Aleesia Johnson

When Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee officially vacates his post as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on January 4, Aleesia Johnson will assume the top position as head of the largest school district in Indiana.

She’ll also make history as the first African-American woman to serve as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools — albeit in an interim role.

Johnson, who has worked as the district’s Deputy Superintendent for Academics for the past year, has continued to climb the academic ladder.

The daughter and granddaughter of lifelong educators, Johnson has been in education for 16 years —14 of which have been in Indianapolis. She’s served in various roles, from teacher to administrator to district leader.

The mother of three children, who all attend IPS schools, has a deep love for learning and a passion for ensuring that all students — no matter their circumstances — have access to the best schools and educators, and well-rounded, rigorous academics.

Johnson recently discussed her educational background and career, why she’s passionate about providing the best educational experiences for all students, and the obstacles in education that get in the way.

Johnson, in her own words:

Education is a family passion …

I’ve grown up with educators my entire life. My mom is a career educator, who began her career as a teacher at Job Corps, then became a middle school teacher, a middle school assistant principal, and a now an elementary school principal in my hometown of Evansville, Ind. My grandfather (my mom’s father) is well known in the black community in Evansville because he was one of very few black administrators in the 1970s and ’80s.

Getting hit by the teaching bug …

I didn’t get the teaching bug right away. I knew I wanted to do something working with children and being in a role of service, but it wasn’t until finishing both undergrad (at Agnes Scott College) and graduate school (at the University of Michigan) that I decided the classroom matched my passion for kids and for learning perfectly. I have always loved learning. I love the feeling of satisfaction and energy I get from knowing I’m learning new things or stretching my mind and perspective in ways that I haven’t before. 

Private school student, Public school educator …

Growing up, I attended a private school from third grade until I graduated high school. It was a rigorous school with high standards for achievement, where the absolute implicit expectation was that they were developing students to be prepared for the most rigorous college experiences. It was a school attended by mostly well-off, mostly white students where I carried often the keen awareness of being the “only” (African-American girl) in my class. While there, I also noticed a difference in what I was learning compared to what my friends in other schools were learning. Generally speaking, my curriculum was consistently about a year ahead of where they were. I’ve thought a lot about that difference and the expectations and implications of that difference.  As a student in that school, the high expectations of and confidence in me and my peers was signaled everywhere. From the physical environment, to the courses we took, to the ways teachers interacted with us. In my opinion, every student should get the benefit of that level of confidence and expectation from the adults who work with them every day.

Removing educational obstacles …

I do this work because I carry a deep belief that education is the primary and best tool available to our society to right the systemic barriers that are in place for some, but not for all. Whether it’s because of race, address, ability or primary language spoken, every single child deserves a chance. They deserve to come into the world without the education odds already stacked against them before they draw their first breath. And, yet, for too many children, this is the absolute reality. 

It’s the part about being an educator that is the hardest. It’s the paradox we have to try to work through every day. On the one hand, it is real that there are odds outside of our control that impact the lives of the students we teach every day. But, on the other hand, we get a fixed amount of time with them, and we can’t afford to squander any of that time.  

In spite of the challenges or perhaps, because of those challenges, we have to come to our schools every day committed to giving our students the very best odds possible of being able to live a life where they have choice and they have agency, and they participate in making our country a better place.

Experience in multiple educational roles …

As I’ve transitioned in my career from being a leader of my classroom, leader of a school, and now a leader within a district — all in urban settings — I’ve continued to feel such deep obligation and responsibility to ensuring our schools are places that are set up in such a way to put our students on the best trajectory toward success. It is difficult work. It is often thankless. There are trade-offs to make at every turn. But, what I come back to is this: Our children are WORTHY. When our students leave our doors every day, they should know how deeply we believe in them and how committed we are to giving them the best educational experience possible.

Why educating IPS students is personal …

As an educator for the last 16 years, as the daughter and granddaughter of educators, as a parent of three school-aged children who are students in the district I serve, as a Hoosier native and a member of the Indianapolis community for the last 14 years, this work is deeply personal to me. It matters that we get it right. It matters that we make decisions that always keep the best interests of our students at center. 

Ready and prepared for the challenges …

I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made. But I’m also under no illusion that this community — within and around our district — has all the love and expertise and passion to make decisions that will help us make good on our commitment to a high-quality education for every single student we serve.