Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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.
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