After 2018 surgery, Johnson-Davis never considered a school board run

After teaching for 14 years, including eight at Decatur’s Renfroe Middle School, Jana Johnson-Davis decided not to renew her contract at the end of last year. She’d undergone breast cancer surgery in July 2018, and in her own words, “after something like that you tend to get reflective.”

Among her ambitions, Johnson-Davis plans to write a novel and to also begin a PhD program on Educational Studies next summer. But one thing she hadn’t considered was running for the school board.

“It just really happened fast,” she said recently. “When Annie [Caiola] announced in June she was resigning, some members of the community reached out and persuaded me to run.”

Like the other two board candidates, incumbent Tasha White and newcomer James Herndon, Johnson-Davis ran unopposed. But since she’s filling out the balance of Caiola’s term through 2021, she was sworn in earlier this week.

It was both coincidence and symbolic that Johnson-Davis joined the school board the same night that City Schools of Decatur’s central office was dedicated as the Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, after the city’s only black mayor.

By early January when all other swearing-ins are completed, Decatur will have four black school board members and city commissioners combined, a first in city history: Johnson-Davis, White, Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers and commission newcomer Lesa Mayer.

“It’s a sign of change and progress,” Johnson Davis said. “I think it’s reflective of the conversations we’ve had in the school system, and the work’s that been done around race.”

In the last few years CSD has created an Equity and Student Support department. During the same period Johnson-Davis and her husband, civil rights and defense attorney Mawuli Davis, help co-found The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights. The collective has had one or more members present at every school board meeting for about the last three years.

But even with this recent “progress,” Johnson-Davis is the first to admit that plenty of challenges lie ahead. Part of this relates to Decatur, and particularly the school’s district’s diminishing racial diversity.

CSD’s recently updated K-12 enrollment numbers show the district is 63.7 percent white and 19 percent black, a disparity unequalled since the 1960s. This includes two elementary schools, Westchester and Winnona Park, sliding below 10 percent in African American students.

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