New Johnson High principal has a history with the place

Micheal Thompson, incoming principal at Johnson High School, stands in front of a display case which holds pictures of students posing with books — simple endeavors like this can help students recognize that they’re a part of the school, he said. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Micheal Thompson is a witty, candid kind of guy whose passion for education is as easy to notice as the black eye he got when he tripped during a triathlon just days before sat down for a newspapear interview.

He’s 52, but it’s hard to tell by looking at him.He could easily be in his late 30s. He seems energized and revved up for the new school year.

In a way, Thompson’s new job as the Johnson High School principal is a homecoming.

The school was his home base for 10 years, and one of the first places he taught.

Thompson started out his teaching career at Battle Creek Middle School, after which he landed at Johnson starting in 1987 and stayed  until 1998. Thompson started at Johnson as an English teacher and also helped out with the yearbook and school paper.

Then, after spending some time doing curriculum and administrative work, he became principal at Gordon Parks High School, an alternative learning school in the St. Paul Public School District.

Thompson said he wasn’t intending to leave Gordon Parks — he was engaged in the school, and felt like he had a good thing going.

But, when former Johnson High principal Astein Osei announced he was leaving due to personal reasons, Superintendent Valeria Silva encouraged him to consider returning to Johnson.

“Micheal is a caring and experienced leader who knows the school,” said Silva in a statement.

Thompson said it was hard to say no to Silva.

And, he added, “it was kind of attractive to be able to come home again.”

Changing demographics

Since he first worked there in the ‘90s, the demographics have changed substantially — he estimated the make up of students was about 30 percent Hmong, 30 percent African American, 30 percent white. Today, it’s about 54 percent Hmong students, 20 percent African American, 14 percent white, with Latinos and other ethnic groups making up the remainder.

With that in mind, he said it’s important for the curriculum to reflect the identities of the students.

“Curriculum should provide mirrors for kids,” he said. “They need to see themselves and their culture reflected in their curriculum.”

But, kids also need to have windows, he said, to see the world beyond their own identities.

The school’s new aerospace designation is a good way of providing such windows, he said.

“That program can be the tip of the iceberg that helps lead us forward,” he said, explaining that it gives kids an idea of how education can translate into real-world skills.

“It helps us to be toolish rather than schoolish with our curriculum,” he said.

The school’s finishing up construction on new technology labs for this year, including a fabrication lab where kids can use laser cutters and 3-D printing technology, as well as a flight simulator room and a new science lab complete with a small wind tunnel.


Thompson is also hoping to surprise kids in order to draw them in.

He gave some examples of his time as principal at Gordon Parks High School — while he was there, the school put in a grand piano in the atrium where the kids gather between classes and eat lunch. Kids painted the piano with the guidance of a local artist.

The piano did wonders for the atmosphere there, he said.

“It actually changed the entire environment of that atrium and the cafeteria,” he said. “Kids would play it all the time, sometimes in class when they’re not supposed to.

“But they’re playing a grand piano. And you cannot have a fight when someone’s playing a grand piano. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Thompson said the school would also bring in musicians to play during passing time — the idea again being to change the atmosphere inside the school and relieve tension.

He said kids at Johnson should expect similar things — though whether they would end up being musical or not, he couldn’t say at this point.

Translatable skills

Thompson can remember teaching in room 123 at Johnson, just down the hall from his new principal’s office.

When social studies teacher Chris Nelson first came to the high school in the fall of 1994, Thompson was a well-established teacher there.

He recalled noticing the creative energy emanating from Thompson’s room.

“There was always something different happening in Micheal’s class,” he said, elaborating that you could walk by and hear either intense discussions or laughter, depending on the moment.

“He was one of the most creative of our English teachers at that time,” he said. “He had great relationships with his students.”

Kevin Davis, assistant principal at Johnson High School, said when he came to the school 20 years ago, he saw Thompson as a role model.

“You knew right away ... he was one of those teachers you needed to emulate.”

He said Thompson was good at “making sure that English was actually a cool subject.”

He expects Thompson will bring the same set of skills to his position as principal.

“You’ll see some creative ideas happen here,” he said.


Thompson said one of the largest challenges he expects to face is the achievement gap at Johnson.

“I think, like most schools, that’s one of our No. 1 challenges.”

According to the superintendent’s office, 65 percent of all students passed all of their classes — 76 percent of Asian American students, 67 percent of American Indian students, 63 percent of white students, 55 percent of Hispanic students, and 46 percent of African American students.

For Thompson, a former language arts teacher, a big part of addressing this achievement gap comes down to getting kids to be active participants in school through writing and reading.

“It sounds pretty basic, and I guess it is,” he said. “We need to make them work more, in a good way,” he said.

His message to students comes across fairly simple: “School is not a spectator sport.”

“High school is very easy to tend to be invisible,” he explained, “and we’re going to try and not let you be invisible, whether you like that or not. ... You can’t just come to class, put your head on the desk, and soak up whatever knowledge the teacher is telling you.”

The school year for St. Paul Public Schools begins bright and early on Tuesday, Sept. 3. Thompson will be standing by the front door with other faculty. He’ll be one of the first faces students see as they come through the front doors for the new year. And his black eye should be long gone.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

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