BY KARISSA MILLER
Brady Johnson understands the obstacles that at-risk students face.
The soon-to-be-retired Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent experienced them firsthand as a child. And those experiences helped shape a successful career in education that spanned 42 years.
“I grew up in poverty,” Johnson said. “I was the first in my family to graduate from high school. My extended family were good people that worked in furniture and textiles. They started work when they were young and were solid citizens. In fact, many of them got their GED as adults.”
Johnson was raised by a single mom, Louise Johnson, and his grandmother. He also had a step-sister. Born in Iredell County, he grew up in a small four-bedroom house with outdoor plumbing. The family didn’t own an automobile.
“My mom would sit at the table every night making me read. I didn’t even realize it at the time until I got to about fourth or fifth grade that my mom couldn’t read,” Johnson said.
“She wanted me to do better than she had done.”
He did just that.
Johnson is not sure what’s in store when his retirement begins July 1, but he emphasized that every moment in his career has been precious and he couldn’t be happier about his time spent serving the Iredell County community.
Path to the Top
The man who has inspired and motivated county leaders, his school leadership team and students found his own confidence – and his calling — while he was a student at South Iredell High School.
“The seeds were sown when I was in high school. That’s when I started thinking of becoming a teacher,” Johnson said. “Of course, I didn’t really have a solid plan for obtaining that goal.”
Johnson drove a school bus as a teenager. (Back then, any student who was 16 years old and had a driver’s license could become a school bus driver).
He remembers having daily interactions with Principal Harold Waters and Assistant Principal Jim Edminston. Both men were instrumental in making sure Johnson had a plan for his life after high school.
Waters talked Johnson into applying for financial aid at Mitchell College. At that time, Mitchell was a private college, and Johnson was placed in a work-study program. The following year, Mitchell became a public college with significantly reduced tuition.
Johnson eventually enrolled at Appalachian State University. While in Boone, he met his wife Patti. The couple married in 1976, and nearly two years later, Johnson started teaching history at North Iredell High School.
“Back in the late 70s it was hard to find a teaching position straight out of school. There wasn’t a shortage of teachers then. You nearly had to wait for someone to retire,” Johnson recalled.
During year three as a teacher, Johnson started teaching at South Iredell High School.
“I was nervous about teaching at South because some of my teachers in high school were still there,” he explained. “It ended up being a good opportunity for me. Many of my teachers helped support me and were there to give me advice and encourage me as a young teacher.”
After 22 years as a classroom teacher, Johnson worked as an assistant principal and then as principal before being named deputy superintendent in 2006. The Iredell-Statesville Board of Education appointed Johnson as superintendent in 2009.
The superintendent implements the school board’s vision by making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff and facilities. The superintendent hires, supervises, and manages the central office staff and principals.
Johnson’s work as chief administrator for I-SS earned him the title of A. Craig Phillip North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2014. In 2015, he served as the superintendent advisor to the N.C. State Board of Education.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the district embraced the school choice movement, offering options like Spanish Dual Immersion, International Baccalaureate, Early College, STEM Themed Schools, and an A+ Arts Integrated Magnet School, virtual learning, as well as options for students in the area of career and technical education.
Johnson was honored with the North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian award in North Carolina, during his last board meeting in June.
Earlier this month Johnson was one of six or seven superintendents in the nation to speak with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a ZOOM meeting. Johnson shared information about quickly the district pivoted to remote learning in response to COVID-19 pandemic. Each I-SS department worked through challenges together, which is why the district had a successful transition.
Working in education, Johnson said, requires a long-term commitment to the very end.
“You have the ability to impact a child’s life. You get to know them and help them achieve their goals. It’s one of the intrinsic rewards of the profession—knowing you had a small impact along the way,” he said.
The district’s philosophy and the goal of all I-SS principals, he said, is to make every decision through the lens of what is best for students.
Being a superintendent involves much more than hiring principals, supervising central office staff and attending school board meetings.
“There are some things, that as a superintendent, I have had to do because it is the law,” he explained. “I have not always agreed with some of the outcomes. That is one of the hard parts about this position.”
The work has been rewarding, he said, adding that he has never felt like he truly worked a day in his life because it was something that brings him joy.
In fact, Johnson has touched countless lives over the past 42 years. The strong relationships he built with past students, their parents as well as his colleagues have provided priceless memories.
“My grandson calls them my ‘work friends,’ ” he said. “That is one part of the job that I’m going to tremendously miss.”
In addition to his professional career, Johnson has served on many community-based agencies. He was named Citizen of the Year in 2016 by the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce and 2018 Outstanding Citizen of the Year by the Gemstone District, Piedmont Council Boy Scouts.
His family, he said, has been his inspiration throughout his career.
“Looking back on it, my mom is my hero. She did the two best things she could. She had nothing material to give me. She gave me a desire to become educated and my spiritual roots,” Johnson said.
One of the things he is proud of is partnering with faith-based organizations in the community. He credits his mom, who made him read a chapter of the Bible aloud each night and then pray aloud together, for that work. His mom also modeled continuous self-improvement, which is the reason he’s a champion for all children today.
Johnson points to his own life as an example of the transformative power of public education.
“Public education is every child’s chance and every community’s future,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s uncles, Harold Johnson, Luther Johnson, Brady Johnson and Jap Johnson, were the four primary adult role models that he had growing up and all of them turned out successful.
Though Johnson’s tenure as superintendent will end June 30, he said his work in education is not yet done.
But he is looking forward to spending more time with his family. Johnson’s children live in Iredell County. They include Sarah Williams, Katherine Englbert, and Emma Johnson. His grandchildren are Ella, Hatti, Millie and Theo.