By Matthew Tungate
Students at the Mayfield/Graves Area Technology Center (ATC) know that Krystal Johnson has practiced what she preaches as she helps them find their path to college and career readiness.
The AmeriCorps Kentucky College Coach is only two years removed from college herself, having graduated from Mid-Continent University in May 2010 with a degree in business management. Prior to that, Johnson spent two years at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. Before that, she was a Fulton County High School student who knew only that the Fulton County ATC had a lot of “shop classes.”
Then she took an economics class at the ATC, and what she saw set her on her current career path.
“After that class, I kept coming back for more classes there,” Johnson said. “I really got to see how passionate the teachers are about the fields that they’re working in, and the desire they have to help their students really shows through in their teaching.”
The smaller class sizes made the ATC more intimate than high school, she said, and all the teachers wanted to help students however they could.
“My experience at the Fulton County ATC really gave me the love for the technology center environment,” Johnson said.
But ending up back at an ATC was not her plan. She grew up wanting to be John Keating, Robin Williams’ character, in Dead Poets Society. Her original major was English education.
“It was very much to my disappointment that I learned I’m not gifted in English,” Johnson said. “So I switched to business which is something I do really well and something I’ve always enjoyed. But I never could get rid of that desire to be John Keating, to be that change for students.”
After graduating college, her story came full circle.
Johnson heard about the AmeriCorps Kentucky College Coaches program, a statewide initiative to help provide high school students the information and support they need to further their education after high school, while she was substitute teaching.
“I applied and interviewed with the area technology center and, on my tour here, I fell in love with the teachers and staff. That is when I knew that I really wanted to work here,” she said.
She started in October 2010.
“Our program here focuses a lot on students who are first-generation (college-bound) and students who don’t grow up with a college-going culture,” Johnson said. “That gives me a chance to really put that in their heads.”
She learned from her family that getting an education, though not necessarily college, is important.
“It could be four-year college, two-year college; it could be getting a job, learning new skills – any way you have to educate yourself is always important because it gives you knowledge, and knowledge gives you power,” Johnson said. “That John Keating voice in my head really wanted me to find a way to help students.”
Steve Arant, principal of Mayfield/Graves ATC, said Johnson is a perfect fit for the job.
“She is passionate about her job. She truly understands the benefit of reaching these students because she understands that many of these students do not get guidance from home,” he said. “She genuinely cares for her students. She gets to know them personally on a one-on-one basis. She shows no favoritism. She is non-judgmental – she accepts them as they are and tries to help them make realistic career decisions.”
At the beginning of the year, Johnson picks a group of 50-60 students she is going to mentor, although she may work with any of the students from Graves County, Mayfield (Mayfield Independent) and Carlisle County high schools who attend the ATC.
“The big part of my job is figuring out what they want to do. And you can’t just come out and ask them, ‘What do you want to do? What kind of career field do you want to work in?’” Johnson said. “A lot of times the answer you’ll get is ‘Whatever makes the most money or whatever requires the least amount of school.’”
Johnson gets to know the students, finds out what they like outside of school and talks to them about why they chose their classes at the ATC.
“Getting below the surface and finding out what makes them tick is a lot of what I do,” she said.
She spends the school year working with her CORE (Continuing On, Raising Expectations) Club, the students she mentors. Sometimes she will pull them out of class individually, Johnson said. Once a month, the CORE Club meets as a whole to discuss topics that range from getting ready for college to proper work attire.
Arant said students in the club may not get the kind of guidance from their families they need to go on to postsecondary education.
“She will walk them and their parents through the entire process if they request the help,” he said. “She takes them on field trips that they would probably never go on so they are exposed to new ideas. We recently took almost 40 students to Murray State University, and they were able to speak with representatives from each department and went on a tour of the campus. Being on the campus was a new experience for most of the students.”
Johnson also speaks to entire classes on topics such as on interview skills or financial literacy. This is one of many ways she and teachers at the ATC work together.
While her job is called college coach, Johnson believes her role is more than just helping students schedule entrance exams and apply for scholarships.
“Everything we do in the ATC – not just me, it’s the entire ATC environment – is about career readiness,” she said.
While that includes college for some students and technical school for others, Johnson said other students leave the ATC ready for their careers.
“Instead of making every student focus solely on a four-year college degree, I want them to realize they have choices. Success has different meanings to different people. There are many different pathways that can lead to success, and we at the ATC want the students to feel confident no matter which path they choose to follow,” she said. “Years down the road, I don’t want these kids to look back and wish they had done things differently. I want them to leave our school with a goal in mind and with the tools they need to get there.”
That is a lesson career and technical students understand, Johnson said. A student at the ATC is already career-focused or he or she wouldn’t be there.
“They’re taking these classes because they know this is what they want to do,” she said.
Johnson sees the value of what the ATC teaches and consistently reinforces it to her students, Arant said.
“We all know that students see school as ‘just school,’ and I believe some students are taking their classes more seriously as a result of Krystal’s consistent message to her students on the importance and opportunities that are available to them by being enrolled in our classes,” he said.
Arant said he and the teachers have benefited from having Johnson around.
“Our teachers and myself are consumed with our teaching and administrative duties, and we have always short-changed our students when it came to giving them the individual attention they need concerning post-secondary careers and college choices,” he said. “Our students now know that she can be a great resource for them and they seek her out. Before there was no specific help for them concerning their careers after high school.”
Mary Stratton, area supervisor of Ky Tech schools and the program adviser for the ATC Kentucky College Coaches, said having someone in the technical school who cares about the students and works hard at opening doors for them to continue their education is invaluable.
“Our technical schools do not have full-time counselors, and our students have not always taken advantage of the dual credit that we have in place with colleges and universities,” she said. “Now that she is there to help them through the process of obtaining these credits, we have had a lot more students enroll in postsecondary education.”
Stratton said Johnson works with high school counselors to set up “close-the-deal” meetings to help students who receive dual credit through the ATC enroll in postsecondary institutions.
“The assistance she gives to the parents and students in completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for financial aid is extremely helpful,” she said. “Those forms can be overwhelming, and it is beneficial to have someone walk you through the process.”
Many students have a limited view of what they can accomplish, Johnson said, and her job is to get them to expand the parameters of their expectations.
“They come thinking, ‘It’s just machining that I do. It’s nothing spectacular.’ But you have to show them the beauty behind that what they’re doing is spectacular,” she said. “When they start to get that self-esteem, that’s when the doors really open in their mind.”
MORE INFO …
Krystal Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270)247-4710