When Alison Johnson was 10 years old, she began staging plays on orange crates in her back yard. She knew even then that her life would revolve around drama. Today, the Santa Fe High School teacher is one of California’s leading advocates of theater and arts education in public schools.
Johnson, who has been teaching English and theater arts her alma mater since 1990, was recently appointed to the inaugural class of the Advocacy Leadership Network (ALN), a national three-year pilot program designed to train and empower members of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) in promoting the restoration of theater arts curriculum to school districts across the country.
“I am extremely honored to be named to such a prestigious group,” Johnson said. “Theater programs are greatly overlooked as educational tools, but they are really every subject rolled into one, with tremendous emphasis on critical thinking and collaborative learning.”
The 10-member ALN panel will participate in monthly webinars to share local, district and state-based arts education policies, legislation, and advocacy successes that can be modeled by others. The panel will meet in person annually in April.
Johnson had her dream, but it came with a caveat – California did not have a single-subject credential for theater and dance, which meant that drama could only be taught by an English teacher, whether they had been trained in theater or not. Johnson received her credential in English from Cal State Los Angeles so that she could begin her teaching career, then immediately began a second career advocating for higher teaching standards.
Johnson joined the California Educational Theater Association (CETA) in 2007, eventually becoming a co-director of advocacy, and has been a board member of the California State Thespians since 1999. For the last decade, Johnson and her Santa Fe High drama students have attended CETA’s annual Youth in Theater Day in Sacramento to advocate for school theater programs with congressional representatives. Most recently, students met with Assembly Majority Floor Leader Ian Calderon and state Sen. Tony Mendoza.
In 2014, Calderon introduced legislation authorizing theater and dance as single-subject credentials. Although that bill stalled, a similar bill was introduced in January 2016, the Theater and Dance Act (TADA), which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016.
“I am very proud of TADA,” Johnson said. “It was a team effort, and my students played a substantial role in its passage.”
Johnson’s drama students express deep commitment to their craft and say participating in theater has shaped them into well-rounded and resourceful students.
“I met Mrs. Johnson my freshman year and even though I wasn’t initially involved in theater, she taught me so much,” Santa Fe senior Gabby Bustamante said. “I wouldn’t be as involved in school if it wasn’t for her encouraging me to find my place in theater.”
For Johnson, serving on the ALN panel is a continuation of her twin passions – theater and advocacy, and she is eager to take on a larger role in the implementation of theater arts curriculum.
“Alison Johnson has spent a majority of her career advocating on behalf of arts education in our schools, and her efforts to ensure our students are exposed to dance, music, theater and visual arts have paid off,” Whittier Union High School District Superintendent Martin Plourde said. “Alison is an exemplary representative for the arts, and I congratulate her on being named to the Advocacy Leadership Network. The work she does benefits all students.”