NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Aubrey Johnson knows a thing or two about tough towns.

The son of Panamanian immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York section, one of the city’s hardest neighborhoods. He also ran an auto-glass business with his dad in Hunts Point in the Bronx. You might’ve seen a late-night HBO special on the area. And he worked for more than 15 years in Paterson’s schools.

Johnson is now in his second year as superintendent of New Brunswick Public Schools. His knowledge of inner-city life is no doubt helping him here, in a thriving city with pockets of poverty.

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New Brunswick is a former Abbott District, meaning it’s among the state’s poorest districts. For years, that title has come with some of the typical trappings of urban education. The graduation rate, for example, has been lower than that of most districts, although it has recently climbed by 10 percent.

The school district is also on the rise in terms of student enrollment. New Brunswick has seen an increase of roughly 2 to 3 percent per year, expanding the number of classrooms available amid population growth and redevelopment projects.

To succeed, Johnson has spent time learning what and who make New Brunswick the unique place that it is—and what challenges city schools and families face. Now, he’s taking that information and melding it with his experiences to try to catapult the district forward, he told TAPinto New Brunswick in his Baldwin Street office.

“The most striking thing that I found in the City of New Brunswick is there is a sense of will,” Johnson said. “What I heard was that this school district—this community—can be top-notch, and that was very telling.”

Where He Comes From

When Johnson was in high school, his guidance counselor told his mother that he wouldn’t make it in a big school. The teenager was on the path to Northeastern University, a prestigious school in Boston. The words might have stung had his mother not said that he could handle the pressure.

Johnson applied and got in.

While at Northeastern, an academic dean suggested he pursue a communications degree. Johnson had already been admitted to the business school and hoped to start a company.

Johnson earned a degree in finance.

The superintendent attributes his go-get-‘em attitude to his parents. His dad owned an auto-glass shop and his mom—a teacher who went on to run a private school—worked a number of jobs.

“You don’t see it as a kid—you just think that’s normal,” he said. “But as I reflect back now, that work ethic became a part of me.”

After college, Johnson went into business with his father. That’s where he said he learned how to make payroll, lead employees and build professional relationships.

Eventually, a competitor bought the land that housed his dad's business, closing shop. Johnson was faced with a decision: Go into corporate America around the time of the 1987 stock market crash or choose another path?

As a child, Johnson spent untold hours his mom’s school, chatting with staffers and playing around with computers alongside her students. Many of his aunts were teachers, as well.

“I knew my heart was working with people and kids,” he said.

So he taught in Queens for a year and then moved to Paterson, where he steadily climbed the ranks from teacher to vice principal to principal to the director of assessment, planning and evaluation.

Eventually, his boss tapped him to serve as an interim assistant superintendent. All of a sudden, he oversaw 18 schools and roughly 25,000 students.

“You never think you’re ready,” Johnson said of the move. “Looking back, they know who they can lean on.”

Johnson was charged with ending social promotion, the practice by which kids advance to higher grades solely because of their age.

He started a mandatory summer-school program for students who failed an end-of-year assessment. In its first year, the program brought in 4,000 kids. That number dropped by at least 1,000 the following summer, Johnson said, showing success.

He then planned and opened a boys’ school in Paterson. Before long, however, he was on his way to New Brunswick.

What He’s Doing Here

When Johnson started working in New Brunswick, he embarked on a tried-and-true “learning tour.” The initiative put him in touch with students, parents, teachers and administrators, all separately, so he could understand their hopes and concerns.

He said he has since moved to address those challenges, like fragmented communications in the district and booming student enrollment rates. Indeed, an addition is under construction at the Paul Robeson Community Theme School for the Arts, and the district is attempting to take the load off New Brunswick Middle School.

“But we know if our trends continue, we’re going to have to look at other ways to do things,” he said.

As redevelopment reshapes the city, Johnson hopes to entice new residents to send their children to public school. While that might prove a difficult task within the gentrified sect, he has focused on district partnerships that allow for international travel and bringing tech into schools, specifically through last year’s purchase of more than 6,000 laptops.

More than anything, Johnson said he’s trying to retool how his schools serve the people who live in New Brunswick now.

The lion’s share of the student population is Hispanic. That means Johnson’s team must hire highly-qualified, bilingual teachers. This year alone, the school district is going to 11 universities, including Columbia and Rutgers, to find the right educators.

“We have never done this,” Johnson said. “We’re going out to find the best teachers. New Brunswick is like a hub—we truly believe that it is a melting pot—and we should be able to attract the best of them.”

What’s more, he said, current teachers are willing to seek guidance and continue to grow.

Johnson is also reaching out to parents. He’s holding a series of learning nights in which parents experience what students learn in the classroom and come to better understand the district’s expectations. The first one drew 200 parents and 300 students, he said.

New Brunswick’s parents tend to be heavily involved with school in the younger grades. Come middle school, like in many districts, that intensity begins to diminish, he said.

“That’s the time when we definitely need parents to be more involved,” Johnson said. “If I didn’t have my mother to say, ‘You’re going to Northeastern,’ who knows where I would’ve been?”

But the superintendent has encountered a problem in New Brunswick that’s typically unique to inner-city schools.

“We can do everything at home, we can do everything in schools, but if that student does not understand their purpose, if that student does not understand why they’re coming to school,” he said, “they’re not going to take ownership of their learning.”

For that reason, Johnson has made student accountability a top priority of his administration. He wants students to lead discussions, care about their test scores and begin to map out their futures.

Where they come from and how many jobs their parents work matter. But they matter less when students come to see the bigger picture.

“If a kid really understands why he or she goes to school, and it’s engaging for them,” Johnson said. “I think that will make a big shift.”