New superintendent looks to move division forward

Mark Johnston

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County Public Schools’ new Superintendent Mark Johnston is glad to be back in the “gem of the valley.”

The School Board unanimously hired Johnston, 55, of Fort Valley, on Aug. 11 for the division’s top job, effective Sept. 1.

He said public education is a great field to be in and is looking forward to seeing education grow in Shenandoah County.

“Public education is an exciting time,” he said. “There’s a lot of change happening.”

He commends his staff on the work they do with relatively low staffing. He said other divisions have much more staff and have a hard time keeping up with the workload, so he said he’s in awe of the hard work and dedication of his staff. He applauds thinking outside the box.

Shenandoah County School Superintendent Dr. Mark Johnston sits at his desk inside the School Board office in Woodstock. The board hired Johnston this month as the new schools chief. He replaces former Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Raley, who resigned in July. Rich Cooley//Daily

“They work so hard and there’s such ingenuity and forward thinking,” he added, but the division also has to support the teachers and staff in order to provide the best education possible for the students.

Johnston said he aims to keep existing programs, such as the biomedical academy, Stonewall Jackson High School’s engineering program, the elementary STEM program and the work done at Triplett Tech, moving in the right direction and expanding to provide more opportunities to more students, as resources permit.

“Those are all innovations that are responsive to where education is heading,” he said. “It’s a transformation in the sense that it’s not even what we had in education.”

He said he also wants to give students the chance to not have to choose programs offered in public education that make them pick between college and career readiness. He said he wants students to experience programs that will help them be both college ready and career ready, no matter what path they end up taking.

“I don’t want any kid that graduates to be forced to make a choice because of some decision they made along the way. If they want to go into a career, I think that’s great, but if they want to go to college they ought to be able to,” he said. “I don’t want them to have to go one way or the other. I want them to be able to do either one. And I think that’s paramount for what we’re responsible for.”

In order to expand these programs and allow Shenandoah County to be ready for the future, the funding has to be available.

He said in an “environment of very limited resources, we’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to be flexible and we’ve got to be thinking differently to maximize what we can do with what we have.”

He added that he has reached out to each member of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors to have a one-on-one dialogue on funding for education and what he hopes to bring to the county.

“I want them to understand if we ask for funding, why we’re asking for it and why it’s important,” he said.

In preparation for the changes coming to the school division, he added that he is familiarizing himself with projects started before he entered his new role, such as the boundary change being implemented this school year, the new school calendar coming up next school year and the long-term facilities master plan.

“We owe it to our community to not go backwards, we’ve got to keep moving forward,” he said.

With students entering new schools this school year after the approval of the boundary adjustment, he said schools have been preparing for the change for the past several months.

Letters have been sent out to families informing them of the changes and he has spoken with parents individually about their unique situations.

In the case of students showing up at the wrong school on the first day of school, he said procedures have been created to call parents and ask them to take their child to the correct school. If the parents can’t come pick up their child, then the division will provide transportation on that first day to get the students to the correct school.

“Boundaries happen everywhere,” he added, but it has been 30 years since the last change occurred here.

He said the boundaries need to be evaluated on a regular basis to prevent additional problems of overcrowding from happening again in the future.

Work has also begun on the new school calendar taking effect during the 2017-2018 school year, he said.

This new calendar has school starting on Aug. 7, 2017, with the first semester ending before the winter break. The last day of school is scheduled for May 25.

Johnston noted that the summer before the start of this new calendar will be a short summer break for students and staff, but he believes everyone will adjust well to the change. He added that other nearby school divisions start school in August.

To prepare for the new calendar, he said staff has begun to discuss when they will bring in new teachers next year.

Staff is working to “make sure we’re open on time, fully staffed and have all of our facilities in good order,” he said.

Also on his radar is the continued emphasis on increasing SOL test results. Johnston had learned that W.W. Robinson Elementary School will once again be a focus school.

With such a large elementary school population, he said monitoring instruction puts a strain on staff.

“It’s kind of all hands on deck,” he said.

He said in years past an additional assistant principal has been added to these schools, but more support is still needed. With the reduction in elementary students at the district’s two overcrowded schools, he said he hopes this takes some stress off of the management.

Elementary level literacy is a major area of concern for him, and for the division, he said, and Shenandoah County is not alone.

He said keeping kids away from writing like they do in text messages is important in improving literacy because shorthand text message writing is often not grammatically correct and spellings are wrong.

“We’re trying to create authentic experiences for them so that they understand the purpose of that,” he said. “And that’s a real challenge for us.”

Over the summer, he gathered teachers and created more guidance documents around literacy frameworks, balanced literacy and guided reading.

“So there’s much more in the way of resource materials available,” he said.

He added that the division has asked an outside expert to come in and determine if the schools are missing something they should be emphasizing in the classroom.

“The idea there being, is there something we’re overlooking?” he said. “Is there something we’re missing?”

He said they are also trying to keep the creativity and collaboration in place and moving forward.

“It’s becoming very intentional about how you teach those skills through content. And that really takes a masterful teacher to do that,” he added.

Johnston said that, generally speaking, test scores have improved at Signal Knob Middle School, which has embraced problem-based learning, and he would like to see problem-based learning implemented more at other schools.

Recruiting quality, experienced teachers is the “most impactful” way of increasing test scores, he added.

Another task he is keeping in mind is preventing incidents, such as the incident that occurred last December on a Strasburg boys’ basketball team bus, from happening in the future. After investigations into misconduct on the bus, three students were expelled from the school system for a year, and a fourth was suspended for much of the spring semester.

One way Johnston said to prevent such incidents from occurring again is by reinforcing the policies that have been in place, which include seating chaperones throughout the bus.

“There has been some renewed emphasis on supervisory procedures,” he said. “There has been renewed emphasis on the messages that kids receive, as well, what are the expectations for them.”

He said coaches are having conversations with their players about appropriate behavior and what is expected of them.

The division is also “revisiting and re-emphasizing our Title IX procedures,” he added.

He said he is reminding employees about what Title IX is, why it’s important and informing staff of any changes that have been added to the policy. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination in school activities and other educational programs receiving federal financial assistance.

“The bottom line is we’re going to treat every kid with respect and dignity and make sure they are safe and well cared for,” he added.

Johnston has over 30 years of experience in education and is ready to bring that wide scope of knowledge to his new position.

He said he has a much broader set of responsibilities as superintendent than he has had before, but what has helped him is his instructional and human resources background, as well as his past experiences in Shenandoah County Public Schools.

Before entering the world of administration for public education, Johnston said he was an Earth science, physics and general science teacher in the classroom for 13 years in Fairfax and Prince William counties.

He has also served as assistant superintendent for instruction and supervisor for science for Arlington Schools, resource teacher for gifted students at North Fork Middle School and Stonewall Jackson High School from 2012 to 2013, and Director of Human Resources for Shenandoah Schools until Aug. 1, 2015, after which he retired.

As a teacher in the mid-1990s, he piloted the use of technology in the science classroom, which included software and probeware for his school. He began training other teachers how to use the software and realized that he liked teaching professional development.

“I really enjoyed that and that’s what really drove me out of the classroom,” he said.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or