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David Johns: A Fresh Face for African American Education Reform

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The President has gained a new ally in his comprehensive strategy to reform education:

David Johns, who was recently appointed as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Obama has set a goal for America to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. This objective rests heavily on ensuring all students — from every economic and racial background — receive a high-quality education.

With Johns’ hands-on background in education, meticulous focus on a core set of initiatives, programs, and policies to tackle the challenges facing many black students, and his philosophical outlook on comprehensive education, Johns is well-equipped to lead strategies to ensure African American students achieve academically from “cradle to career.”

Though much of his passion for teaching ripened during his undergraduate and graduate studies at Columbia University, he insists that the catalyst of his career in education appeared much earlier than college.

“My mother is my first and most important educator,” Johns said. “She instilled in me, early on, an appreciation for life-long learning. She also ensured that I was surrounded by educators, classroom teachers, family members and community leaders who each helped to develop my head and my heart, to encourage me to work harder to find ways to create positive change in the spaces I moved through.”

Johns has worked hard at upholding the standard of educating and giving his mother instilled in him during childhood. His experiences ranged from volunteering as a tutor at an after school program in Harlem, designing college preparatory programs, crafting a course to improve the writing of college freshman, to hosting events encouraging the youth of the community to take advantage of the resources that the university and student community had to offer. All of this, while simultaneously working towards a triple major in English, Creative Writing and African American Studies (and graduating summa cum laude to boot).

After a couple more years of teaching kindergartners and third graders while earning a master’s at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, Johns began a fusion of interests that lead to the position he holds today.

“Upon receiving my master’s, I had a desire to learn more about how the federal government can support education advancements and I pursued a fellowship with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation,” Johns said. “It was this fellowship that jump-started my career in government.”

The weight of his new title does not fall lightly on the new Executive Director. Even so, with the great responsibility that his new position imposes, Johns recognizes the challenges that stand before him. He acknowledges that there is always work to be done, and his focus rests mainly on providing quality teachers and nurturing a love for learning among the African American community — African American boys and young men, in particularly.

The initiatives and programs that Johns is working with the White House to implement will cultivate comprehensive educative support that starts with pre-school and continues through college and beyond. Over the next few years, Johns will be focusing heavily on:

  • President Obama’s landmark Pre-school for All plan: a federal-state partnership to expand access to high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line.
  • An emphasis on STEM: Johns is also committed to improving literacy, expanding access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.
  • Family and Community Involvement: creating opportunities and improving parent, family and community engagement to facilitate strong school-community partnerships.

The heart of Johns’ involvement in the reform of African American education rests on a philosophy that he adopted a long time ago, which appears in the form of a hash tag in most of his multi-daily tweets: “Teach the Babies.” A best friend introduced Johns to two brothers using clothing designs for social protest. One of the t-shirts caught his attention — a hot pink background with “Teach The Babies” in silver letters.

“I found the shirt at the same time I was developing a senior thesis project focused on re-imagining black masculine identity and the goal of teaching the babies, raising consciousness of individuals of all ages, concretized my life’s mantra,” Johns said.

Now, “Teach the Babies” is exactly what Johns is working towards in the African American community, and extending this philosophy through higher education in line with Obama’s 2020 goal.

What YOU Can Do

Johns encourages the community to “Teaching the Babies” by:

  • Starting at home by ensuring that you are modeling the behavior and living the principles you expect to see in your children and your family.
  • Looking to the community and adopt a student, classroom or a school. Do this individually, with friends or with colleagues at the office. Find opportunities to teach courses about your passion or the work you do, facilitate site visits and other opportunities to explore companies and the community, host interns and provide youth and young adults with employment opportunities over the summer and throughout the school year.
  • Finding ways to celebrate the educators (teachers and leaders) in your community.
  • Volunteer in support of schools by working with your local school board, join the PTA or even run for your city’s school board or other groups focused on supporting teaching and learning.
  • Remain informed about and engaged in local education discussions and policy-making. Stay abreast on current issues in education.
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