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<B>Jeff Johnson, a physical education teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, has been named principal of Shaftsbury Elementary. (Peter Crabtree)</B>
Jeff Johnson, a physical education teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, has been named principal of Shaftsbury Elementary. (Peter Crabtree)
Jeff Johnson, a physical education teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, has been named principal of Shaftsbury Elementary. (Peter Crabtree)
Thursday April 4, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

SHAFTSBURY -- Shaftsbury School District didn't have to search far to find its next principal, tapping town resident and longtime local educator Jeff Johnson to take the helm following the retirement of James Harwood.

Johnson, 40, began his career as a paraeducator at Molly Stark Elementary in 1998 before becoming a teacher at Molly Stark for grades five and six in 2000. Since 2005 Johnson has taught physical education at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. In 2012, Johnson was the runner-up to the Vermont Teacher of the Year.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity and meeting and talking to community members and staff alike. I'm really looking forward to next year," Johnson said Wednesday.

The school board will not officially approve the hire until its meeting April 10; however, the board announced the decision Wednesday after agreeing to accept the recommendation from the principal search committee in executive session Tuesday.

The clear choice

Donna Leep, assistant superintendent for Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and a member of the search committee, said Johnson was the clear choice of the 32 applicants.

"When you go through this process, often you meet a lot of people, but when the right person comes through the door you know they are the right person," Leep said. "He immediately became part of the group. It was more of a conversation than an interview and I think that everyone felt that connection right away. He has an energy that is infectious."

The decision of the search committee -- which included two school board members, one teacher, one paraprofessional, one member of the community, as well as Harwood and Leep -- was cemented after speaking with Johnson's co-workers.

"They all expressed really profound respect for him and that he always gives 110 percent and (has a) willingness to do the best that he can do at whatever he chooses," Leep said.

The principal position will be Johnson's first administrative job; however, he has great deal of related experience as a team leader at the middle school and leader of teacher professional development sessions.

Johnson's devotion to promote physical activity among children has expanded far beyond the walls of the gymnasium. Johnson created the middle school's Minds and Movement Program that trains teachers on ways to incorporate movement into the classroom. Johnson has also led professional development sessions for teachers throughout the supervisory union regarding the importance of movement to keep students' minds focused.

Johnson is also credited for redesigning the physical education program at the middle school to incorporate activities beyond team sports, such as walking, fitness room activities and rock climbing. The change has significantly decreased the failure rate of physical education classes since 2010.

Johnson completed an administrative degree program in 2005 but opted to wait for the right opportunity to make the transition. When the position in Shaftsbury opened, he knew he had found it.

"I wasn't in a hurry. I didn't want to take just any position. I was looking for a good fit, and (Shaftsbury) was looking for somebody who needed to be a good fit for the school."

Johnson grew up in Bennington but moved to Shaftsbury last fall. He has two children who attend Shaftsbury Elementary.

Johnson's contract begins July 1, but he will have an opportunity to spend some time in Shaftsbury this spring to work alongside Harwood in order to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Johnson has a desire to continue increasing movement in classrooms and increasing technology, but other than that, he plans to assess how the school is functioning and focus on getting to know the staff, children and community before considering changes.

"The first priority will be to get to know people and build relationships," he said.

Johnson's new role may be made more challenging because of the man he is replacing. Harwood, who has received significant praise for the work he has done by the board, co-workers, and community, is retiring after five years as principal in Shaftsbury and 34 years in the supervisory union.

"Everybody in the world wanted somebody who was going to be like Jim Harwood, and felt really sad about losing him ... but I think we all felt there are some similarities between Jeff and Jim, not only in looks but in their character and generosity in spirit and really being a part of the community and their connections with children," Leep said.

A reception will be held to offer the community an opportunity to meet the new principal at Shaftsbury School District's meeting that begins at 6 p.m. April 10.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi