A short glance at Lee Johnson III's academic and professional career illuminates his dedication to improving future generations' quality of life.
Before Johnson completed his third degree from The University of Alabama (UA), his work has significantly impacted the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education and more recently ZERO TO THREE in Washington, D.C. Ensuring boundless possibilities for all children motivates Johnson's success.
He first realized his passion for early childhood development while pursuing an associate's degree in music education at Shelton State Community College (SSCC). During his academic career at Shelton State, he quickly realized that music served as a bridge to his true calling. He recalled that his participation in Bach to Rock was a pivotal moment, affirming his purpose of supporting children. Bach to Rock was a vocal performance ensemble made up of Shelton State students educating elementary school children about music.
Initially pursuing a bachelor's in music, he reimagined his academic path and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education and a Master of Arts in Health Education & Promotion from the College of Human Environmental Sciences.
While completing his undergraduate and graduate coursework, Johnson worked as an educator at UA's Child Development Research Center, Arts' N Autism in Tuscaloosa, and the Vogel Alcove Child Center for the Homeless in Dallas, Texas.
At the Child Development Center in Dallas, Lee combined his education and musical talents to explore how music could support infant, toddler, and preschool-age children's social-emotional wellbeing. By partnering with the therapeutic early childhood educators and the children they cared for, the Early Childhood Health Opportunities (ECHO) Therapeutic Enrichment Curriculum was born.
The ECHO curriculum made available various lesson plan ideas, music planning protocols, and age-appropriate music activities aligned with the ten national health education content areas and the Early Head Start/Head Start objectives governing the early childhood program.
Johnson's remarkable work at the center earned him a national endorsement by First3Years for this new work with the curriculum and his history of commitment to being culturally sensitive, relationship-focused in promoting infant and early childhood mental health and wellbeing.
In beginning his doctorate in public health, under the leadership of UA Health Science faculty, Dr. Angelia Paschal and Dr. Wanda Burton, Johnson built upon his earlier foundation in early childhood by deepening his health policy knowledge.
Utilizing his developing network, he secured several appointments with the State of Alabama, including the Office of Early Learning at the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (DECE). DECE is a cabinet-level state agency responsible for the nationally recognized First Class Pre-K Program, First Teacher Home Visiting Program, Alabama’s Head Start Collaboration Office, Early Childhood Advisory Council, and Child Care Quality Coaching. Johnson's leadership role within the department focused primarily on advancing early childhood mental health priorities, implementing children's policy, and advising on state and federally funded home visiting efforts. During his tenure, he became the first director of First 5 Alabama®, Alabama's Association for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health.
Johnson's impact would expand from the state to the national level as he neared his doctorate's completion, as evidenced in his being one among six selected for the National Black Child Development Institute's (NBCDI) inaugural policy fellowship cohort.
According to the NBCDI, the policy fellowship aims to elevate and accelerate Black leaders to ensure that leadership at the national level more closely reflects the young children served. The two-year program allows fellows to incubate new approaches to policies and reform systems to help Black children realize their full potential.
Johnson is a 2019 recipient of the Dissertation Award from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Doctoral Scholars Program and a recent 2020 Jack Davis Professional Achievement Award Recipient in Early Childhood Education. He is a featured infant and early childhood mental health expert in the 2020 award winning Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation documentary, Starting At Zero: Reimagining Education in America. The documentary, produced in partnership with Firestarter Interactive and directed by Willa Kammerer, explores the power of investing in high-quality early childhood education so that all children and families have the opportunity to realize their potential
Johnson's work, that sits at the intersection of early childhood and public health education, continues through his commitment and current role as Vice President of Policy at the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI).
"Each day is an opportunity for policymakers to advance racial equity, eliminate disparities in education, and prioritize the health and wellbeing of our children, our neighbor's children, of us all,"- Dr. Lee Johnson III