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Educator Kent Johnson helps struggling learners soar

Published on: September 01, 2009

At Morningside Academy, the independent school he founded in Seattle in 1980, Dr. Kent Johnson has served as teacher, teacher trainer, school psychologist, school consultant, financial manager and, currently, executive director. There isn't a role Johnson wouldn't take on in order help students gain the skills and confidence they need to achieve their potential as learners.

Morningside serves elementary and middle school kids who have learning disabilities of various kinds. The school's research-based approach and proven success rates have led more than 90 schools and agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada to partner with Morningside for teacher training and instructional consulting. As a result, more than 20,000 students in the Puget Sound area and beyond have benefited from Morningside's method and curriculum over the past two-and-half decades.

Every Child talked to Johnson, our hero this month, about his pioneering and influential work as an educator of kids with learning differences.

Q: How would you describe your mission as an educator? What led you to it?

A: My mission is to develop a system of teaching and learning that provides struggling learners the opportunity to achieve the same intellectual levels as the best performing kids in school. The struggling learners I am referring to are those who are bright, average to above-average intelligence and show the potential to be successful students -- students with learning disabilities; attention, organization and focusing deficits, and the like.

My mission dates back to my childhood. I remember being in second grade and watching the teacher ask questions, call on students who were likely to give good answers, and move on. I would look around and notice other students who were not keeping up. I was troubled about their fate.

When I was 9 years old, my mother asked if I would help my sister with writing and math. Things went well, and other relatives asked me to help their kids. Soon I was imitating the entrepreneurial spirit of my family heritage. I combed my neighborhood with flyers to tutor other children who weren't successful in school. By the time I was 12, I had 40 summer school students, spread across our back yard and garage. That neighborhood was called Morningside, in Milford, Conn. In a way I am doing the same things now that I was doing all those years ago, name and all!

Q: What is unique about the curriculum and instructional method at Morningside?

A: At least five things. First, all the teaching is research- and evidence-based. By that I mean the teaching methods and curriculum materials are built from research on effective learning or have published evidence that student achievement improves with their use. I spend lots of time reviewing the education and psychology literature, searching for new methods and materials to try out.

Second, students are given extensive assessment to find out what they can do well, not so well, and not at all. Students are taught and practice all of their deficient skills, no matter how far below grade level. All their gaps are filled.

Third, students with similar needs are grouped together for instruction, even if they are different ages. I never understood why classroom placement was based upon age, not performance level. Teachers today have an impossible job to meet the needs of same-age kids with vastly different skills.

Fourth, students practice everything we teach them until they are fluent. They time themselves and each other until they can perform quickly, effortlessly and accurately, like people who practice in sports and music do. One parent told me our classrooms looked like academic gymnasiums, an apt analogy!

Fifth, teachers continuously adjust their instruction based upon performance data until the students are successful. They provide step-by-step advancement in curricula based upon evidence of mastery of previous steps. No one falls through the cracks.

Q: Many of the kids who come to Morningside have been diagnosed with a learning disability and have fallen behind grade level at their previous schools. A large majority make huge progress during their time at Morningside. What are the key elements of this success?

A: For the first time in their lives, our students are very successful in school. In fact, we tell families that their children will gain at least two grade levels in their skill of greatest deficit, or their money back. We have returned less than 1 percent of tuition in 25 years.

Learning success sets teachers up to give their students lots of praise, and they do. Students also have a daily report card that documents their learning. Parents review their child's report card each day, giving them more strokes at home.

Q: Tell us about the Morningside Teachers' Academy and the implementation of Morningside's instructional method by schools and organizations nationwide.

A: Since 1991, we have formed partnerships with 90 schools and agencies in the U.S. and Canada, teaching their teachers how we teach. Our collaboration with each school is extensive, usually lasting from three to five years and involving many hours of workshops and individualized, in-classroom coaching. Most of the schools are in large cities, although in recent years we have focused on schools in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' national school district.

Teachers, principals, school psychologists, graduate students and even parents also participate in our annual summer teachers' institute. We offer workshops and supervised, hands-on practice with our summer school children.

In all, over 800 teachers have studied with us through school partnerships or the summer institute. More than 20,000 students have improved their academic achievement with our system.

Q: What advice can you offer parents of kids with learning differences about how to help their kids love learning and reach their academic potential?

A: Create a loving, home-based learning environment. Play intellectual games with your kids every day. Read to them and ask them to read to you. Model the use of writing and arithmetic in your daily life. Discover and learn new things with your kids. Give them lots of strokes when they think, read, write, calculate and estimate well. Insist that their schools teach them all the basic skills and not gloss over poorly learned skills. A happy result is all but guaranteed.

For more information, visit

Allison Dworkin, ParentMap's special projects editor, lives in Seattle and has two daughters.


Originally published in the September, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.

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