Schoolmaster Kevin Johnson squares off against teacher groups over his plans to reinvent Sacramento High

July 14, 2003
July 14, 2003

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July 14, 2003

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Schoolmaster Kevin Johnson squares off against teacher groups over his plans to reinvent Sacramento High

Pushing ahead at an ungodly pace and daring his cohorts to
follow, Kevin Johnson is as uncontainable in wing tips as he was
in hightops. Just ask Johnson's employees at the St. Hope
Corporation. St. Hope is the nonprofit community development
organization the former Phoenix Suns point guard founded 14 years
ago in his hometown of Sacramento--which, when you do business
with KJ, is the West Coast version of the City That Never Sleeps.

This is an article from the July 14, 2003 issue

"If I get a thought in my head at three in the morning, I have no
problem picking up the phone," says Johnson, whose organization
has revitalized the Oak Park section of Sacramento with
educational and business initiatives. "The people who were
involved in the civil rights movement had no parameters--and we
consider what we're doing as that important. We're on the verge
of establishing a model for public school reform that could set
the tone for the entire nation, and there's a sense of urgency
that supersedes everything, including sleep."

This is one ex-Sun, it seems, who never sets. Last December,
Johnson, 37, had a late-night epiphany about his troubled alma
mater, Sacramento High, which faced state sanctions and perhaps
even closure because of plummeting student test scores. He placed
a midnight call to the home of Sacramento school district
superintendent Jim Sweeney, rousting Sweeney's wife, Jan, from
slumber. Told that Jim was on a business trip to Boston, Johnson
paced around his home in Sacramento's Curtis Park district until
dawn before calling the reform-minded administrator and
surprising him with an immodest proposal: The 1983 Sac High
graduate would "reinvent" the second-oldest high school west of
the Mississippi, reopening it as a secular charter school run by
St. Hope.

"He said, 'Jim, I hate what's happened to my school, and I can't
stand it anymore,'" recalls Sweeney, who pushed the school board
for the change. "You see a lot of athletes and ex-athletes who do
work in the community to try to burnish their image, but everyone
in Sacramento knows that what Kevin does is not about him."

After a stellar decade that included three All-Star games and an
NBA Finals appearance, Johnson walked away from the NBA five
years ago and raced headlong into his second career, approaching
it with the same frenetic fearlessness that made him one of
basketball's most exciting players in the '90s. Aside from a
brief return to the court in the spring of 2000, he has devoted
all his energies to St. Hope, which began as an after-school
educational academy.

Driven by a philosophy that compels him to "run a nonprofit like
a business," the Cal alum has had a string of successes in Oak
Park, capped recently by the 40 Acres development project, which
when completed later this year will grace the once moribund
neighborhood with a restored theater, a Starbucks, a barber shop
and a bookstore. St. Hope also gained approval to open a charter
school this fall for elementary-level children.

Assuming control of Sac High has not gone as smoothly as did
previous projects. Johnson's plan to divide the 2,000-student
public school into six subject-specific sub-campuses--with
faculty hiring decisions made by St. Hope--has drawn stiff
opposition from the Sacramento City Teachers Association and its
parent union, the California Teachers Association. After St. Hope
won approval from the school board in March, the CTA filed a
lawsuit attempting to block the move. Last week a Sacramento
Superior Court judge invalidated St. Hope's charter petition. The
organization has appealed, effectively staying the judge's
decision. A higher court is expected to rule on the case by the
end of the month. St. Hope is proceeding as though it will take
charge of the school in August. "I expected resistance, but not
the level we've encountered," Johnson says. "It came down to fear
of change, which historically has been a constant in these types
of situations. We will fight this because it's the right thing to
do. I'm confident we'll prevail."

National education experts are closely watching the situation at
Sac High, which is believed to mark the first instance of such a
large school being transformed so rapidly into a charter
operation. Johnson hopes his model--"the cornerstone is student
achievement," he says, "and everything else is secondary"--will
inspire other struggling schools in California and across the

"We know there's some history going on here, and Kevin is the one
driving it," says St. Hope's executive Alex Nizet, a former Cal
tennis star and entertainment lawyer who joined Johnson last
winter. "I marvel at his vision and leadership--and I wonder if
the guy sleeps." By now, plenty of other people are convinced he

COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN HANDS-ON As part of his effort to revive a strugglingneighborhood, the former Sun wants to turn his alma mater into acharter school.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (INSET) [See caption above]