Updated: Oct 17
Watching an art teacher at the age of 10 drew the path for Debra (“Debi”) Johnson’s career. At that moment, she knew she wanted to teach, and from an early age, she felt drawn to teach children with special needs. “They teach you more than you teach them,” says Debi.
A Lifelong Teacher With Diverse Experience
Debi grew up in a small town in western New York and was a competitive tennis player in her youth. She spent summers traveling for competitions and teaching tennis to younger players.
In college, she pursued a degree in both elementary and special education but graduated at a time when the field was oversaturated. She and her college roommate moved to Florida in the mid-1970s.
She landed a job teaching preschool and soon after moved into working with children and families in a mental health center where she stayed for 21 years. Debi gained a wide range of experience here, working with children who had learning disabilities, emotional disorders, behavioral disabilities or a combination. She evaluated struggling learners, taught parent education classes, and worked with classroom teachers to identify and refine teaching strategies best suited for specific challenges.
Debi loved being able to help these children learn, grow and gain confidence in their new abilities. She promoted into larger roles, training staff and parents, mentoring teachers, grant writing and designing innovative programs. In her last 12 years, she served as the director of education and director of the outpatient preschool program.
An Unexpected Change Led Debi to Her True Passion
When the center experienced funding issues and scaled back, Debi got the push she needed to find her absolute passion -- working with children on the autism spectrum.
She was drawn to a role in early intervention working for the agency that managed and provided services for children birth to age 3 in Palm Beach County. This included a classroom program for kids with autism and other related disabilities. “I loved it,” says Debi. “When you teach students with autism who have to work so hard to master important skills and then they get it, it’s incredibly gratifying as a teacher,” she adds. “I feel so proud of them.”
About that time, Debi joined the Board of Directors for Renaissance Learning Center, a charter school for children with autism in Palm Beach County. After six months, the school asked Debi to lead as their principal, which she did for 13 years.
When Renaissance moved north, Debi and a core team of teachers and operations staff saw a need in central Palm Beach County for a school for children with autism. They launched Connections in 2015 and have seen incredible growth over the years.
A Fresh Approach & Focus on the Family
“We’ve built a place where students are treated with respect and families are a part of the team. We set goals together, discuss the best environment for the child and collaborate on learning strategies,” Debi adds. “Our experience shows that when the family is engaged, we can identify effective strategies more quickly and bridge the school-to-home experience for the student. That enables students to make even more progress.”
Debi plans to remain at Connections for the duration of her career. And though she hints that retirement may be around the corner so she can spend more time with her grandchildren, we know she’ll always be part of the school that she helped establish and reflects so much of her heart.