I think that our classified and our licensed staff, through the whole history that they've been through, have felt that they weren't always appreciated. That's just what I'm trying to do as I go into classrooms is express my appreciation to them.

RIVERTON — Patrice Johnson begins with the second grade, taking a few minutes to ask the students in this classroom at Midas Creek Elementary what they love best about their teacher.

She seems genuinely interested in what they have to say. But more than that, she wants their teacher, Mrs. Butikofer, to hear.

Little hands snap up; simple compliments are excitedly shared. She agrees with every last one and adds a few of her own before moving on to Ms. Montoya's classroom down the hall. Then it's on to the fifth and sixth grades.

Johnson has made similar rounds at each of the 53 schools in the Jordan School District where she's been superintendent for seven months. With every handshake, smile and question, she makes a concerted effort to show her appreciation for men and women who have felt diminished in recent years.

"I think that our classified and our licensed staff, through the whole history that they've been through, have felt that they weren't always appreciated. That's just what I'm trying to do as I go into classrooms is express my appreciation to them," Johnson said.

This past summer, she inherited a school district that split in two in 2009, and the problems that came with it. But Johnson said any talk of low teacher morale or distrust between the school board and staff couldn't have put her off from taking the job.

"I never really worried because I knew this was where I was supposed to be," she said.

Before becoming the district's first female superintendent and first superintendent who hadn't previously worked in the district, Johnson got her start as a teacher in Fort Knox, Ky., in 1977, shortly after graduating from Brigham Young University. She taught grades kindergarten through eighth grade over 12 years, moving up a grade every couple of years as her five children advanced through the school system. She loved it, but like so many teachers-turned-administrators, she wanted to broaden her reach.

"I knew that every year I was only reaching 30 students in the classroom and there was something inside me that said, 'You can do more than that,'" she said. "My mother and my husband pushed me, because they saw it, too."

So after moving to work as a teacher in California, she took a job as principal of a small elementary school in the state's central valley. It was there that she learned how to approach challenges on a scale that extended beyond a single classroom. Most of the school's student body didn't speak English, and what's more, she had no vice principal to deal with behavioral issues.

"When the kids needed to be disciplined … I would take them to the lettuce field and they would work a day alongside their parent and they would realize it was not fun," she said.

It's been nearly two decades since she was principal there, but the thought of a kindergarten student named Manuel still brings tears to her eyes when she remembers how he struggled with reading, and her resolve to take time each day to tutor him one-on-one.

"I learned a little bit of Spanish and he learned how to read," she said.

Johnson when back to school in the late ’80s, earning her masters from Fresno Pacific University in 1983, then an Ed.D from the University of Southern California in 1991. While obtaining her own advanced education, she gave birth to her youngest on a Tuesday and was back in her accounting class on Thursday. She also lived in the USC dorms one summer, her husband and children visiting her on weekends.

Johnson upped her impact significantly when she moved on to the Clark County School District — Nevada's largest with more than 300,000 students. She served as a school administrator in middle schools and Las Vegas High — the largest school in the state with 3,200 students — before becoming an associate superintendent in 2007. She oversaw a portion of the district with 50,000 students, which is about the same size as Jordan, where she was named superintendent in June. Johnson filled the vacancy left by superintendent Barry Newbold, who led the district for 15 years and was employed by it for 35 until his retirement in January 2011.

Even after her rise to the top, Johnson said she never wants to forget what it's like to be in the classroom.

"I really want to keep my roots there," she said. "Understanding how difficult it is to reach every single student in a classroom is a monumental task. And to always have an appreciation for that, I need to keep that at the forefront of my mind as we make decisions for this school district."

It's an approach teachers in the district welcome, considering where they've been.

"Teachers just kind of became an asset in the split," said Jennifer Boehme, president of the Jordan teachers union. "Financially as well as collegially, it was hard on teachers and morale had dropped a lot."

There have been signs of improvement and hope in teachers' outlooks, much of which comes from Johnson's school visits, she said.

"I think she's very teacher-focused," Boehme said. "She has been very visible in the schools. She wants to be very collaborative with the association, which is good."

Midas Creek Elementary School principal Kevin Pullan said Johnson has visited his school three times this year, a gesture that is not lost on the faculty.

"Everybody knows she's really, really busy, but you never get that with her. It's always like she has all the time in the world," he said.

Boehme meets with Johnson at least once a month. When she's brought letters from teachers concerned about any number of issues, "(Johnson) has actually shown up at their school to talk about it with them in person."

Of course, there are still changes teachers are fighting for, such as the restoration of pay raises based on experience and continued education. They'd also like to have paid professional development days where they can collaborate and learn the newest best practices. Those changes would all need to be made by the school board, but Boehme said the fact that they hired someone like Johnson shows they're willing to work collaboratively with teachers.

"They are listening … and that's really changed the dynamic," she said. "I think that started with the school board and has carried over to the school board hiring Dr. Johnson."

Johnson knows a thing or two about working with teacher unions, considering she was a union president in Lemoore, Calif. Her husband, John, was a school board member.

"My teachers and I, we picketed him at his office," Johnson said, somewhat amused yet sheepish. "We wanted to make sure that they knew that we thought. … They were holding out on us."

Since then, she says she's learned that collaboration is much more effective than antagonism.

"I much prefer positive energy," she said.

Moving forward, Johnson said she would like to see the district rise to its former prominence, and she has a plan to make that happen. Through a series of 12 focus groups she held at the beginning of the school year with educators, staff, parents and other groups, Johnson understands what the issues are.

"I think those were some of the hard conversations we had in the very beginning. Get it all out there out front so that you can deal with it. Because if you don't know what it is, then you can't solve it," she said.

High on her priority list are restoring paid professional development days and increasing technology so teachers can more effectively reach students. Those things take a willingness and money, Johnson said, and she's got half of the equation. She's hoping lawmakers will help provide the rest through increased funding.

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"I think that that's probably the only thing that's standing in our way right now. The other elements are already there."

Pullan said he's hopeful the district will continue on its same trajectory. He was on the selection committee and was involved with the interview process for hiring Johnson.

"She knows what she's doing," he said. "Yes, we did make a good choice."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com Twitter: mollyfarmer