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St. Mary's County

Johnita Jackson Helps Her Pupils Read Better and Enjoy It More

By Arthur Santana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page SM03

Johnita G. Jackson, a teacher at Mechanicsville's Lettie Marshall Dent Elementary School, sits on a child's chair in a third-grade classroom among four students who need a little extra help with their reading.

Jackson, an instructional resource teacher whose job is to go from classroom to classroom and target at-risk students, holds "The Paper Crane." It's a children's book by Molly Bang about a restaurant owner and his son who lose their clientele when a new highway bypasses their street. When a poor man visits them one evening, they serve him a fine meal.

Johnita G. Jackson, winner of an Agnes Meyer outstanding teacher award, shares a book with two students at Lettie Marshall Dent Elementary School. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

Jackson smiles easily and laughs often as the story unfolds. One by one, each child in Gloria Bryan's class takes a turn reading passages.

She is patient ("Don't rush now. Let's look at the pictures and understand what's going on.") and liberal with her compliments ("That was very well done!"). Questions are welcomed ("I've had some ding-dong questions asked to me before, but that was not one of them."), and she's eager to explain the story's nuances ("I'm very happy you brought that up.").

The young readers reach the point in the story where the poor man gives his hosts a paper crane that becomes a living, dancing bird when they clap their hands.

"Any thoughts about what's on this page?" Jackson asks the children. "What's all that about? It's magic!" The students nod in agreement, fully invested in the story, barely aware that there's a classroom full of other students around them.

Many at Lettie Marshall Dent would say that the magic Jackson is describing to the children is actually happening right there in that reading corner. Fellow teachers and faculty at the school use words such as "extraordinary" and "generous" and "wonderful" and "skilled" and "dedicated" and "an asset to St. Mary's County public schools" to describe Jackson.

So it was a surprise to few at the school when Jackson, who also goes by "Johnny," was named the St. Mary's County recipient of the 2005 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.

The annual prize, which was awarded at a reception in Washington on Tuesday and which carries a $3,000 prize, is given to one teacher from each of the Washington area's 19 public school districts and to one private school teacher.

In a letter of support for Jackson's nomination for the award, second-grader Shawn Williamson wrote: "Mrs. Jackson is a very good teacher. She works hard and is very, very nice. Mrs. Jackson helps kids learn to read. She helped me become a better reader."

Third-grader Kasey Degennaro said in her letter that Jackson has "shown me how to use reading strategies when I'm reading. This has helped me in all of my subjects."

Jackson, who was a classroom teacher in Baltimore County from 1967 to 1974, said she's grateful that school administrators let her practice her own brand of "intervention" with struggling readers.

"I give her the freedom to do what she wants, what works best," said Principal Barbara Eddy. "Not everyone can do what she does. She's absolutely wonderful."

Jackson, 59, said she spends her time hopping from between five to seven classrooms each day. Her job is essentially to act as a resource to the classroom teachers, helping them improve their instruction, coaching their struggling readers and being a go-to person for general advice about teaching.

"As a classroom teacher, I often relied on Johnny as my sounding board," wrote teacher Kim Summers in her letter. "I always found her to be open to new initiatives and extremely positive in her approach to both teachers and students."

Teacher Shawn S. Hughes wrote that Jackson was a "wealth of information . . . willing to give of her resources or her time without hesitation."

Eddy, the principal, said the school was lucky to have someone like Jackson on its staff.

"She sees in every child that they can succeed," Eddy said of the 520 students at the school, who range in age from 5 to 10. "And she works hard to make sure that they succeed."

Jackson, who has a 27-year-old daughter, Kathleen, and lives with her husband, Robert, in Hollywood, said that although she's honored to received the Meyer Award, her daily reward is in the faces of the children she teaches.

"Every day, I go to school and I do something that makes an impact. I get to see those lights go off every day," Jackson said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

In the end, perhaps second-grader Shawn Williamson's postscript says it all. At the bottom of his letter are two stick figures of Williamson and Jackson, both with wide smiles, with a caption over Brian's head: "Reading is fun!"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company