Beyond the Roller-Skating Principal: Albert Johnson’s Story of Resilience

Two Rivers High School Principal Albert Johnson GS’22, Ed.D., has garnered local media attention and become known as “The Roller-Skating Principal.” But his story extends deeper than his custom skates. A high school dropout who overcame trauma and addiction, Johnson is an energetic and positive administrator dedicated to helping students overcome their own hurt and hardships.

By Jason Schoonover ‘09, senior web content specialist

May 08, 2023 | 9 a.m.

Principal Albert Johnson GS’22, Ed.D., holds up a pair of vibrant blue roller skates in his Two Rivers High School office in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. “What do you think the kids do when I roll down the hallway?” he asks. “Smile. Staff? They smile.” As the roller-skating principal, Johnson has garnered local media attention. But it’s much more than a gimmick. The skates are a connection point and help Johnson display his fun, positive nature and show his authentic self. He hopes it inspires students and staff to be their authentic selves and lean into their gifts. “I push and press for people to work in their giftedness,” he says. “I know where my lane is.” For Johnson, his lane is being a positive leader who aims to help students find resilience and healing. That spirit has roots in his own story.

Johnson grew up the youngest of five siblings raised by a single mother in Minneapolis. Struggling to figure out who he was, he dropped out of high school. Still, he forged a career path first in retail-based sales and then earned his GED. “I was making okay money, but something inside of me was still missing,” he says. Johnson struggled with past traumas and addiction, and he says he was living far from the church. Then on January 6, 2002, he visited his father’s grave for the first time about 15 years after his death. “I prayed for God to take the taste of alcohol out of my mouth, and I reconnected with God,” he says.
Albert Johnson GS‘22

While Albert Johnson GS‘22 was in the Ed.D. in K-12 Administration program at Bethel, Program Director Tracy Reimer visited him at Apollo High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. During a meeting in Johnson’s office, she noticed a rolling clothes rack with about a dozen suits. The boys’ basketball team required players to dress up on game days. But multiple players could not afford dress clothes, so Johnson brought suits to his office for students to borrow and wear on game days. “Dr. Johnson cares about people first,” Reimer says.

Everything changed. That April, he became a deacon at New Life Missionary Baptist Church, recommitted himself to his wife, Carrie, and became a minister in September 2002. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in ministry and master’s degree and organizational leadership. “Now I’m letting God lead me where I need to go,” he says. Around this time, Johnson started a breakfast club for students at his son’s school to encourage and empower young men to be successful in life and business. He loved the experience, and it inspired him to pursue a career in education. While working as an equity and integration specialist, he brought the breakfast club idea to the district and built it into an inclusive club aimed at forging community connections and lowering the achievement gap. He found the project inspiring, and others took note, too.

“Someone made this crazy comment to me, ‘Al, you’d be a great principal,’” Johnson laughs. “I’m like, ‘I can’t be nobody’s principal. I’m a high school dropout. What are you talking about?’” But the idea stuck. Johnson started the Ed.D. in K-12 Administration program at Bethel because he wanted a Christ-guided university that would also allow flexibility as he worked full time. “I needed to be more deeply rooted in my faith while learning what my passion is and how to make sure that those two intersect,” he says.

As Johnson started his administrative career as assistant principal and then principal at the McKinley Area Learning Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, his goal was to become an assistant superintendent or superintendent. After then serving as principal of Apollo High School, he made it to the district office as director of equity. But Johnson chose to return to McKinley ALC as the principal. He missed working directly with students and believed that was where he was most needed. “I think that’s where Jesus would work if He were a principal—where kids are hurting, where kids need love, where kids need that support,” he says. He went on to help open a Recovery School Program at McKinley as a safe place for students returning to school after treatment for substance abuse.
Albert Johnson GS’22

Two Rivers Principal Albert Johnson GS’22 explored ways to help youths who’ve experienced trauma in his Ed.D. dissertation, titled “Understanding Possible Risk and Protective Factors for High School Students Who Experience Chronic Childhood Trauma.” Johnson admits it was a challenging process, especially since he didn’t take any advanced-level classes in his own high school days. He frequently followed his research down rabbit holes. Though it took longer than expected, he credits Bethel faculty for helping him complete and improve the paper to complete his Ed.D. “They helped me through it all that,” Johnson says. “It helps me be a better administrator, the things I learned going through the process.”

