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Administrator Profile

Superintendent Tom Johnstone driven by social justice

Superintendent makes education of the immigrant community much of his life’s work.
Tom Johnstone, right, with Shane Martin, dean of the School of Education at Loyola  Marymount University.
Tom Johnstone, right, with Shane Martin, dean of the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University.

It was 1978 when Tom Johnstone, graduated from Santa Clara University, hopped in a Volkswagen bus with some buddies and headed to South America.

When he wasn’t sightseeing in Argentina and Chile, he treasured one-on-one time with locals. And this came after Johnstone had spent a year of college in Madrid and studied in Caracas, Venezuela, as a high school exchange student. It reinforced an earlier connection he had with Spanish-speaking people.

Those experiences, coupled with a Jesuit education that promotes social justice, led Johnstone to make his life’s work educating Latin American immigrants.

“I really got to know South America well,” he says. That prompted him to get his master’s degree in Latin American history at UCLA, then accept his first education position in the Lennox (Calif.) School District, which was 99 percent Latino.

Now the superintendent of Wiseburn (Calif.) School District, Johnstone, 57, has been recognized for improving academic performance by collaborating with local universities and corporations, and for leading the push for Wiseburn to have its own high school.

He was named 2013 educator of the year by Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit school in Los Angeles—from which he received a master’s degree in counseling—for increasing educational opportunities for students. He also was selected 2013 superintendent of the year by Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, where he earned his doctorate in institutional management in 1997.

“At Pepperdine we talk about life having purpose, service, and leadership,” according to Diana Hiatt-Michael, who oversaw Johnstone’s doctoral dissertation. “Tom’s whole life has been dedicated to purpose, service, and leadership. He is always looking for opportunities to make education better.”

Sense of purpose
Johnstone’s call to community service was cultivated during his childhood in the San Bernardino Mountains, where he and five siblings saw their parents, who owned a local furniture store, volunteer with the PTA, American Cancer Society, and Catholic church. In high school, Johnstone belonged to Interact, Rotary International’s service club for 12- to 18-year-olds.

At college in Santa Clara, he tutored low-income K5 students in the nearby town of Alviso while earning a bachelor’s degree in history.

He began his 28-year tenure in Lennox teaching social studies. He later became a counselor and moved up the ranks to principal, director of curriculum, and assistant superintendent of human resources.

One of his major accomplishments was establishing family centers to get immigrant parents—many of whom did not speak English—more involved in their children’s education. Parents learned English and how to help their children with homework. His dissertation, completed while at Lennox, focused on these programs and has been cited by educators seeking grants to start their own, Hiatt-Michael says.

“Whenever I talk about good superintendent behavior, I talk about Tom,” she adds. “He should be doing superintendent academies. Tom has always accepted challenges with enthusiasm, and he always looks for ways to improve his school district.”

In 2008, Johnstone moved five miles southwest to be superintendent at Wiseburn, a 2,500-student, K8 district in Hawthorne with four elementary schools, where more than half the students are Hispanic.

Tom Johnstone

  • Wiseburn (Calif.) School District
  • Tenure: 6 years
  • Schools: 4
  • Student enrollment: 2,550
  • Staff and faculty: 260
  • Per-child expenditure: $5,100
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 46%
  • Graduation rate: 98%
  • Website:

Improving performance
When Johnstone arrived in Wiseburn, he encountered a below-average schoolwide Academic Performance Index, a state score based on statewide assessment tests. There were achievement gaps for English-language learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students, compared with white students and the entire district.

Johnstone reached out to Loyola Marymount, whose experts shared the school’s Center for Math and Science Teaching methodology that focuses on hands-on conceptual understanding, as opposed to rules and algorithms. “It’s total student engagement,” he says. And it worked. In 2012, 62 percent of eighth graders were proficient or advanced in high school algebra, compared to 26 percent in 2009. “Even more important, kids love math now,” he adds.

Johnstone revamped the English language development program and lengthened the school day for English learners by one hour, time spent focusing on vocabulary development and learning the core English Language Arts program a week before students see it again in their regular classroom.

The API for English-language learners rose from 729 in 2007 to 828 in 2012. And it increased for socio-economically disadvantaged students, from 762 to 851, at which 1,000 is the highest. And Wiseburn’s schoolwide API went from 792 to 882 during those five years, surpassing the state target for all schools of 800.

New high school
When Wiseburn students finish middle school, they can attend one of two charter high schools that opened in Wiseburn in 2009 or go to nearby Centinela Valley High Schools, which has long educated Wiseburn students. Wiseburn parents and educators have been disenchanted with the academics at Centinela Valley, however, and have been working since 2000 to open the district’s own Wiseburn High School.

Centinela Valley and other districts that send students there didn’t want to lose Wiseburn’s funding and opposed the effort. With a strong tax base from the aerospace industry, the Wiseburn district has enough tax money to support a compromise that Johnstone coordinated: a portion of Wiseburn taxes would still go to Centinela Valley, even after Wiseburn students stop attending.

Meanwhile, Wiseburn voters passed an $87 million school construction bond in 2010 to build a high school, land was purchased, and legislation was passed to approve funding with Centinela Valley and the environmental impact study for the new high school’s location.

The last step is a Nov. 5 election in which Wiseburn voters will decide whether to become a K12 unified school district. If approved, as Johnstone expects, Wiseburn High School should be open for 1,200 students in August 2016.

Social justice
“We have a wonderful community in Wiseburn that is very supportive of education,” Johnstone says. “Loyola and Pepperdine play a huge role in what we are doing. They have helped us particularly in our efforts with the English-learner population, which has experienced tremendous growth in achievement.”

Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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