Atlanta Board appoints community leader Johnson to fill vacant seat


Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools

Jessica Johnson was appointed to the previously vacant At-Large Seat 9 immediately following the Atlanta Board of Education’s unanimous vote for her appointment in early January.

Shalin Bhatia

The Atlanta Board of Education unanimously appointed Jessica Johnson to the previously vacant At-Large Seat 9 in early January.

Johnson is the founder and executive director of the Scholarship Academy whose mission is to assist marginalized applicants, such as low-income students, secure resources to pay for college. She applied to be a school board member to lend her assistance to student success in Atlanta.

“The way the board has specifically started focusing on student outcomes for focus governing was inspiring to me,” Johnson said. “I think that if we keep students at the root of all decisions, whether it’s budget, facilities or staffing decisions, then that feels like a recipe for success to me. It’s something that I can personally move behind and professionally lend some of my thought and leadership to.”

Johnson replaces Jason Esteves, who resigned from the At-Large Seat 9 last month after winning election to the Georgia state Senate. As the new representative in this position, Johnson will allocate special attention to Districts 5 and 6, while also representing the city as a whole.

“I have to be knowledgeable about what is happening across all of the districts and be supportive of all of the district representatives on issues that impact them,” Johnson said. “[I’ll also have to] be able to bring specific questions to the superintendent [while] having that full city lens and having a broad knowledge of what’s happening across the city. [I’ll also have to] be able to notice trends, which I would have a unique perspective on.”

Prior to her appointment as a board member, Johnson served as a District 6 community representative in the APS Equity Advisory Taskforce, where she was motivated to help create a fair distribution of resources available for APS students so that they could have equal opportunities to attend college and pursue a career.

“Because of the work we do at the Scholarship Academy, I was aware of some of the equity gaps that exist, definitely across the high schools, in terms of resources available to help test prep, robust the college application for financial aid and support arts–[resources] vary by school,” Johnson said. “So, as a community partner, I wanted to try and use the data to tell a better story of what was happening.”

District 3 Representative Michelle Olympiadis said Johnson was selected as the new representative following a process that narrowed down a list of 15 applicants to four, and eventually to one, choosing Johnson after interviews with the four applicants.

“One did not qualify because of where they resided, and we were all asked to review the resumes of the 14 that we were left with,” Olympiadis said. “Then, we had a meeting where we discussed everybody, and after making suggestions on who we thought would be good picks, we landed on four candidates who we interviewed, had a discussion about and then came up with a recommendation.”

Olympiadis was impressed with Johnson after reviewing her resume due to her involvement in the district, as well as her professional sense of direction.

“She doesn’t have children in the system, and I was very impressed with this because [she still had] a depth of school operations, which helps to give you perspective on how to move work forward,” Olympiadis said. “I think she understands exactly where she wants to go, and that she’s got to work with eight other people to make sure that happens, which I think is exceptional.”

Johnson replaces Esteves on the Budget Committee, and feels as though her professional budgeting experience and knowledge of how the committee meetings operate will aid her contributions.

“I’m coming to the meetings at least having done my homework and prepared to ask specific questions, and making sure that I always drill it back to how we impact students day to day and how we are addressing equity,” Johnson said. “These will always be the two questions that I will lean on for better understanding to make sure that we are moving forward with fidelity.”

Olympiadis, the chair of the Budget Committee, believes Johnson’s experience will make her a unique and helpful voice in both the committee and the board as a whole.

“I think her serving on the [Equity Advisory Taskforce] and her having her own nonprofit that has benefited children in APS, is the highlight of what differentiated her from other candidates,” Olympiadis said. “Her deeper breadth of understanding of what’s going on in APS was also very important to me. What’s important with respect to the Board of Education is that we find the synergy amongst us to move the work forward, and I think what I’ve learned over the past several years is that takes a minute.”

Olympiadis’ view of the importance of synergy in the Board of Education is shared by Board Chair Eshé Collins, who, in Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony, made remarks about what setting Johnson would enter into through her appointment.

“[Johnson] will be joining a board of educators, parents, advocates and business owners – all of us from different fields,” Collins said. “But one thing that we do every day, and I’ve been honored to serve alongside my colleagues, is that we try our best to make the best decisions for children – not about adults, and not about our egos and interests. We’re so excited to have you join us in this work. It’s hard work, but it’s also heart work, and we try to lead in that resolve every single day.” 

With Johnson’s appointment, all nine board seats will be held by women. Johnson believes this development is significant to the city of Atlanta.

“It’s empowering as a woman to join the ranks and have the first all-female board in the history of APS,” Johnson said. “Eshé [Collins] was mentioning that there were times when the board was all-male, so it just really speaks to the willingness to lean into what leadership can look like, and that is exciting to me. I think I want to pave the way for other young women who want to be in leadership to be able to do it and do it well.”

Johnson hopes to capture the voice of a wide array of community members to confidently make decisions as a representative and bring new partnerships to the district.

“I want to contribute thought and leadership [as a board member],” Johnson said. “I want to vote confidently on important issues, like the Facilities Master Plan. I also hope to be able to identify some opportunities to expose more APS students to the field of entrepreneurship through my tenure. I know [my term] is just the year, and so those are really big goals, but I’m excited about the challenge.”