Stephanie Johnson sits next to Harlem Ware, 4, at Kids Unlimited in Medford Monday. Johnson has been named principal of Kids Unlimited’s proposed VIBES public charter school. - Jamie Lusch

Johnson to lead VIBES charter school

Veteran educator Stephanie Johnson has been named principal of the proposed VIBES public charter school, which is scheduled to open Sept. 3 at the facility owned by Kids Unlimited, a free after-school program for low-income children in Medford.

Johnson is the first administrator to be hired for the new school, which may have 150 first- through third-graders beginning in the 2013-14 school year if Medford School District requirements have been met.

VIBES Public Charter School: Academy of the Arts and Sciences, as it could be called, would offer an extended day for students from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with three meals each day. The school also would utilize community partnerships to work with families of high-risk students.

Tom Cole, Kids Unlimited founder and director, announced Johnson's hiring at the program's fundraiser, the Cota Singler Auction and Gala, on Friday.

"Steph is a renowned and respected principal in this community who recognizes student struggles and brings innovative efforts into the classroom," Cole said Monday. "She has a heart for kids in poverty and has played a leadership role in helping us since we opened."

Johnson, 67, is a founding member of the Kids Unlimited board and worked 34 years in the Medford School District.

In 2007, she retired as a principal at Washington Elementary School in Medford after working at the school for 18 years and raising students' test scores.

She and her staff at Washington helped students, most of whom live in poverty or speak limited English, repeatedly log some of the highest scores in reading, writing and math in the state, with about 90 percent or more of them passing in each area.

She began her career as a teacher in inner-city schools in Columbus, Ohio, before moving to Medford in 1973 to teach English at McLoughlin Middle School.

Six years later, she was promoted to counselor and then, assistant principal at South Medford High School.

Although she retired from the district, she never stopped working.

With a firm belief that education is the only way out of poverty, Johnson continued to serve on the board of Kids Unlimited, Gordon Elwood Foundation, the Providence Medford Medical Center and other organizations.

As an educator, Johnson promoted parent involvement by organizing free events, including computer and math nights.

She has reached out to the business community, garnering donations and mentors for children. She continues this at VIBES.

VIBES is an acronym for Vitality in Becoming Educated Socially, a long-standing mission of Kids Unlimited, which began with a $500 grant 15 years ago.

It is now one of the largest youth-serving organizations in the area, providing tutoring at five district schools as well as elementary- and middle-school summer camps and community programs.

"It's a thrill to open a school," said Johnson, who received a standing ovation when her position was announced at Friday's fundraiser. "Kids are my life."

The Medford School Board approved Kids Unlimited's modified charter school application in April, giving Cole and the VIBES charter school board until Aug. 4 to satisfy the district's requirements to create its third charter school.

In 2005, Kids Unlimited opened its facility on Riverside Avenue in a converted bowling alley. There are plans of expanding the center, with a new, 5,000-square-foot building on adjacent Austin Street.

This summer, modifications are being made on the existing structure to create six classrooms and activity spaces.

Cole has hired a first-grade teacher, Melissa Olmstead, who is working in the summer program. He plans to hire five more certified teachers initially to oversee six classes of 25 students.

Johnson, who is involved in the hiring process, says they are seeking teachers who are not only qualified but have "the desire to start something special," she said.

If opened, the public charter school would be available to any first- through third-grade student, even those living outside Medford. If more than 150 students apply, there could be a lottery.

After a parent education night on June 19, Cole said 50 students were registered for the new school.

The next parent education night is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, July 11, at the youth program's center at 821 N. Riverside Ave.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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