Peekskill Middle school is lasting legacy of Superintendent Judith Johnson

The indelible evidence of former school superintendent Judith Johnson’s tenure in Peekskill is the building that graces the 200 block of Ringgold Street. Johnson, who died last month, had the vision that every child could learn but that a conducive environment was an integral component of the educational process. Building a state-of-the-art middle school with an indoor swimming pool was a way of acknowledging that Peekskill considered education important enough to create a world class learning center. 

Judith Johnson
View of middle school from Washington St. Photo contributed by Josie Esposito.

Peekskill Middle School is a monument of sorts. Monument is rooted in the Latin monere, which means to remind or admonish. This building is a concrete sign that children have value and worth and they deserve the best that adults can offer. Peekskill Middle School says loud and clear to students and the community…..we value you, we believe in you and we are going to give you a place to learn and grow into educated citizens.

Peekskill Middle School has become what Johnson envisioned: a hub of learning and activity and a beacon to the community, something to take pride in.  This month marks the one year anniversary of The Saturday Academy, open every week from 10 to 1 at the middle school.  The free academy brings in partners from the community as guest speakers, offers crafts and other resources.

KD and I
Kathy Daley, left, and me at recent national newspaper convention where Daley received an award for stories she wrote for Sullivan County Democrat last year.

In the guest post below, my former colleague Kathy Daley who was editor of Peekskill Herald, shares her memories of Johnson.  

Judith Johnson was a force of nature in the world of Peekskill and in my own life.

From 2001 through 2008, I worked for the Peekskill City School District as communications consultant, writing newsletters and connecting with the media to spread the word about how great Peekskill kids and schools are. Getting a new middle school approved and built was something I spent hours writing about.

JJ, as some of us called her, was no shrinking violet. She could be tough and challenging especially as she pursued her no holds barred campaign to give kids a great education. 

She was raised in the projects in Brooklyn and her parents, from what she told me, were not highly educated. But when she was in first grade, a teacher expressed amazement that, in JJ’s words “this little girl can READ.” The teacher took her under her wing, and Judith never forgot it.  Every child can learn, she said, but every girl and boy needs a person who believes in them and is willing to “go the extra mile” for them.

JJ was also kind and funny. The first week she was hired, she asked me “Where can you get good gold jewelry in Peekskill?” She was a fancier of large, artistic earrings. I said, “I don’t know. I buy my jewelry at Rite Aid.” She got a big kick out of that and, three days later, handed me a little white box where two real gold miniature hoops nestled. That was Judith… big hearted and generous.

Perhaps one of her greatest gifts to Peekskill was the middle school. In 2003, JJ and the Board of Education began a campaign to raze the 76-year-old structure that no longer served students well. Judith was ahead of her time: the classrooms were too tiny with no room for learning in small groups. (Today, U.S. classrooms are being reconstructed to encourage critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork versus rote memorization as the teacher intones from the front of the classroom. Judith got that 16 years ago).

Judith Johnson in PKsk
Judith Johnson, who became a NYS Regent after she left Peekskill, on a visit to Uriah Hill last year. Teacher Joshua  McClellan was a student in the district when Johnson was superintendent.

The old Peekskill Middle School struggled with an aging boiler. Some classrooms were super hot, others were freezing. Science classrooms were below State Education Department standards. There was no real auditorium, it went on and on. Then on April 1, 2004, voters agreed that the community needed a new middle school. The vote passed by a super-majority, that is, 60 percent of voters said yes to a new school, yes to kids, yes to the superintendent of schools.

We rejoiced. Go in peace, dear Judith.