Changing a Culture - Building an Empire

By Brad McEwen

It was hard to image—as I walked down immaculately kept hallways, peeking into brightly decorated classrooms and passing by the beaming faces of countless teenagers and their teachers—that in recent years, venerable Dougherty High School had developed what its principal Eddie Johnson calls “a bad reputation.”

“Our kids are not a bunch of gang members, thugs and convicts,” Eddie told me during a recent sit-down to discuss his tenure at the school. “There are some very bright children here and there are some really good teachers here. The environment here, it’s not where kids are fighting every day. But let the community tell it, you’d think this is a warzone.”

Indeed, during my three-plus hours meeting with EJ (as he’s affectionately known by the scores of faculty and teachers who count him as a friend and one of the system’s most impressive leaders), what I witnessed at Dougherty High was both exciting and awe-inspiring—and about as far away from Fallujah as one could imagine.

Throughout my tour of the school I was greeted by warm handshakes and happy smiles from students and teachers alike—all of whom seemed thrilled to be a part of what Eddie and his team has dubbed “the Empire.”

“Our theme and motto here is: ‘this is going to be the rise of an empire,’” said Eddie with pride. “So we call ourselves ‘the Empire.’ It’s a symbol of how we do things here. It symbolizes excellence. It symbolizes it’s different. It symbolizes success.”

Johnson, who became principal of Dougherty last year—after a successful stint as principal of Albany Middle School (preceded by a long stretch at the elementary level at multiple Dougherty County schools)—told me that the Empire moniker is more than just a symbol of the success his team hopes to achieve at the school, it’s also the first step in creating a new mindset among faculty and students, which he said is the most important step in changing the culture and therefore setting the school up for continued success.

“I’m big on culture,” he continued. “I want people to want to come to work. I want people excited about the students, excited about coming to school and creating an environment that is fun and lively. That was something we really did at Albany Middle School; we went from Albany Middle School and coined ourselves ‘The Middle.’ We got buy-in.”

That buy-in and cultural shift, Eddie explained, ultimately led to an impressive turnaround at Albany Middle that he believes can be duplicated at Dougherty. “Albany Middle was the lowest performing school in the district,” EJ said. “When we got there, we got off the state focus list that first year. We were a Beating the Odds school and we got within six points of the state average in a very short about of time.”

The shift in culture that Eddie and his team achieved—and the academic improvement that followed—eventually helped alter the reputation of ‘the Middle’ and by the time Eddie made the transition to Dougherty, Albany Middle had become the largest middle school in Dougherty County—something he believes stemmed from a change in the perception of what students at that school could achieve.

“We went from being the second smallest middle school to the absolute largest middle school in the district,” he said with a smile. “When that shifted and we had 330 6th-graders coming in, some of the other schools were short on enrollment and they started saying, ‘you’re stealing kids; you’re recruiting.’ Well not necessarily. We just re-established some things. The honors program had been dropped and we brought that back. We created an environment where we made kids believe.

“And when kids believe they achieve. It’s real simple, but it’s transformational.”

Those changes, that celebrated student achievement, also had a profound impact on the way Albany Middle was perceived by the community at large—which Eddie said was important in helping to not only grow the school, but to foster continued excellence based on students WANTING to succeed, rather than teachers pushing them to achieve.

Of course Eddie freely admits that changing a culture is not something that happens simply because one person wants to see it happen. It takes a plan and it takes a willingness to think outside of the box and make changes not everyone might like—even ones that might seem unimportant or insignificant to some.

Some of the changes his team made at ‘the Middle,’ and are now employing at ‘the Empire,’ might not seem like much to a casual observer, but they clearly went a long way toward creating the kind of environment Eddie believes nurtures learning.

“We took all of our staff (at Albany Middle) to the Ron Clark Academy,” Eddie said. “Of course, he has a lot more money than we do, but we adopted his philosophies. If he can’t take his students to Africa, he’s going to make his classroom Africa. So we started just creating an environment that was warm, that was welcoming, that was child-friendly and that really caught on.

“We had beach balls, we had streamers hanging and each hall had themes. You would think middle-schoolers would tear it up, but they didn’t touch it because it was theirs. They owned it.

“When we first got to Albany Middle we found they were smoking in the bathroom, (had) liquor bottles in the bathroom. We came in and changed it. We painted them. We cleaned them up, put decorations in there. We made it like it was home and they took care of the bathrooms and all that stuff subsided.

“Everybody on the team didn’t always agree, but we made decisions based on what was in the best interest of the kids. It really did work and we’re starting to do that here, just trying to make it their building.

“Everything we do is based on what’s best for the children. We do what we do for the children, not for the adults.”

