An expedition in learning
It’s not easy building a school from scratch.
Working with a committed group of community leaders, educators and volunteers, that’s exactly what Rodney Johnson ’03 has been able to do.
After graduating from Furman, Johnson’s love of education and community service led him to Redemption Church on Haywood Road where for three years he taught Sunday School and worked with underserved Greenville families.
When their family moved to Atlanta, his wife Marla ’03 enrolled in a physical assistant program at Emory University. Johnson taught science and physical education at PATH Academy charter school where he later became the dean of students.
But he wanted to do more.
“The goal was to do something different,” he said.
He liked the freedom that a charter school provided, so he and his family returned to Greenville in 2008 to work with Redemption Church and a planning committee to start a new public charter school.
Two years later, Lead Academy opened with 80 middle school students at the church campus. Since then the school has moved three times, to the Upstate Circle of Friends campus, then to Reedy River Missionary Baptist Church, and finally to a permanent location on Mauldin Road.
These days, the school is housed in portable office and classroom space on the site, but Johnson and the rest of the Lead family couldn’t be more excited about their temporary building.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to hang things on the wall. This is the first time we’ve had a space to call our own,” said Johnson.
It’s only going to get better.
A 47,000-square-foot permanent school building is planned to open next school year, said Johnson. The school, which could serve as many as 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is set up to focus on project-based learning, complete with movable walls and shared spaces.
The building will also enhance the school’s focus on EL Education, previously known as Expeditionary Learning, an initiative started by The Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound USA. The vision of EL Education is to increase student engagement and achievement in the classroom, in part by connecting learning to real-world issues and needs. It also includes an emphasis on character education, on teaching teamwork, courage and compassion.
Students attending the school wear uniforms, polo shirts with the school logo and either navy blue or khaki pants to keep the focus more on learning and not on fashion, Johnson said. The school day at Lead, slightly longer than a traditional school day, runs from 7:50 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. to provide more time for electives and other learning opportunities.
“We strongly believe in a diverse community,” Johnson said in an interview with Upstate Parent magazine. “We look different. We come from different parts of the county. We grow together and we make each other better.”
Johnson, the school’s leader, works with four other Furman alumni: School Principal Chase Willingham ’12, Instructional Coach Sarah Mitchell ’01, Band Director Lee Scott ’11, and Social Studies Teacher Emma Rayner ’08.
“We’re very mission-minded. We want to prepare students who are leaders, students who are people of integrity,” said Johnson. “We want to see them do well when they leave us.”
Johnson, a native of Marion, N.C. earned his B.A. degree in Health and Exercise Science and received his teaching certification from Furman in 2003. He earned his M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from Central Michigan University in 2011. He was named one of Greenville’s Best and Brightest by Greenville Business Magazine in 2011 and was honored by Upstate Parent magazine earlier this year as one of 10 educators who are making a difference in the lives of children. Johnson’s outstanding record as a defensive back with Furman football also earned him a place in the Furman Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015. He and his wife have two children, Ethan, 9, and Eli, 6.