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Breaking New Ground

Aleesia Tolliver Johnson '99


Aleesia Tolliver Johnson

Aleesia Tolliver Johnson ’99, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools

With purpose and innovation, Aleesia Tolliver Johnson ’99 heads the largest school district in Indiana.

When many new college graduates are recruited to work for a top global information technology company, the opportunity is a dream come true. The recruitment process is highly competitive, and few are chosen to come aboard. Upon her graduation from Agnes Scott College, Aleesia Tolliver Johnson ’99 was one of these selected few, winning a coveted position at IBM, one of the most recognized brands in the world. A year later, despite the company being a great place to begin her career, Johnson resigned to pursue a different purpose.

“I quickly determined a job in private industry was not for me,” Johnson says. “It was not my calling and not the way I could best contribute to the world and my community. In my family, we have always placed a high priority on education and service. I wanted to pursue a career that would give me an opportunity to give my time and energies to both.”

It was a decision that would change her life and set her on a new course professionally. After her epiphany at IBM, Johnson, who comes from a long line of educators and civil rights advocates, enrolled in graduate school. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan in 2001 and went on to work as a Teach For America corps member, teaching at a middle school in Paterson, New Jersey. As she continued to build a career in education, she received a master’s degree in teaching in 2007 from Oakland City University.

Johnson moved up the ladder at Teach For America and then at Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Indy, serving as program director, assistant school leader and school leader, among other positions. Later, she held roles at Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation officer and deputy superintendent for academics. Johnson made history when she became the first African- American woman to lead the Indianapolis school district, first as the interim leader and then being named permanently in July 2019. With more than 31,000 students, Indianapolis Public Schools is the largest district in Indiana. For Johnson, her history-making achievement is personally meaningful.

“I love children, and, like my mother and grandparents, I have a deep passion for education and service to the community,” she says. “My work is about building on their legacy.”

Aleesia Tolliver Johnson reading book to kids

Aleesia Tolliver Johnson ’99, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, reads to a group of elementary students. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Public Schools.

The Evansville, Indiana, native credits her education at Agnes Scott with helping her find her voice. Surrounded by strong women of diverse backgrounds, Johnson not only discovered her voice as a woman with leadership aspirations but also learned how to leverage this voice through conversations and debates with classmates. These experiences helped her to come into her own, fostering her strength and confidence in her leadership abilities. 

Johnson’s arrival at Agnes Scott was part chance, part destiny. She learned about the college at an information session at her high school, and when she visited the campus on Scholars Weekend, she knew it was exactly where she wanted to begin her higher education journey.

“My high school graduating class only had 25 students, which made Agnes Scott’s small campus a perfect transition,” she says. “My professors greeted me by name; they knew me, and that is very important at the college level. I also built friendships with a group of women that continue to this day.”

Her fondest memories of Agnes Scott include talking and “being silly” in the dining hall with friends, attending formal ceremonies, like the ring ceremony during sophomore year, and having everyday experiences that helped her feel connected to the college and her classmates. She remembers professors and mentors who cared and the strong academic foundation the college gave her. Johnson also carries with her a critical skill she cultivated at Agnes Scott that she employs as the district’s top educator: the ability to look at a problem through a wide lens.

“In my role as superintendent, it is really important for me to remember there are many different ways of learning and looking at an issue or topic. There is no one way to learn or to arrive at decisions,” she notes. “As I interact with teachers, staff and community members, I find this approach serves me well in pursuing our strategic priorities and leading change.”

Described as a dynamic, visionary leader with a track record of advocacy for educators and students, Johnson has already developed and executed six strategic priorities for Indianapolis Public Schools that will anchor a larger 2025 strategic plan. Part of her strategy includes leading the considerably significant initiative of cultivating a racial equity mindset in all facets of the organization.

Johnson believes the groundwork for what she is doing today was laid when her grandfather told her service should be a person’s driving force and also when she saw her mother’s impact on her own students.   

“I want to honor the work and sacrifices my ancestors made so I could have this wonderful opportunity. I can best do that by being a voice for justice, equity and the students I serve,” says Johnson.

Read more stories from the Spring 2020 edition of Agnes Scott the Magazine here.

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