Talk of the Town EXTRA: Peggy Johnson, unsung hero of the new high school
Wednesday, 21 August 2013 11:20

by Steve Matrazzo 

Schools open on Monday, but because they say they want the first few weeks to be “about the kids,”  county government and school officials have put off any sort of “opening ceremony” for the new Dundalk High-Sollers Point Tech campus until Oct. 1.
    When the time comes, such an event is likely to feature speeches by a predictable cast:  the county executive, our local county councilman, one or all of the local state legislators, the county school superintendent, the principals of the two schools and perhaps even a “civilian” community leader or two.
    It is likely that most, if not all, will — either overtly or by implication — seek to claim a share of the credit for the wonderful new facility.
    And in one way or another, many of them will deserve some degree of credit — community leaders for raising their voices, school leaders for going ahead with the project, and politicians for securing the funding,
    Dundalk High principal Tom Shouldice and his outgoing and incoming colleagues at Sollers deserve credit for the managerial heavy lifting needed to move the operations of two schools to the new campus (not to mention credit for outstanding stewardship of their respective schools).
    The true hero will likely not even be mentioned. If she’s present at all, she’ll probably be among the crowd, not up front with the assorted dignitaries.
  

But former Dundalk High principal Peggy Johnson is the one who, more than any other person, made it all happen.
    In early August 2007, with the start of a new school year approaching, Johnson, a Dundalk High graduate who had described getting the top post at her alma mater as a “dream job,” invited me to take a tour of the then-48-year-old building in which her beloved charges were being educated.
    The physical shortcomings of the building were obvious — roof leaks (serious enough to have led to water damage of textbooks), boarded-up windows, creeping disrepair and many features that were decades out of date.   
    The practical consequences of such a state of affairs were obvious, and it was easy to see how the schools’s condition could impact the attitudes of students — and their academic performance.
    Having tried “going through channels” without getting any commitment to serious action from the school system or the county, she took the incalculable professional risk of speaking to the press.
    The school year that began that fall would be Johnson’s last at Dundalk High. By the time the proposal for a whole new campus took flight, she had been “kicked upstairs” — shunted into a managerial post at the county school system’s Greenwood headquarters, where she stayed until she retired this July.
    Peggy Johnson put her career on the line, and she ultimately sacrificed the job she had wanted more than any other, in order to give her students, and her community, the school they needed — the school they deserved.
    Her actions — her courage and her commitment, and the price she paid — merit far more reward than any plaudits I can give her here.
    I hope I’m not the only one remembering her now.
    The 2007 front-page article, adbridged and reformatted, appears below.

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

PRINCIPAL HOPES TO HASTEN REPAIRS AT DUNDALK H.S.

Johnson seeks faster funding

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics, according to Peggy Johnson. It’s a matter of quality education.
    The principal of Dundalk High is concerned that the deteriorating condition of the 48-year-old school building is affecting the performance of students, and she hopes to prod the Baltimore County public school system to make repairs and improvements sooner rather than later.
    “We started the process this past spring, and we’re trying to be respectful of the process,” she said. “I know that the [county’s Board of Education] has a comprehensive process ....
••••
    Johnson said that she has so far taken the proper steps to secure approval for needed repairs, going first to the Southeast Area Educational Advisory Council, then to the county board .... [and has taken] the county’s associate superintendent for physical facilities on a tour of the school to show him the immediacy of the problem.
    “We had some very frank conversation,” she said.
••••
    Among the biggest problems, according to Johnson, are the building’s aging windows. “For one thing, they leak when it rains. This can create unsafe conditions on the floors, and what’s worse, we’ve actually had books and other materials damaged by the water.”
    Even when it doesn’t rain, she said, the antiquated windows can cause problems with temperature.
    “A lot of rooms get unbearably hot in the spring and fall and unbearably cold in the winter,” she said.
    Windows leak enough, Johnson said, to thwart attempts to heat the rooms in the winter and cool them with window-mounted air conditioners in the spring and fall.
    In those rooms without air conditioners, she said, the problem can be even worse.
    “When we have broken hardware on a window, the county’s chief concern is security, so they bolt the window shut,” she said. “That means it can’t be opened to let in some fresh air.
    “Imagine trying to pay attention in class under those conditions. Imagine trying to take the state high school assessment tests under those conditions, especially while students at other schools are doing those same things in rooms where they can work comfortably.
    “It actually has educational consequences. We feel our students have the right to learn in a proper environment.”
••••
    Much of the roughly $20,000 of annual discretionary funding at Johnson’s disposal, she said, has been spent on physical improvements including the installation of wall-mounted fans in classrooms without air conditioning.
    That project, however, exposed another way in which the school’s facilities are lacking. Money had to be spent not only on fans but on upgrades to the school’s electrical system.
    “Again, it’s simply about the fact that this is an old building,” she said. “The electrical system in place was fine for when the school was built, but a lot has changed.
    “Now we have a computer lab, something that no one imagined when they built this school. That creates electrical requirements that our system wasn’t built to handle.”
    Some rooms still have two-pronged electrical outlets, whereas “everything nowadays is three-prong,” she pointed out.
    Even disrepair that might seem merely cosmetic, Johnson said, can be important.
    Chipping paint, damaged classroom doors, aging desks and chairs, water stains and window frames stuffed with stray bits of insulation and duct tape contribute to an unattractive learning atmosphere that can affect students’ attitudes, she said.
    “These kids deserve a safe, comfortable place to learn,” she said, “and when they come in here and see this, it looks like we don’t care about them.
    “I come from Dundalk,” [the 1965 Dundalk High alumna noted,] “and I’ve accomplished my dreams. That’s the message I want to send to our kids, and this building right now isn’t doing that.”
    Johnson hopes to get funding for needed repairs included in the school system’s 2009 capital budget. She’d like things to happen sooner, but she knows navigating the process takes time.
    When she took the Dundalk High principal’s post six years ago, she wanted to replace the building’s decaying exterior doors.
    “We finally got a grant from the state this spring, and the project is in the bidding stage,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll get somewhere on that in about six months.”
    She hopes that support from the community will help speed up the process of securing funding for the additional repairs needed at Dundalk’s namesake high school.
    “I don’t want this to get nasty. I want to stay respectful of the board and the process,” she said, “But it would be very helpful to have the support of the community. Phone calls, letters or e-mails to the [Board of Education of Baltimore County] would show the board and the County Council that we care about this community.
    “I know they want the school and the students to succeed. We have a lot of pride here in this community.”