Johnson Elementary to get third principal in four years

Cedar Rapids school faces some unique circumstances

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When Kevin Uhde, the principal of Johnson Elementary School (also known as Johnson School of the Arts), announced his retirement late last week, he cleared the way for that building's third head administrator in four school years.

Last week, Uhde announced his plans to retire at the end of the current school year, capping off a two-year stint at the school.

The result is that some Johnson students, and their parents, have been with the school longer than the principals. Parent Teacher Association President Suzanne Staab, who is the mother of a sixth-grader who spent five years at Johnson and a current Johnson fourth-grader, is one of those adults.

"I think the revolving door, so to speak, I think it doesn’t allow us to follow through with anything," she said. "We’re starting over every time we turn around … Continuity would be wonderful."

According to Mary Ellen Maske, associate superintendent for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, the "revolving door" phenomenon is not specific to Johnson.

"The people who have left there have left for different reasons ... It seems to me kind of a coincidence that there’s been that turnover," she said. "I don’t think it’s anything at the school or anything, it’s just people's careers took them in different directions."

Uhde spoke of his retirement, purely as a personal decision related to being able to take advantage of the Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System and a desire to spend time with his family. He called his time at the school "rewarding, fulfilling, awesome and cool."

"We've done a lot here in the last two years," he continued. "We're on the move."

Regardless, the school's students and staff do face circumstances that aren't present or as intense as those at other buildings.

Johnson has carried the "School in Need of Assistance" tag, a designation related to student performance and failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress on No Child Left Behind-mandated standardized tests,  for six years in both math and reading. According to data for the current school year, 85.6 percent of Johnson students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty, which is the highest rate of any district building.

Scott Gay, the PTA secretary in his fifth-year as a parent at the school, listed a few reasons why being a Johnson administrator is a unique challenge.

“I think some of it is, it’s a tough school emotionally for a lot of people," he said. "It also takes a person that’s willing to, their family takes a big sacrifice. The principal is there a lot; on weekends, evenings, early and late."

Uhde's retirement is pending school board approval and Maske said she will spend the next week developing a timeline to find his replacement. Among the qualities she's considering is someone who's "the right fit."

“Right now we are engaged in some partnerships with outside organizations in many of our schools, specifically we’re engaged with organizations in the Wellington Heights neighborhood [near Johnson] as well and it’s important for the school to be involved in those partnerships," Maske said. "The work that’s going on in the neighborhood ... We want to make sure that families are involved and we want to make sure that there’s a connection for those families to the school and vice versa.”

To Gay, Johnson is more than a school and that's a task other district buildings may not face.

"It needs to be a community center. It needs to be a resource for everyone in the community. Not just students. Families. Everyone can come, access the Internet, have a quiet place to study, better their education, learn how to help their kids succeed," he said. "Johnson is in a physical location where they can have a huge positive impact in the neighborhood and I think by doing that we will have more students be successful."

Gay, Staab and Maske all expressed hope that Uhde's replacement will be there for the long term.

"I think it would be great for all students there to have someone with a vision of success and someone who is willing to stay and see it through," Staab said. "I think five years would be an amount of time where they could see some of those visions through."

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