downtown and out

George Washington High principal, symbol of changes to storied IB program, leaves school for undetermined post

The recommendations call for George Washington High to get $6.7 million for upgrades or renovations.

[Updated at 6:20 p.m.] Denver George Washington High School’s principal Micheal Johnson, who became the target of vocal criticism over changes to the school’s International Baccalaureate program, is leaving the school to take a central administrative job. 

“[I]t has been my honor and privilege to serve your students as the principal of George Washington High School,” Johnson said in a letter sent this afternoon to parents. “It is with deep gratitude for your engagement in our community that I announce that I am moving into another leadership position with the Post-Secondary Readiness team of the Denver Public Schools.”

Jose Martinez, a former Jeffco Public Schools principal, director of diversity, and principal supervisor, has been named the school’s interim principal. Martinez’s first day will be Aug. 6.

Susana Cordova, DPS chief schools officer, said the change was part of the district’s ongoing effort to “support our teams and have people in places where they can be most successful.”

While leading George Washington, or GW, Johnson was paid $112,175. He’ll continue to be paid that salary in his new role, a principal on special assignment for post-secondary readiness at a yet-to-be determined school. Cordova said details are still being worked out on the school or schools where Johnson will be assigned.

Tension between Johnson, who was named principal of the southeast Denver high school two years ago, and the George Washington community escalated last spring as Johnson and DPS officials introduced parents to their plan to open access to the school’s IB program.

The strain was exacerbated by Johnson’s alleged unresponsiveness to teachers’ and parents’ concerns over the changes and next year’s teacher assignments.

Micheal Johsnon
Micheal Johnson

The IB plan, slated to take effect in the 2015 school year, is intended to make the  program  accessible to a larger number of students. Currently, the program is highly selective, and only students who enter as underclassmen are allowed to pursue the prestigious IB diploma. The re-imagined program would mirror admissions policies at other IB programs across the nation.

Cordova said that Johnson’s departure in no way signals a weakening of the district’s resolve to make changes to IB, or to beef up GW’s Advanced Placement and lower-grades honors program. “Most definitely, the work will continue. Our commitment to keeping parents engaged [in planning the changes] is critical. Our commitment to keeping students engaged is critical.”

She also said that one of Martinez’s strengths is communicating effectively with a diverse student and parent population “and bringing people together around a common agenda.” A 2006 story in the Denver Post portrayed him as a no-nonsense school leader.

Johnson and district officials believe the IB program, as it is currently structured, has produced unintended achievement gaps between the school’s middle-income and poor students.

Just over 400 of George Washington’s 1,424 students are enrolled in the IB program. And only 14 percent qualify for free- or reduced-lunch, a proxy of poverty, while more than half of the school’s entire population qualifies by the same standard.

Critics, parents and students alike, packed the school’s library in May to voice their concerns about the changes. They fear the proposed changes will water down the elite program’s rigor.

Since then, a vocal group of IB parents have called for Johnson’s resignation.

The news of Johnson’s exit comes one week after the Denver teachers union filed a formal grievance with the district claiming Johnson cut the school’s leadership team of teachers out of the development of the master schedule.

“This continues to fit the double standard that Denver Public Schools has for administration versus other employees,” said union leader Billy Husher. “Administrator after administrator is moved out of their position for district-level positions when they are ineffective as leaders while teachers and other employees are hung out to dry and told that they cannot work in the District for a minimum of 3 years before they are eligible for rehire.”

According to Johnson’s letter, instructional superintendent Fred McDowell will lead the transition, which includes finalizing the schedule, naming an interim-principal, and hiring nine teachers.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Micheal Johnson had earned a masters degree from Harvard. He received his masters from the University of Colorado. He also, according to his resume on Linkedin participated in an educational leadership program at Harvard. 

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”