I came to AF in 2011, fresh out of grad school with my master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Stepping into my role as a social worker was such an amazing decision, however, I didn’t know what to expect. During my first year at AF, I worked closely with our leaders and saw what it took to create a strong school culture. And that became my career path, as I moved into leadership myself, first as an associate dean and then dean of school culture.
During my first year as a dean of school culture, it seemed as though our fourth grade boys were struggling. However, I tapped into my social worker lens and looked more closely at what was going, and I saw how the students felt their experiences. They expressed frustrations with feeling misunderstood and not being heard. I realized that I did not want our school to perpetuate those feelings. The success of our Black and Brown scholars (particularly our boys) was about more than just academic and behavioral habits; they needed to feel affirmed, heard, held accountable, and supported all at once.
Inspired by my experience with those fourth graders, I decided to go back to school to pursue my doctoral degree in education from Northeastern University. My first assignment was to figure out my dissertation topic, and I immediately knew that it had to be about my students. I knew that their stories would drive the change toward the better balance of high expectations and high amounts of affirmation and love our school needed. My research focused on discipline policies in urban schools and how they directly impact the student trajectory through school.
Going to school and working at AF was definitely challenging. When my cohort was told we had up to seven years to write our dissertations, I knew I had a bigger goal: to complete my dissertation in less than one year. That was not going to be an easy process. My motivation came from my family and friends, and also from the students. So many of my students knew that I was in school, too, and would often ask me “when are you going to graduate?” My other motivation was to help the students’ voices’ be heard. Completing this degree was about more than just my own satisfaction; I did it to change the narrative, experience, and perspective of our scholars.
I decided to interview the same boys that inspired me to do the study. They were then sixth grade students at AF Bushwick Middle. Hearing them share what they love and dislike about their experiences became emotional for me—the common theme was that they wanted teachers to assume the best of them, to hear them, to challenge them, and to build relationships with them.
Initially, I took for granted that my students were watching me through this process—that by deciding to go back to school, I was demonstrating that as people of color, their possibilities were endless. Announcing on the first day of school this year that I am now Dr. Johnson was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. The amount of love, applause, hugs, tears of joy, and notes I received from families, scholars, and my staff was immeasurable.
As a Black woman in this network working with Black and Brown children, representation mattered in that moment. Our students needed to see a person who looked like them, achieving this degree. Now I hear, “If Dr. Johnson can do it, so can I,” and that makes the long, sleepless, and challenging journey all the more worthwhile. Our students deserve a high-quality education that protects and affirms who they are, challenges their intellect, and pushes them beyond any boundary or barrier that might be placed in front of them. I will continue helping our children get to and through college feeling academically, socially, and emotionally prepared—because my role at Achievement First is not just a job for me, it’s a passion.
Dr. Sadé Johnson is the dean of students and school culture and a principal-in-residence at AF Bushwick Elementary.