A quick tour around Dougherty confirms that Eddie and his staff are employing a similar plan with Dougherty High, as decorations and school spirit abound. The hallway right outside the administration offices is decorated with the logos and mascots of colleges and universities, and several of the classroom doors have been decorated by teachers wanting to create a welcoming environment for their students.

“It’s kind of like an elementary school,” Eddie said. “You know, the rooms are decorated, it’s fun, it’s inviting. It doesn’t look like a high school. And the kids respond to that. It makes them feel welcome.”

To illustrate the effect on changing the appearance of the school, EJ took me by what he called “the coolest classroom,” where I encountered a room full of well-behaved and well-mannered students diligently working on their laptops. The room itself was a math lab, but you wouldn’t have immediately known that from the ambiance.

The classroom door—along with nearly every inch of the walls inside—were covered in posters hyping superheroes, video games and other teen-centric things, and quite honestly it looked exactly like a room decorated by teenagers for teenagers—despite the fact that the room’s teacher was the mastermind (which I think spoke to the type of educators Eddie has on his team).

Perhaps even more exciting than the posters though was that after greeting the students and their teacher, EJ asked a student to show me the room’s coolest feature.

Once given the go-ahead, a young man hurried over to the light switches and with one flip of his finger killed the overhead fluorescents and brought the room to life. Scores of black lights that had been installed in some of the room’s light fixtures blazed forth while another student turned up the room’s stereo system, which began pumping out the latest hits—all done in instrumental form.

And while it was apparent that the students were excited to show off such a “cool” classroom, it was obvious how eager they were to get back to their studies, signifying to me that the despite the hip factor of the room, it did not deter those teenagers from learning—something I witnessed repeatedly during my tour. After leaving that room and rounding the corner to another hallway I was then met by a row of life-sized fathead decals of Dougherty student athletes and cheerleaders—all of which were created by students in the school’s graphic arts department.

“What we’re doing here is trying to make it their building,” EJ explained with excitement. “That’s why you see me every day—I’m not a traditional principal in a shirt and tie—wearing Dougherty paraphernalia. At Albany Middle I was in Albany Middle paraphernalia. I’m in Dougherty paraphernalia all the time now because the kids need to know I believe in their school and I believe in them. A lot of the faculty, they’re usually wearing their Dougherty shirts.

“I just want them to believe.”

To help spread that sense of school pride and make sure that the entire student body and the community at large can also embrace it, Eddie said the school is currently developing a merchandise storefront where the students can sell Dougherty gear, like t-shirts, car decals, hats, stickers and other items, all made at the school by the students.

In doing that, Eddie said, the students will be able to spread the love they have for their school while also learning important skills related to retail business. And the money raised goes right back into the school.

“Everything we’re doing with the Dougherty paraphernalia and the classroom decorations, ties back to addressing the school’s reputation, which was one of the first things that we needed to change, just like we did at Albany Middle,” he said. “The issues here are very similar to the issues at Albany Middle, and there was a public image problem.”

For Eddie, addressing the public image problems that both Albany Middle and Dougherty had was an important first step in changing the culture and presenting the schools in a way that would draw students and the community into the schools.

“Changing the public image was first,” Eddie said. “We had to try and fix, repair and build a reputation where people want to come there and wanted to help—where they’re not afraid to come.

“You create an environment where children want to come—which is why we do things that are unorthodox, which is why we’re always celebrating, which is why we’re having pep rallies, which is why we have contests, which is why we play music in the hallways—doing those things, and making sure teachers handle children the right way. What happens then is they want to come.”

Like his team did with Albany Middle, to address Dougherty’s public image problem, Eddie said they first assessed what the school was already doing well and then set out to improve on those things, rather than finding weaknesses and then deploying all of their resources there.

“When you come into a place that has a bad reputation, and when you do your evaluation, the things that are working, that’s what you grab onto, no matter what it is,” he said. “That’s what you grab onto and you put all of your support into making it even better if you can.

“That’s the thing, promoting the good, finding the good that’s already there and promoting it and making it better.

“There were already good people here, and good kids, and there were some good things already going on in the building here, and at Albany Middle, but nobody publicized it. Nobody was working to make it even better.

“When you start focusing on the good, it creates a climate of excellence.”

Of course putting emphasis on the positives doesn’t mean Eddie and his team ignore problems. But in addressing those issues, EJ said they always remain positive and they always use pertinent data to illustrate what’s going so that team members don’t take things personally or feel like they’re being unfairly chastised when changes need to be made.

“We don’t necessarily harp on the bad, and if there’s something that needs to be fixed we’re not going to blow it up,” he said. “We’re just going to say, ‘this isn’t working.’ We’re going to use numbers to show why there’s a problem and we’re going to talk about how we can make it better. And in the process we’re always going to highlight the things that we’re doing well as we’re correcting the problems.

