- Johnson said he wants to stress the importance of public education and preparing students for postsecondary success.
- Johnson said it’s imperative to prioritize the work to close achievement gaps in Kentucky’s schools, and to develop new revenue streams to provide resources for schools and districts.
By Mike Marsee
Alvis Johnson knows firsthand how education can change lives.
The son of a western Kentucky sharecropper, he was the first in his family to graduate high school and the first to go to college. That led to a 28-year career in public education, followed by careers in intercollegiate athletic administration and private business.
He was followed to college by a younger sister and he said their college degrees changed the dynamic of their family.
“It changed her life as well as mine,” Johnson said.
As a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, Johnson will champion the importance of public education and of preparing students for postsecondary success.
“We’ve got to keep preaching the value of education, especially higher education, whether that be college or in some technical field,” he said.
Johnson was a teacher, coach, athletic director and assistant principal during his education career, most of which was spent in the Harrodsburg Independent schools.
As a social studies teacher, he taught U.S. history, world history, law and justice and geography. As a coach at Harrodsburg High School, he led track and field teams to five state championships and football teams to three appearances in the state finals.
In 1994, Johnson became the first African American to serve as president of the National Federation of High School Athletics Board of Directors, the national governing body for high school athletics. He also served for eight years on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Board of Control, including a term as president.
“I think I’m able to look at education from a lot of different viewpoints,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have experience in all those areas, and I think it helps me to get a general feeling of what education should be about.”
Johnson said it’s imperative to prioritize the work to close achievement gaps in Kentucky’s schools, and he said developing new revenue streams to provide resources for schools and districts will be critical to that work.
“If we can get those new revenue streams, then put our resources into those areas that are lacking, I think we can see significant accomplishment,” he said.
Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Western Kentucky University, where he also played football and a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University. He began teaching in his native Christian County and said he intended to go to law school after a year in the classroom, but he never got there.
Instead, he embarked on a long career of teaching and coaching in which he helped young athletes reach their potential – he sent 36 athletes to college on athletic scholarships – and helped students of all types better understand their place in the world.
“When I was with the National Federation, we called athletics and academics partners in education,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be in some areas where hopefully I’ve made a difference,” he said.
Johnson owes his interest in athletics to a Christian County High School football coach who took an interest in him.
“Pete Rembert probably did as much to inspire me as anybody, because he was the one who instilled in me to get involved in athletics,” he said. “We didn’t have the resources to get me back and forth to practice, so every day he’d drive 13 miles down to pick me up and 13 miles back.”
He became interested in history at a very young age and that interest has never waned.
“I just like reading about things that happened back in the past that really serve as a basis for what’s going on now,” he said. “If you don’t know the past, if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Johnson is particularly drawn to the study of Jacksonian democracy, a 19th-century movement in the United States that championed greater rights for the common man and broader participation in democracy. The movement, led to the expansion of suffrage to most white men, but did little to advance the rights of African Americans and Native Americans.
Retiring from public education only led Johnson to new ventures. He spent eight years as an assistant athletic director at the University of Kentucky before entering private business in 2006. He is president and chief operator of Harrodsburg Transportation Company Inc., which provides non-emergency medical transportation services in his community.
“My dad taught me a long time ago that hard work will always pay off for you. He worked very hard, and he instilled in me the drive to always try to work and be competitive in whatever area you’re in,” Johnson said.
He said he also learned one more thing from his father about the hard work of farming.
“It taught me to go to college,” he laughed and said.
Johnson’s term expires April 14, 2022.