Alexandria, VA – Every year school staff, parents, and community members submit nominations for Principal of the Year. The nominations are then reviewed by the ACPS selection committee and the winner is normally announced in May. This year, PreeAnn Johnson, principal of Polk Elementary, was the well-deserved recipient of the annual honor, after 35 years of dedicated service to the Alexandria community.
We at Zebra had a chance to catch up PreeAnn and she was graceful enough to participate in a quick Q and A.
Zebra: Where did you grow up?
PreeAnn Johnson: I grew up a military brat, spending most of my early life on Andrews Air Force Base. Then we moved right outside of the area to Oxon Hill, Maryland, and then Fort Washington. My upbringing impacted who I was in a major way. Being a military child, I spent a great deal of time with non-minorities on the base and got along with everyone.
We had busing when I was in elementary school, and suddenly I was faced with having to almost choose between the white friends that I grew up with and the new kids who looked more like me. I was able come out of it feeling very comfortable with almost everyone I encountered, but it took a minute in the middle to recognize that we did not have to have sides, that we really just had to be comfortable with ourselves and stay true to who we are.
Zebra: Have you always known you wanted to be an educator?
PreeAnn Johnson: In high school, I had a big crush on a young man with a hearing impairment. That caused me to learn sign language and ultimately led me to consider special education. Also in high school, I took a course that was really just a peer assistant in a class for physically handicapped students. I made a friend who I helped with reading. I had been reading the same story to her for a while, with much animation. She would laugh at me all the time. One day, I went into the class, and she started reading the book to me. She had cerebral palsy, so she has very limited motor skills and could not speak well. On this day, she shook as she tried to mimic the same animation that I did when reading the book. She was so proud to be able to read to me and after I wiped the tears, I never looked back, knowing that the rest of my life would be spent making every child feel that happy about their accomplishments.
Zebra: Tell me about working for ACPS all these years. Did you always want to be an administrator?
PreeAnn Johnson: I started teaching Special Education Emotionally Disturbed Students at GW Junior High School. I was also coach of the undefeated GW Prixis Girls Basketball Team, which was an amazing experience and a major part of my Alexandria history. So I always had leadership positions in my schools and with the coaching, and I began to see the bigger picture, being involved with more than just the classroom.
However, the biggest influence on my decision to be an administrator was Ms. Carolyn Lewis. She was the best administrator at GW Jr. High School, and she took me under her wing, pushing me to do more, and correcting me when I went down the wrong path.
I had a few tragic experiences with kids during my years at GW, including losing three of my students in a short period of time. She was always there for me and I looked up to her then and now. I always said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be just like Ms. Lewis.”
The ultimate compliment came when one of my Polk students was visiting TC Williams at night and came across Ms. Lewis, who still runs night school at TC Williams. He said to her, “You remind me of my principal.” I think both Ms. Lewis and I knew that we had come full circle, as she knew I wanted to be her, and in some small way she was proud of who I had become, and knew she played a big part in that.
Zebra: What was your path to becoming a principal?
PreeAnn Johnson: Debbie Thompson seemed to be the only principal willing to give me a shot and I had my first administrative position as the Assistant Principal at Douglas MacArthur. We were kindred spirits. She became my mentor and sister forever. She actually gave me the real Principal’s Award when she took me with her to St. Thomas the year she won the Washington Post Distinguished Principal’s Award. I always said that although my staff really wanted me to receive this award sooner, Debbie actually gave it to me long ago. I then went to Cora Kelly for three years, Minnie Howard for one and I finally got my own gig 11 years ago as the Principal of Polk Elementary School.
Zebra: What do you like best about being principal there?
PreeAnn Johnson: I love the diversity that Polk has and the fact that I have built a community that I can be proud of. It’s more than a full-time job. It’s a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day commitment for each and every one of us. The most rewarding part is watching your kids and staff grow.
Zebra: What will be the biggest challenge this upcoming school year?
PreeAnn Johnson: Managing the distance learning and maintaining the health and safety of all stakeholders is going to be an amazing task. I am sure we will prove victorious, but not without a lot of bumps and bruises. But no matter comes, the mental and physical health of our kids will trump academics every day.
We at Zebra would like to continue to celebrate PreeAnn Johnson and all of Alexandria’s exemplary educators and wish them further luck while they strive again for excellence in the upcoming school year.
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