“We’re celebrating small successes and as you start to add those up, eventually they become big successes. So we’re always trying to put a positive spin on a negative situation.

“We have a couple of philosophies here: ‘make things make sense’—because school and life are not black and white—and ‘nothing’s personal.’ It has nothing to do with you as an individual. It has everything to do with what the data shows.

“And we have another phrase: ‘we tackle the elephant in the room.’ We’re going to deal with an elephant. We’re not going to let a problem just be there and nobody talk about it. If there’s a problem, even if I’M the elephant, I need to be identified so we can fix it.”

Of course, trying to change a culture—inside any organization—and tackle issues that are impeding success, takes not only sound philosophies and practices, it also takes the effort of a strong team.

Throughout our meeting, Eddie spoke at length about how important the entire team has been to the success he’s seen at Dougherty, and at the other schools he’s been a part of.

In fact, Eddie credits others for being the main reason he’s been able to achieve anything during his career in education.

“This isn’t about me,” Eddie said repeatedly during our interview. “It’s been the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and I’m here today not because of me. There’s been a lot of people along the way who have helped me.

“Every place I’ve been, at Lamar Reese (as a PE teacher), Sherwood Acres (as assistant principal and eventually principal), at Albany Middle, everywhere, I have had strong relationships with the staff members. We are like family. To have to leave places was hard, it was difficult, but I’ve been blessed that everywhere I go, I find some new family members. And I’ve been blessed to where some of the people I’ve worked with have followed me to other places.”

Even early on in his career, Eddie said that if it weren’t for the encouragement of others he never would have gotten into administration in the first place—let alone have had success as an assistant principal or principal.

As Eddie tells it, when he was younger, the former Morehouse College football player just wanted to coach and was perfectly content coaching P.E., first in Newton County and then as the first P.E. teacher at Lamar Reese Elementary.

“I kind of back-doored into administration and it’s a funny story about Dr. Thomas, Valerie Overstreet-Thomas,” Eddie said. “She was the assistant principal (at Lamar Reese) and she would come in the gym and she would say, ‘you’re going to make a great administrator one day.’

“And I used to laugh. I’m like, ‘administration? Long hours, paperwork? You’re crazy.’ I really used to laugh at her.

“Well, back then they used to call the coaches up to the office to paddle kids and one day I got a call, ‘coach Johnson, report to the office,’” Eddie continued. “Dr. Thomas she was on the phone and I went in there thinking I’ve got a kid to paddle. She’s on the phone and she says, ‘hold on.’ Then she looks at me and she’s holding a piece of paper and she said, ‘baby I need you to go to Albany State, right now. I need you to go see this person and you tell them you need these classes. And hurry up, it’s past registration. They’re waiting on you.’

“So I look at the piece of paper and it’s ‘Educational Administration, School Law,’ and I’m like, ‘thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate that, but I’m not going to school.’ She’s still on the phone and again she says, ‘hold on,’ and says to me, ‘Baby, I’m telling you now, this person’s waiting on you. I need you to hurry up. Go see this person.’”

Eddie said they went back and forth a few times with him trying to resist and Dr. Thomas urging more strongly, and ultimately he decided he should do it. And after finishing school he said he continuously found encouragement from others in the system wherever he went.

“My career in education has been people seeing more in me than I saw in myself,” Eddie reflected. “I never wanted to go into administration. I was kind of pushed. But once I was at Sherwood I was very comfortable. I loved it.

“Again, it’s not about me. I really appreciate Dr. Thomas and Judy Buckles and Dr. Mosely and his staff, all the people who saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. I mean I didn’t want to be in administration. I never wanted to go to a middle school. I never wanted to go to a high school. But other people saw something in me and helped me get where I am.”

And where he is, is at the center of an impressive team of educators who are already having a profound impact on Dougherty High—both culturally and academically.

“Statistically, when we got here, we were the lowest-performing school in the district,” Eddie said. “We had the lowest graduation, lowest on the College and Career-Ready Performance Index—that’s what the schools are judged by, the CCRPI—and we had the lowest CCRPI for high schools in the district.

“I was here half a year [last school year] and we were able to improve our graduation rate and we improved our CCRPI score. I’m very, VERY confident that by the end of this year you’ll see a substantial gain in our graduation rate and our CCRPI score. Very confident.”

Based not only on his track record, but also on his infectious enthusiasm and laser focus on always keeping the needs of the students first and foremost, I certainly left the Empire feeling like there isn’t much Eddie and his team can’t accomplish.

And as a proud resident who truly gets excited about the great things happening in our community, I also left there feeling that Eddie Johnson is yet another shining example of the incredible people we have helping to shape the lives of our young people.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen