Mary Johnson, who has made a career out of careers — those of students, not her own — has earned a prestigious award for making a difference in the lives of hundreds of Pleasant Valley High School graduates.
Johnson, the Career Center coordinator at PVHS, has been selected as the Iowa ACT College and Career Readiness K-12 Champion for 2018.
According to ACT, the ACT College and Career Readiness Champions personify the mission of ACT “through intentional actions that create an atmosphere and culture which promotes college and career readiness for all. “
Johnson helps determine career paths and student interest for all students.
She hosts “lunch and learn” sessions to give students exposure to different career options, sets up individual job-shadow opportunities, attends job fairs with students and ensures that student are supported while they decide their futures.
“Mary has been a good asset to our schools for a long period of time,” said Pleasant Valley Superintendent Jim Spelhaug.
He praised Johnson for her active approach in providing job-shadow opportunities and lunch-and-learn sessions.
“What Mary does is help create a connection between K-12 students and what it is they aspire to.” She is “connecting kids to their possible futures,” he said.
“The most important metric of success for us is how successful (students) are when they leave us.”
Johnson says Pleasant Valley students begin career planning in sixth grade, when she encourages them to begin to identify what they like as they’re starting to know themselves.
In high school, job-shadowing opportunities and “lunch and learn” sessions give students a glimpse at what various careers entail. They learn what classes they might need to consider in college to become viable candidates for those professions.
For example, 10 students attended a recent lunch session involving the social sciences. Speakers included Amy Herrig, admissions coordinator – adult programs for Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.
Johnson facilitated the session, and pointed out a range of opportunities that require a social-science background, including a child life specialist at a hospital.
She told students that there are “so many scholarships, and so many that people don’t apply to. We have to sometimes beg our students to apply for our in-house scholarships.”
She encouraged students to consider attending a two-year college then transferring as a way to save money. Additionally, PV has dual-enrollment classes that allow high-school students to enroll in college courses for credit before high-school graduation.
College, of course, isn’t the right choice for every student. Johnson did not finish college, but she has been a substitute teacher, a teacher’s aide and a job-shadow coordinator for Pleasant Valley.
Now she helps students like Maddison Behnke, 17, a Pleasant Valley junior who sat in on the social services session, who said she appreciated being able to talk to somebody about such a career.
Likewise, junior Abbey Jones, 17, said the session gave her “more insight. I was vaguely interested in social work” before.
Students took notes while the speakers talked and stuck around afterward for some individual conversations. Johnson beamed.
‘I love my job. It’s the perfect job for me,” she said. One student, she said, wanted to be a pilot. He signed on for the National Guard, which will pay for his continuing education, and now flies drones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another student, who was considered to be at-risk, had a job-shadowing experience and came back and told Johnson “They said I could go to college!” He did, and he now makes $60,000 annually, she said.
“They don’t all go to college,” Johnson said. “We use the phrase ‘college or career.’" Many students focus on interests to find job as apprentices or in technical settings.
Deborah Menke, who was principal at PVHS from 2000-2009, calls Johnson "tenacious."
"She is one of those people you look at and think 'Is she ever going to be satisfied?'" Menke said. In every capacity in which Johnson worked, she "fulfilled the responsibilities and more. There was never a ceiling for her."
"She did it just by her persistence and seeking the best she could from the particular environment she was working in."
Johnson, of LeClaire, is a graduate of Pleasant Valley where, some time ago, she served as PTA president. She is married to Steve Johnson, and their children are Anthony, an EMT; Chris, s manager at Davenport Country Club; and Eric, a chef; all of whom graduated from Pleasant Valley.
And Johnson longs to achieve at least one more notch on her career belt: "My other passion is reading. Some day, when I retired, I'm going to own a book store."