I’m sitting with Roger Johnson, newly-stationed principal at Bartlett Academy alternative school, at the corner of Cleveland and Park streets in a typically hot August day.
The school year is just a week away from starting and Johnson looks equal parts collected and excited. It’s a brand new position for him, but he fills the principal’s chair as though it were made specially for him.
Maybe it was. In talking to him, you can tell he’s exactly where he wants to be.
A place to belong
Roger Johnson was, for several years of his teaching career, an Art Teacher at both Sapulpa Junior High and High Schools. He says that these classes were often the collection point for a lot of students that “didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere else,” he said. Some of them have home lives that are tougher than most. Some of them just have trouble meeting new people or fitting into the traditionally structured school environment.
So he began making places where these misfits could find a place to call their own. It started with the Art Club, but quickly following that was a Guitar Club, which became an eventual hit.
“We had something like 60 kids in that room. We got so big that we had to move it to the gym,” he says.
Even though only half those kids had guitars, what was even more amazing was the relationships the students developed with each other. In hearing the experience, it seemed that Johnson was just there to keep the peace—the students were largely teaching each other.
Continuing in that success, Johnson created another club; this time for skateboarders.
“The skateboard club was a lot of fun,” Johnson says. Instead of just giving them a place to skate, he took them into the community to serve, cleaning up parking lots and sidewalks, throwing away trash, and doing his best to “convey a positive image of a group of kids that were otherwise seen as thugs and punks,” he said.
It was in connecting with these students that Johnson found his passion. Believing that the only way to create a more lasting change was as an administrator, he made the jump from teacher to Assistant Principal, serving at Holmes Park Elementary from the time it opened until this year, when Principal Bobby Alfred resigned amid a myriad of allegations towards Superintendent Burr; allegations which eventually cost the Superintendent his job.
In his resignation letter, Alfred proposed strongly for Johnson to take his place as Principal. Though the outcome of the whole scenario feels like a win for the community, why was Alfred’s last request as Principal not fulfilled?
Some have said that even his own removal and the assignment of new administrators were the hand of Superintendent Burr—something of a parting gift to the district.
Whatever the outcome may have been, Johnson is glad to be where he is now, getting back to the reason he stepped into administration in the first place.
“These aren’t the bad kids.”
If you’re a parent to a Sapulpa student, you’ve probably always thought of Bartlett as the school for “the bad kids,” the ones that can’t handle “regular” school, or need extra discipline.
While it’s true that Bartlett is an alternative school, Johnson considers it his number one role to begin to remove the negative stigma that’s become associated with Bartlett in years past.
“These are not the bad kids,” he says. “These are students who need a different approach to getting their education.”
The “different approach” has plenty of things that a parent might appreciate: class sizes of no more than 15 people, a full-time counselor, and more group-focused activities, as well as more teaching of “soft skills,” like balancing a checkbook or basic human interaction that will help these students hold down a job.
And it’s not just the parents who appreciate the change. The students there love having a more relaxed dress code and the one-on-one teaching. And they frequently get to be a “test case” for district-wide experiments, such as Chromebooks. By the end of the year, every Sapulpa student 3rd-grade and up will have their own Chromebook. That’s thanks in part to a recent bond issue, and thanks in part to the success that Bartlett has shown in making that switch, which they did awhile back.
All in all, Johnson may not have as tough a journey to change public perception as he originally thought; an acknowledgement he makes readily.
“We have a waiting list of students to get into this school,” he says. “These kids think they’re just going to come here for one year to get caught up, and they end up staying. They love it.”