T. Denise Johnson, currently executive director of City of Promise, said she knows the power of education and representation for children — especially in Charlottesville.

That was her reason for accepting the offer to be the first supervisor of equity and inclusion position for Charlottesville City Schools. Her new role will begin on May 15.

“We need people of color who are in positions of leadership,” Johnson, a 1998 graduate of Charlottesville High School, said. “They also need to understand that it’s not enough to say, ‘You can do this’ — but [also] ‘Let me show you how do to this. I can show you it can be done because I’ve done it myself.’”

Rosa Atkins, city schools superintendent, said there have been multiple discussions going on about equity.

“It’s important to address the issues of equity in all institutions and examine our practices,” she said. “Creating this position is a vital part of our decision-making. Having someone like Johnson on board to lead some of this work will help us have a comprehensive, systematic approach to equity.”

Atkins said Johnson, who will be paid $83,108 annually, wasn’t hired because she’s local. She added Johnson has experience in equity.

“She’ll bring a wealth of knowledge to this position,” Atkins said.

Johnson’s duties will include examining policies and systems, such as curriculum or transportation, that are currently in place and ensure they’re equitable for all children, she said. Additional tasks will also include engaging staff to build a welcoming and inclusive culture, monitoring student achievement, developing academic plans and providing counseling about “educational equity issues,” according to a district document.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s of science in health from Virginia State University in 2002. Two years later, she earned a master’s in education counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Before joining City of Promise in 2017, she worked for 12 years as a school counselor for Hermitage High School in Henrico County. Among other initiatives, City of Promise is a nonprofit that provides support to children in the Westhaven, Starr Hill and 10th & Page neighborhoods.

Mary Coleman will serve as interim executive director of City of Promise. She currently serves as director of development.

Born and raised in Charlottesville, Johnson said she brings a unique perspective to her new role.

“I have the perspective of being a low-income child,” Johnson, who describes herself as a product of Westhaven, said.  “I’m a public educator, so I bring that to the community. I’m also a nonprofit leader.”

Johnson said her goal is to reach as many children as she can by facilitating change, like making sure all children, regardless of their background, receive the resources that they need to maximize their full potential.

She stressed the article in the New York Times about local students Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes that detailed educational disparities and racial inequalities across the nation resonated with her.

“For me, there was a lot of response that went through my head. … I think there was some justified truth to what she was saying,” she said.

Johnson added education is an equalizer and wants to honor people who helped her by helping children and said it’s necessary to have someone who is intentionally placed to address equity concerns. There needs to be a bridge builder between the school systems and the community, she said.

“There have been certain spaces of inequity that we’ve always known. We’re being reactive to the history of educational disparities, and we’re also being proactive in saying, ‘The buck stops here. We’ve had enough,’” she said. “It’s time to make some changes. We’re going to put the things in place to make those changes, and that’s my goal.”


Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.