After seven years in St. Cloud, Johnson pursued a job closer to his home in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He became the principal at Two Rivers, another school where he saw opportunities to bring his passion for serving students. “I consider this a form of ministry, what I do here,” he says. “I love on people all day, that’s what I do. I try to heal the space.” Johnson strives to do that as his authentic self. He keeps an open Bible and a cross on his desk. He wants students and staff to feel loved, and his faith drives him to be highly positive and to show love to others. Two Rivers Assistant Principal Jessica Cabak ’08, GS’17 describes Johnson as a compassionate, joyful, and humble leader with contagious energy. “He is always striving to do what's best for students, families, and staff. Al is an authentic person who leads from a place of love, encouraging those around him on a daily basis,” says Cabak, a fellow alum and an adjunct professor at Bethel. While Johnson strives to attend every student sport and activity at least once, Cabak says Johnson shows up for students in ways that go far beyond his attendance. “He notices students throughout the school day who might need to connect with someone and drops everything to have a chat with them,” says Cabak. “He wants to make sure students know they are loved and he genuinely cares about their wellbeing.”

As someone who faced his own challenges, hurt, and traumas, Johnson has a heart for helping students overcome theirs. Mental health is one of the biggest challenges at Two Rivers, especially after the pandemic. Johnson still sees students feeling the effects of staying home and being isolated for almost two years. Many have self-medicated, and Johnson sees issues with vaping and THC vaping. After seeing depression and teen suicide rates increase, Johnson is a strong advocate for investing in mental health resources. Two Rivers employs a social worker and therapist, and Johnson is working with an agency to overcome a shortage of Spanish-speaking therapists. “We’re trying to bring in as many resources as we can,” he says. Johnson also plans to start “Dr. J Skates: A Story of Resilience,” a podcast where he’ll talk about his past challenges. He hopes it will mirror the challenges his students face and help find counterbalances—tools people can use to overcome traumas or stress.
Albert Johnson GS’22

Albert Johnson GS’22 remembers exactly where he was when he finished his dissertation to conclude his Ed.D. in Leadership in K-12 Administration. Program Directory Tracy Reimer told him, “Congratulations, Dr. Johnson.” He wept. “It was one of those things that without Bethel walking me through, my faith partners at Bethel walking me through, I don’t know that I would have made it,” he says. He highly recommends Bethel to others. “Anyone who’s in a principal prep program absolutely should go to Bethel,” he says. “If you want to maintain a sense of faith, and if you want to be Jesus in the workplace, you need that grounding.”

Looking ahead, Johnson will continue skating the halls of Two Rivers. He wears his custom skates to greet students and staff in the halls in the morning, and he’ll even wear them—often upon request—at conferences. “It humanizes me as an administrator, I think, more than anything,” he says. Johnson says he doesn’t want to be a traditional principal—one who is locked to his desk and administrative tasks. “I want to be out in the hallways talking to kids. I want to be in the gym proving that I’m still better at basketball than any of the kids in there,” he says with a laugh. “What they’re interested in, I’m interested in.”

But he also harbors big goals for Two Rivers. Johnson, the first Black Administrator in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools, recently told his superintendent that he wants Two Rivers to be the best high school in the country—the best for special education students, English as a second language students, AP honors students, and beyond. “There’s a belief here that we are going someplace,” he says. Johnson sees that belief taking root in how his employees have come together. In recent years, Two Rivers has seen very low turnover. He sees a bright future. “God is doing something with this place, He really is—and with this community.”
Albert Johnson GS’22

Two Rivers Principal Albert Johnson GS’22 strives to be a visible, approachable administrator, he often invites students to his office for positive conversations to help rewrite the stigma of “going to the principal’s office.”

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