Who Will do the Work of Upgrading America’s Infrastructure?

Part 1: Why our public schools are in serious need of more enhancing technology capacity infrastructure upgrading.

Recently I was honored by my former school, Science Skills Center High School (SSCHS), in a ribbon-cutting ceremony recognizing the major technological upgrading of the school’s library to a Research and Media Center (R&MC). This new resource-rich facility will give students access to a vast world of reading and study resources covering high school students’ intellectual, inner-attainment/enjoyment, and social-emotional needs. At the same time, the R&MC will offer study research resources for term papers and projects in all academic subject areas, especially science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The R&MC will also complement the student’s in-school Advanced Placement classes and outside of school university-based college-level courses. This powerful project was championed and received ($1 million in) funding from Brooklyn Borough President (soon to be NYC mayor) Eric Adams.

The good news for the entire city looking forward is that in my conversations with Mr. Adams, I strongly sense that he understands the need for the technology-based R&MC model to be available to all children, not just at SSCHS or NYC, but indeed, throughout our entire nation.
This understanding by Mr. Adams is critical for NYC children, because, to be honest, I have not always been successful in getting elected officials, civic leaders, and sadly, even some educational leaders, to be able to wrap their brains around the crucial need to combine STEM education, research skills, personal resilience capabilities, good self-discipline/study habits, academic knowledge, information, and algorithmic competencies; and further, students having highly-adaptive performative skills (in classwork and on standardized assessment instruments). And then having all of these student scaffolding conceptual and behavioral qualities delivered by a highly-skilled and high-efficaciously gifted school staff. Equally important is that this high-quality ‘teaching and learning experience’ is fairly given to all students, without prejudice, bias or neglectful malice; a zip code should not be a quality-future life-determining number.
Finally, this approach to building students’ intellectual and emotional empowerment capabilities can only be accomplished through the determined work of a strongly ethical school building leader and a committed staff that is strategically smart and morally compassionate in the application of the principles of equity and equality.

America, our public schools, have a technology infrastructure problem.

I am happy that President Biden’s “Infrastructure Bill” passed, and for sure, it will do much good for our nation.
To fix and build our economy, we must build and fix bridges better, expand and upgrade roads, and improve the many modes of human and commercial transportation. But, we must also build better technological learning access bridges and roads that could transport our young people into a highly-skilled, competent and confident workforce prepared future.
And of course, there’s some irony in play here; because based on my professional work, observations, and travel experiences in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia; the political leaders from those states should have been the legislation’s (with Biden’s original proposal format) greatest champions; but such is our present political state of national self-destruction.

Unfortunately, the Infrastructure Bill, in my view, was nowhere close to what is needed for upgrading the technology infrastructure in the most technology-framework deficient school districts in our nation. This bill would need to be twice as large to begin to address the tremendous educational technology and internet soft and hardware upgrading that many of the school districts (and public libraries) in those states mentioned above (and many others) so desperately need.

Further, for US rural public educators, there is a never-ending struggle to match the present and future American workforce competencies demands that could be solved in part by those school communities having access to state-of-the-art, high technology capacity learning environments that could provide their students the access to research/library services links, online/virtual courses, particularly in those subject/content curriculum areas where there is an acute shortage of certified teachers (STEM, foreign languages, the Arts, college-level/AP courses, etc.). In addition, and specifically, on the high school side of the equation, having better hard and soft internet technology infrastructure could allow students to gain access to Career Technology Education (CTE) certification courses for private sector companies like Microsoft, CISCO, and governmental agency job opportunities in skilled technical areas like robotics and cyberforensics.

The ‘endangering-our-future-economic-growth’ technology capacity gap between rural and urban America and the secondary and equally deleterious lack-of-access-to-opportunity gap that separates communities inside urban localities is one of the greatest threats to the US being able to maintain and enhance its international competitive and international cooperative favorable economic development status.

Finally, we have painfully been taught (but have we learned?) by our Covid-19 school years’ experience that the technological capabilities and infrastructure gaps between school districts, and the enfranchised students versus the students of disenfranchisement access to technology resources gaps existing between cohorts of students inside of school districts, has most-likely led (by way of learning loss/learning gain factors) to an unfavorable increase in an already severely existing academic learning and achievement gap situation.

We have met the #1 enemy of our future national economic development capabilities…and that enemy is our inability to employ all of our national human resources!

