New Woodland Hills school board member asks minority parents to be more involved

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For the first few days that Ava Johnson had to put her children on a school bus bound for Edgewood Elementary School, she trailed the bus in her car to ensure they arrived safely. After the formation of Woodland Hills School District, her children had to walk only a few blocks to attend what was then Rankin Intermediate School.

The 60-year-old Rankin resident and newest Woodland Hills school board member has watched the district grow and change over the decades as her six children — ranging in age from 24 to 42 — matriculated through Woodland Hills.  

“I don’‍t think my kids would have gotten the education they did if [the merger] didn‘‍t happen,” Ms. Johnson said of the court order that merged the predominantly black General Braddock School District with the predominantly white districts of Churchill Area, Edgewood, Swissvale and Turtle Creek. 

Tina Doose, president of Braddock council, advocated for the appointment of Ms. Johnson during a public comment segment at the June 18 legislative board meeting, citing the need for diversity on the board. 

“No one in the school board resides in any of the predominantly African-American communities except her,” she told board members. “You have the chance to support a candidate who resides in and represents our community.”

Ms. Johnson was appointed at the legislative meeting in a 5-1 vote and sworn in Monday morning.  She will replace former board member Jeffrey Cobbs, who resigned in May after being found guilty of assaulting his pregnant wife in a 2012 incident. Ms. Johnson is one of the only two black residents on the nine-member board this term, both of whom were appointed. 

The lifelong district resident grew up in Hawkins Village, a Rankin public housing development. She eventually became council president for the development and helped establish community chapters of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, a food bank and an after-school program for residents. As a district parent, she actively participated in the Parent Teacher Association and joined the athletic committee to help coordinate fundraisers for the football team.

One of her “biggest pet peeves,” she said, is that in all her years of volunteering with the district, she has not seen the same kind of active involvement from many minority parents. She wants to be “the bridge,” she said, relaying information to residents and inspiring them to become more active in the district.

“There are so many of them getting killed, shot, or involved with drugs,” Ms. Johnson said of young people. “If I can persuade these parents to be better parents, maybe we can help. Give them an education as far as raising their kids and help them better understand what’‍s going on.”

She was officially sworn in only Monday, she is already looking forward to the 2015 school board election. Whether or not she‘‍ll run, she hasn’‍t decided yet. The only thing she knows is she wants to get more minority district residents to turn out for the polls.

“Our residents don‘‍t come out to vote,” Ms. Johnson said. “The only time they really come out is for the presidential election. I don’‍t think they understand that they need to come out and vote all the time for every election.”

Beverly Moore, deputy executive director for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, has worked with Ms. Johnson for over a decade and was “elated” at the news of her friend and colleague‘‍s appointment to the school board.

“She’‍s always been a grassroots, hands-on type of person,” Ms. Moore said. “She‘‍s always given 100 percent of herself to her community. She’‍s been a parent and resident there, so she knows firsthand what the district is all about.”

Ms. Johnson‘‍s daughter, Dara Johnson, described the lack of parent participation as “unreal.” She said she has attended parent-teacher conferences at Wilkins Elementary, where her daughter is enrolled, with more parents absent than present. She often sees young children walking long distances to and from school alone. Her mother’‍s appointment, she said, could be just what the community needs.

“I get tired of hearing parents complaining about the district when they aren’‍t active in their own children‘‍s education,” Dara Johnson said. “Hopefully my mom can help them; because if they don‘‍t care, then their kids won’‍t care.” 

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke. 

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