, Johnson comes from a long line of teachers. Both of her parents were high school math teachers, a grandfather taught science and an aunt and her sister have both taught math. She also was the first female electrical engineer hired at the ExxonMobil Chemical Co. in Baytown, Texas. For the past decade, she has worked throughout southeast and southcentral Kentucky to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. As the mother of two teenagers, she also has volunteered at her children’s schools as everything from a classroom mom to serving on advisory councils.
Johnson, who serves as chief officer of workforce solutions for Somerset Community College, was one of five new members appointed to the Kentucky Board of Education last year. She has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky and a master’s in higher education from the University of Louisville.
Johnson said she is focused on making sure Kentucky’s schools are preparing students for success after graduation. Kentucky Teacher staff had a chance recently to ask Johnson about her priorities while serving on the Kentucky Board of Education. Here’s what she had to say.
Why were you interested in serving on the Kentucky Board of Education?
“Today’s and tomorrow’s high-demand job sectors stress the importance of placing equal value on career/ technical education and traditional general academics. As a result, it is imperative that Kentucky develop rigorous, seamless pathways among K-12 and two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions to ensure successful workforce placement. This seamless structure is fundamental to providing all of our children with the needed skills for a rewarding career and lifelong prosperity.
“An improved skilled and competitive workforce pipeline will go a long way in helping to eliminate the high number of homeless families and poverty in our state. I am excited to see the conversations and focus at the national, state and local levels around these issues. I hope that my service on the board will contribute to a strong educational foundation, leading to systemic economic growth.”
What impact do you hope to have on the board?
“I hope to bring my 16 years in industry as an engineer and manager, and my 11 years in postsecondary education to provide a strong, diverse perspective in all board conversations and be a voice for our children, parents, teachers, administrators and industry.
“My personal desire is to identify and resolve many of the issues preventing our schools and students from being successful. Closing the achievement gaps and providing equal access to high-quality instruction will give all of our children opportunities in their lives, regardless of socioeconomic status or personal family situations. Kentucky had more than 28,000 homeless children in 2014-15 and about 7,500 foster children in 2014, many of whom also were enrolled in public schools. And in 2011-12, the latest year for which data was available, we had the highest percentage of children in our schools with one or more parents incarcerated during the past year. There is a necessity for us to not only prepare students for the 21st century, but also prepare students to overcome often desperate circumstances.”
What personal trait will serve you best as a board member?
“I am very passionate about education and the opportunities education provides. I am committed to the success of our students and schools, and I volunteer many hours in schools. I want to make a positive, educational impact on our students by encouraging them to do their best and reaching for success at a postsecondary level with certified skills or a degree that provides them with a rewarding career.”
Other than more money, what do Kentucky schools need most?
“We need to align our standards and assessments to meet the knowledge and skills needed for today’s and tomorrow’s careers. Technological advances are moving so fast that it is difficult for schools and teachers to stay relevant. There is a need to strengthen our partnerships with business and industry in order to align pathways to relevant, high-demand job sectors. There is a great need for industry to provide job-shadowing and apprenticeship opportunities for our teachers and students, and be actively involved in our schools to help bridge the gap between what we are teaching and what business and industry need.
“All of our schools need the latest equipment to provide a high-quality, world-class education; well-trained teachers who have firsthand knowledge about the careers in their field of expertise, and career counselors to help evaluate and guide our students to seek rewarding careers within his/her area of interest.”
What are the biggest challenges facing Kentucky’s schools?
“I believe we have many challenges to overcome and I hear one or more of these comments at every event I volunteer at or host: the lack of parental involvement and support in their child’s educational success; the drug epidemic that is tearing our homes apart and putting children in foster care, living with a relative or becoming homeless; the apathy and lack of engagement by the students; the lack of equipment or facilities to teach the latest, cutting-edge technology; policies and procedures that are outdated or hinder progress; the inability to teach content like it should be taught – teaching to the test; and the lack of school choice for parents in school districts that are persistently failing.”
What small change would have the greatest impact on Kentucky’s schools?
“Improving teacher preparation modeled after what may look like some of today’s intense industry apprenticeships – with both theory and application – would have a tremendous impact on Kentucky’s schools. I come from several generations of high school teachers in the STEM fields and have witnessed the impacts of a great teacher and a strong P-12 educational preparation.
“Also, if we started preparing our students in every subject area at the elementary level (social studies, science, STEM skills and the arts) teaching both theory and application, our students would have a stronger foundation academically and with skill applications that will enable them to successfully transition through multiple career paths during their lifetimes.”
What major change would you make to improve Kentucky schools?
“First, we need to change how we view career and technical education (CTE). We must change the mindset of parents, students, faculty and administrators that a CTE career is rewarding and well-paying. CTE careers do require some level of postsecondary education and there are so many jobs currently available in many of these fields. The demand for these careers will continue to grow as technology changes and business and industry upgrade their facilities to implement this new technology.
“Second, we must give parents a wide variety of high-quality school options to meet the educational needs of children. Presently, hundreds of our students do not have equal access or opportunity to a high-quality education due to their socioeconomic level or zip code. This may mean a different school model to better meet the needs of our children with disabilities or to better meet the needs of our students who are accelerated in specific areas, or both. We have to move beyond models that do not support positive outcomes to models where ALL students may achieve their dreams and become who they were created to be.”
Who was your favorite teacher and why?
“Two that specifically come to mind are my mother, Faye Garner Harris, who taught me Algebra I and II at Russell County High School, and Joe Jeffries, my physics teacher at Somerset Community College. Both of them truly loved their students and had an unbelievable passion for teaching their subject matter and teaching students.
“Both of them would come early before class or stay after class/school to help me on my homework or explain a concept if I couldn’t grasp it. They could explain a concept multiple ways to ensure I understood the material. They always explained to me how the content I was learning applied to my everyday life. They always focused discussions around me and my future, discussing career options and what impact each career choice could have on my life.”
Other than parents and teachers, what do you believe has had the biggest impact on Kentucky students’ education in the past few years?
“I believe the accountability model, which has driven instruction in the schools, has had the biggest impact on Kentucky students’ education over the past few years. As I work throughout the 13 counties in my region, I see firsthand the accountability model emphasis has perhaps unintentionally created the gap between pure academics and application of academics through skills in career and technical. Career and technical and application of academics should be interwoven, resulting in an improved and robust, multitalented workforce pipeline in Kentucky.”
One of the Kentucky Department of Education’s priorities is to address the achievement gap. How do you think we can do that?
“I believe we are going to have to be open and honest about this issue and directly address all of the issues impacting Kentucky’s achievement gap. I do not believe there is a silver bullet that will fix this problem. However, I believe we are capable of addressing these issues utilizing multiple approaches and looking at alternative solutions to fixing the problems. We need to look at other states to see how they are successfully addressing the achievement gap issue and learn what is working well and what is not.”