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MSU Alumnus shares stories about overseas education

Paul Johnson, president of the American College of Sofia in Sofia, Bulgaria, discussed his career in education and described the differences between the American and Bulgarian education systems when he visited Minot State University Feb. 7 as part of its Distinguished Alumni Series. In addition to talking with education students and a local service organization, Johnson spoke to a group of students, faculty, staff and guests about his journey as a "citizen of the globe" that originated in North Dakota.

"Growing up, I went to high school in Ray, and would occasionally go to Williston for school shopping, but I never really went anyplace. After high school, Minot State was the only place I looked at. My relatives were here (in Minot), and it felt comfortable. Looking back, I developed a fair amount of confidence (at MSU)," Johnson said. "As you master something, you develop confidence to do something else."

Johnson graduated from Minot State College in 1972 and began his teaching career at Minot's Edison Elementary School but left after two years because he felt he wasn't ready to "settle down." After a year of traveling he taught in a series of smaller, rural schools where he found himself involved in all aspects of education. Johnson credits those experiences as opportunities where he learned to teach and develop an interest in administration.

After working in rural North Dakota for several years, he returned to Minot as principal of Nedrose Elementary School from 1981 to 1987. Johnson earned a master's degree in educational administration from North Dakota State University in 1989 and a doctorate from the University of North Dakota in 1994.

Among Johnson's memorable experiences are teaching in a one-room rural school near White Earth and serving as a principal in South St. Paul, Minn., and a superintendent in Valley City and Bismarck. In 2008, the North Dakota Association of School Administrators named Johnson the North Dakota Superintendent of the Year.

As Bismarck Public Schools superintendent from 2001 to 2010, Johnson successfully tackled several issues critical to Bismarck's growth.

"The Bismarck school district was growing and was at a critical mass. This presented challenges around facilities, finding room for students, remodeling and expanding. In addition, the ‘No Child Left Behind' Act was passed, which meant adding teachers, implementing programs and paying attention to curriculum areas that needed it," Johnson said.

Johnson felt his previous experiences in large school districts, small schools, unstable environments and tough metropolitan neighborhoods prepared him for the challenges in Bismarck.

"In an odd way, sometimes it's those environments that aren't stable that are very attractive to me," he said.

In July 2010, Johnson became president of the American College of Sofia, considered one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Bulgaria and the Balkans. ACS is a private American prep school for Bulgarian students, housing 700 students in grades eight through 12.

"I've always been in public education, now I'm at a private school. Now we obsess about applications, admissions, fundraising, financial aid and recruiting students," Johnson said.

Johnson has extended his current contract for an additional year. However, he weighs the possibility of staying beyond 2014 to continue his duties and enjoy what he calls a "great life."