I found it strikingly symbolic that Presidents Joseph Biden and Xi Jinping held a summit the day after the signing of the US Infrastructure Bill. I, for one, don’t buy the many current fear-mongering commentaries making the news media rounds proclaiming that China is the greatest threat to America’s future social, political, and economic success; after all, China is not passing US state-level voter restriction laws, and it does not direct or manage the dismal academic achievement outcomes of US public school systems. But educationally interesting, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to its credit, does clearly understand that closing their rural/urban, poor/more affluent families STEM structural/infrastructural divide is an essential key to any plan for a PRC national economic development strategy that would lead to future “first-world” status success.
Now I know this because PRC regional commissioners of education, superintendents, and principal delegations visited both (SSCHS/PHELPS) of my high schools. And so, why would the PRC invest so much in sending education delegations to visit two US urban Title 1 high schools? First, I understood their unstated objective as an educational leader who appreciates an effective information gathering plan for gathering valuable information.
It appeared that the focus of all of their questions could be reduced and framed into one fundamental question:

“How are you able to get students from communities that were traditionally excluded from STEM learning opportunities and representation to embrace, succeed and exceed in their STEM studies?”

One of the critical parts of my answer to them was this:

First, you must challenge any anti-STEM cultural beliefs that may exist in the minds of the students (their parents and the community), by affirming that STEM is historically and presently very much a part of universal (everybody’s) culture; STEM learning, achievement, any real or imagined “STEM-giftedness” is not the restrictive territory of any particular social-economic class, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or geographical location.
Secondly, ‘nail early’ (elementary school) the student’s ability (prerequisite arithmetic skills) to take and master that critical ‘STEM-gateway’ algebra course. You must have (our high school program) four years of lab science courses and four years of mathematics. Design STEM electives (e.g., computer-assisted art and design), teams, and clubs (e.g., robotics, meteorology, game design, etc.). You must surround and immerse students in highly-effective STEM instructional practices (and then continually professionally develop those teaching talents); make sure students have access to modern college/industry level STEM equipment and building structures (supported and strengthened by the necessary external infrastructure); insist that the students are being engaged with a robust and rigorous STEM curriculum and standards-based assessments program that reflects and ‘rehearses’ the students in those advance STEM technological knowledge and application skills you want them to learn and later practice as graduated (STEM professional) adults… Essentially, what the PRC presently succeeds at doing with their specialized professional athletes’ development schools!

But suppose any nation’s (US or the PRC) leaders want to produce more and better specific categories of students, e.g., STEM competent, from the ranks of the “traditionally” ignored, excluded, or underserved populations. In that case, there must be a profound (game-changing) pedagogical/political thinking shift in how they will make investments in technological institutional structures and the necessary supporting civic infrastructures that will lead to the growth in the qualitative and quantitative numbers of those dispossessed and disconnected students; it won’t happen by accident. A public civil service educational bureaucracy left to its own job justifying/persevering “playing-it-politically-safe” inertia culture will naturally incline toward predictively producing unimaginative, uninventive, and mediocre educational outcomes.

The critical question for America is: Will we finally realize too late (by ignoring the recent demographic predictive math of the 2020 census) that the denial of STEM school structural learning opportunities and infrastructure enabling capabilities to the disentitled children (the majority population) of our public school systems, will eventually inflict serious economic, social, and psychological harm on the country’s future developmental aspirations; a situation that will cause even the nation’s children (and adults) of entitlement to be rendered unable to avoid the resulting collective psyche pain.

In Part 2, I discuss a second major public school (and the nation’s) infrastructure upgrading problem. And that is the problem caused by US public education’s “stuckness” in an old and timely-unsuitable “vocational school” model. Our current approach is not imaginative, robust, or dynamic enough to meet the country’s modern need to produce skills trades apprenticeship-school-ready, allied health career prepared-for-internships, and applied technology certified industry and governmental agencies work-force ready high school graduates. For these reasons, we need to upgrade from the traditional “vocational education” model to a modern version of the Career Technical Education (CTE) model, intellectually, pedagogically, and structurally, and do it expeditiously.

Science Skills Center High School Library Naming and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.

On Friday, November 12, 2021, 1:00 PM ET, the Hon. Eric Adams, NYC’s Department of Education (NYCDOE) Science Skills Center High School (SSCHS), will ‘cut-the-ribbon’ on its new state-of-the-art Research Library and Media Center (RLMC). The RLMC will be named after the school’s founding principal, Michael A. Johnson*.

I would first of all like to thank Dr. Dahlia McGregor, the SSCHS principal, for developing a dynamically inspiring library facility and proposing that I be honored in such a fantastic way. I would also like to thank former NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza and present NYC Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter for graciously waving the NYCDOE regulation that prohibits the naming of any part of an NYC public school facility for a person who is still living (I am, by the way, very much alive, fully vaccinated + booster shot!).
As a former NYC superintendent, I understand the “political risk” of taking such a bold action; and so, I will always strive to honor their decision and work hard never to disappoint them.

