“Hey, hey, it’s Mama J” – new principal leads with P.O.W.E.R


Ari Wilke

At the Club Fair on Aug. 26, senior Megan Drumm gives interim principal Cynthia Johnson a pin reading “You put the pal in principal.” Drumm got the pin on a visit to the Herff Jones yearbook plant earlier that day. “I saw the pin and immediately thought of Mama J,” Drumm said.

By Meriel Salisbury, Features Editor

Interim principal Cynthia Johnson routinely goes by two names at Lawrence High School: Dr. Johnson and Mama J.

The nickname was given to her by students 33 years ago and quickly caught on at LHS.

“They said, ‘You take such good care of us, you’re like our mama, so we’re going to call you Mama J,’ ” Johnson said. “So here I am, still Mama J today.”

The student body quickly discovered that Johnson’s leadership style is different from what LHS has recently seen. Johnson is routinely in the hallways singing into a megaphone during passing periods. She checks in with students in the cafeteria and passes out ponchos on rainy days. On the announcements, she regularly tells students they are loved.

Johnson has also established clear communication between herself, Student Council and the LHS community.

“I am advocating for many different things, whatever is best for students… if it’s good for children, then that’s what I’m willing to do,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s career in education began with teaching speech, debate and drama. She has also served as a principal for elementary and middle schools, a leadership coach, district-wide project leader, adjunct professor, director of alternative certifications and spent the past 26 years being a national consultant for school districts across the country.

Johnson’s greatest passion is school connectedness.

“School connectedness is a technical terminology for building relationships and the power that building relationships have in transforming schools into villages,” Johnson said.

As a seventh grader in Warrensburg, Mo., Johnson experienced the power a caring teacher can provide.

“I had one teacher that looked at me and didn’t worry about all the things that were going on in my life: that I was a child of poverty, that I stuttered, that I was in special classes, that I couldn’t read very well,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t worried about that. He involved me in speech and drama and …took me to competitions, and in that first competition, I won first place.”

The actions of this teacher allowed Johnson to continue speech and drama competitions throughout high school and college — two piers of education she was told as a child she would never complete.

“I did that not to prove anybody wrong but to prove to myself that I don’t have to live down to what people believed in me,” she said. “I can live up to what I believe in myself.”

Senior Frances Williams has noticed a change in the attitudes of her teachers.

“Just coming in on the first day you could tell teacher moral was already boosted with her being her over the summer,” Williams said.

Johnson’s leadership is exciting to Williams as well.

“I think a lot of the seniors… are pretty amped about it… because this is our first principal that we’ve had in our school careers that’s actually been more hands on,” Williams said.

Although Johnson’s long-term future at LHS is unknown because of her interim status, assistant principal Margene Brohammer said Johnson’s impact will last.

“Would you forget a high school administrator who sang? Would you forget a high school administrator who practiced with the cheerleaders? Who hung out with the flag core?” Brohammer asked. “I know that she has a lot of talents. Lawrence High would be a great spot for her. It is a great spot for her.”

Johnson hopes to serve as a reminder of what hard work and education can bring.

“I want to be a living example of what is possible when you work really, really hard… I was very poor. Eight and nine years old, digging in the dumps,” she said. “A lot of people doubted me. A lot of people told me that I wouldn’t do it, and I couldn’t do it. But here I am today still living the dream that I had, not somebody else’s words that they thought about me.”

Johnson said she wants students to have dreams, too. That’s why, she said, she regularly tells students they are loved over the intercom.

“I want to make sure that you hear that because that’s exactly how I feel and that’s how we feel about the students that walk down these halls,” she said.