Further, and in every significant way critical to this project, I would like to thank the Honorable Eric Adams (now mayor-elect of NYC), Brooklyn Borough President, who provided encouragement, material, and spiritual support for this new library facility. I am highly honored that Mr. Adams would recognize me, a humble son of Crown Heights Brooklyn, in this extraordinary way. And in addition, with all of the things he must have on-his-plate, that he has decided to attend the event personally. It is my hope and prayer that SSCHS will make his future public leader-servant mission work easier, and that SSCHS will forever remain (in the words of several former NYC Mayors and Chancellors, and specifically quoting one former NYC Chancellor Harold Levy): “One of the great bright and shining stars of the NYC public school constellation!”

I am also proud to announce that the Research Library/Media Center will be managed by the very competent and experienced hands of SSCHS Librarian, Ms. Sandra Echols. I sincerely hope that my former American Library Association and Brooklyn Public Library Trustees colleagues, and all of my many elected officials, corporate, private foundations, and city, state, and federal governmental agency friends will give this great new Library the support it deserves.

Finally, as you have probably noticed, the word “Science” is prominently situated in the school’s name; but it also takes the lead in the school’s extraordinary sense of respect for the principles of science; therefore, this event will be virtually broadcast so that we can encourage medically safe distancing. I am hopeful that at some point in the future, after everyone gets vaccinated (sorry, you know once a principal, always…), and we have defeated this Covid-19 scourge, we will be able to gather as a community and celebrate in this beautiful facility. But, until then, and with special thanks to SSCHS Technology Coordinator Mr. Andres Villar; here is the virtual viewing information:

Subject: Library Ceremony Zoom Meeting.
Topic: MICHAEL A. JOHNSON LIBRARY RIBBON CUTTING CEREMONY & OPENING
Time: Nov 12, 2021, 1:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86881150113?pwd=bmtIMjhtTS82b1JHWTk4ODRmTTBTZz09

Meeting ID: 868 8115 0113

Passcode: 470375

One tap mobile
+16465588656,,86881150113#,,,,*470375# US (New York)
+13126266799,,86881150113#,,,,*470375# US (Chicago)

Dial by your location
+1 646 558 8656 US (New York)
+1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)
+1 301 715 8592 US (Washington DC)
+1 253 215 8782 US (Tacoma)
+1 346 248 7799 US (Houston)
+1 669 900 9128 US (San Jose)

Meeting ID: 868 8115 0113

Passcode: 470375

Find your local number: https://us02web.zoom.us/u/kqK1Chipy
If you have any technical viewing questions please contact Mr. Andres Villar at: (718) 243-9413

For all those who are ever watching and forever watching over us from the ancestral realm, my mother, family, and friends; my growing-up-in church family, the community/neighborhood elders of my youth; my childhood Cub/Boy Scout, Sunday school, Acolyte, and P.A.L. leaders, the kind and wise Hasidic (a WWII Holocaust survivor) grandmother who daily provided me with warm milk, cookies, and words of encouragement during those very cold dark winter days on my before-the-start-of-school Eastern Parkway newspaper route (Oh my, route #18!).

To all, both living and dead, of my great K-12 NYC public school educators. Please know, all of you, that I have failed and fallen short of my own expectations at times, but rest assured that I have always strived to be worthy of your hopeful dreams and aspirational belief that the unfolding promise, “under-divine-construction,” ever inquiring, and in so many ways awkward and discontented adolescent you thought warranted your attention would someday make all of your hard work, support, and sacrifices worthwhile.

My young world was (and the world still is) full of many morally and efficaciously excellent, gracious, kind, and caring adults, wrapped in all colors, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities; these are those who sincerely want to see all of the children of this world survive, succeed and enjoy life to the fullest; and without them, our species is despairingly doomed.

I was that societally disenfranchised “latch-key” kid who was able to survive into adulthood because of two safe sanctuaries; P.S. 9 elementary school and the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), where I went every day after school and stayed until my mother came home from work. The BPL’s unofficial childcare program allowed me to escape the many dangers of the Brooklyn streets. And yet, (as the old folks would say: “the devil can’t know what’s on God’s mind”), that escaping danger experience allowed me to spend hours on hours of intellectual seed-planting reading time with great enlightening books, across many different topic areas. That “falling-in-love” with books period of my adolescence would lead to a life-long love of reading, learning, and enjoying the knowledge prizes that waited at the end of every intellectual inquiry. P.S. 9 (and later JHS 294’s Gifted and Talented program) and the BPL learning sanctuaries also provided a constantly in danger Brooklyn Black boy with that critically crucial safe space to be smart. I would eventually share my love-of-learning, and seek to protect and inspire that learning-love in thousands of young people; and who would imagine (surely not me) that the BPL free after-school “childcare kid” would one day serve as a Trustee for the entire BPL system; and as a professional educator, create a nationally and internationally highly acclaimed after-school STEM learning center in a wing of P.S. 9! It all almost sounds—well, miraculous!

To my many friends and supporters, my professional education community colleagues, in the U.S. and from around the world (especially my former students who, to my great joy, are now my professional colleagues), to all of my former students in whatever career they pursued, to all of the outstanding school staff members, school administrators, principals, teachers, and the many school district staff members I worked with as a superintendent. Having gained a more wise and greater time-granted experiential understanding of life, I can now, with profound and humble sincerity, fully appreciate the many years of love, support, and positive teamwork accomplishments we have seen together; for surely your names are forever joined to the single name on the wall above the doors of this library—Peace and Blessings on you all. And to everyone, please stay well, stay safe, stay smart and follow the science!
M.A.J.

*Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. An internationally recognized formal (school-based) and informal (outside-of-schools) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Career Technical Education (CTE) educator; and a School Leadership Educationalist. He served as an expert peer-review panelist for “request for funding” proposals submitted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation. A member of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Science Assessment Exam Development Committee, designers of the first NAEP national science exams. A presenter and panelist at numerous professional conferences, symposiums, and meetings like the NYS Governor’s Conference on Developing New York State’s Action Plan for Science and Engineering Education, Research and Development, Albany, New York; 1990, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting: “Science and Mathematics Assessment in the Service of Instruction,” the National Press Club, the National Urban League National Conference: “Science and Mathematics Education, Tools for African-American development,” Philadelphia, PA, the New York Academy of Sciences, and as the keynote speaker at the International Conference for STEM Administrators and Educators, City College, Norwich, England.

The subject of many international books, dissertations, research studies, electronic and print media stories, and articles including PBS’s “Crisis: Who Will Do Science?” (1990) and the Nightly Business Report, PBS: “Phelps: An example of a school of the future”, 2008. The New York Times Magazine, “Scores Count.” Bulletin, National Association of Secondary School Principals – “Standards-Based Education”: Are Academic Standards a Threat or an Opportunity, 1997, Cross and Joftus pgs. 15-16; Savoy Magazine 2012: “CISCO/Phelps High School Developing the Next Generation of IT Leaders.” “Bridging the gap between cultures”; Li Xing and Tan Yingzi; China Daily; 2011. The Washington Academy of Science; Journal (v. 97, no 3); “STEM/CTE Education: Phelps as a new model”; Dr. Cora Marrett (NSF); Dr. Sylvia M. James (NSF); 2012. Johnson also serves as a consultant and grant writer/reviewer for universities and school districts’ STEM-CTE projects/programs funding proposals. In those efforts, he is working hard to build strong and sustaining STEM-CTE operational and systemic pedagogical “bridges and infrastructure” for the PreK-16 educational systems role in building and expanding the national STEM-CTE career “pipelines”.

The author of many newspapers, magazines, and journal articles, including two American Association for the Advancement of Science Journal articles: “Assessment in the Service of Instruction” and “Science Assessment in the Service of Reform.” Johnson was appointed a member of the NYS Education Department Commissioner’s Advisory Council on Equity and Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education (1989-1990). The recipient of hundreds of awards, citations, and proclamations, for example, Resolution of Recognition U. S. Senate Floor; Congressional Record-Senate; S9581; U.S. Member of the Senate; Mary Landrieu (La); The Global Diversity Innovation Award; World Diversity Leadership Council; Boston, Mass; U.S. Department of State Award: “For Contributions Fostering Global Understanding Through Language Learning and Support of the National Security (Chinese) Language Initiative,” Washington DC. Multiple Proclamations in Recognition of Dedication and Excellence in Education, U.S. House of Representatives, NYS Senate, NYS Assembly, and the City Council of New York.

As a principal, he created the first majority Black and Latino students national F.I.R.S.T. Robotics and Cyberforensics academic competition teams. As a superintendent, he extended STEM learning to the early childhood, elementary, and middle school levels by building dedicated applied STEM Labs and assigning specially selected and professionally developed science teachers to those labs. As a superintendent, he also provided access to larger numbers of Black and Latino students to the district’s expanded Gifted and Talented, International Baccalaureate (IB), and Advanced Placement (AP) programs; while building lower-grades “STEM capacity” by significantly “ramping up” the quality and efficacy of elementary mathematics education; thus having more students prepared to take 8th-grade Algebra (the “STEM gatekeeper”).

He is a former NYC Mayoral appointee as a Trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library. Instrumental in leading the designing, development, and building of two Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—Career Technical Education (STEM—CTE) high schools: Science Skills Center High School, NYC and Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, Washington DC. In addition, Johnson has served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. An author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.; and is presently completing his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office (Fall/2021).