Riley Johnson’s experience at Leo Junior-Senior High School was a positive one. He excelled at meeting the requirements and getting good grades so he could get into college.
He graduated in 2004 during what he called the “Everybody go to college era.” He said he’s very thankful for his experience, but can’t help wondering about a different style of education, steered by building skill and practical training, rather than traditional classroom learning.
“As an educator, I strive for that,” he said. “I always think, ‘Is it possible to create a truly authentic experience where kids drive it, not content and standards?’ ”
Johnson graduated from Ball State University in 2009 and began his career in education, making his mission to create that authentic experience for his students. He is bringing his dream to fruition as the first director of Fort Wayne Community Schools new immersive learning program, Amp Lab.
Amp Lab at Electric Works is a half-day learning experience for juniors and seniors. Johnson said the lab focuses on problem-solving using entrepreneurial and industry-based skills. Students will be given real issues affecting the community and tasked with bringing tangible solutions to the table.
“We’re on day nine and kids are engaged in really complex, real work right now,” Johnson said during an Aug. 23 interview.
About 350 students are enrolled in Amp Lab. Some students were nervous going into the lab as an entirely new experience with no blueprint, Johnson said. But it didn’t take long for the kids to get to work.
“They took the bull by the horns on day one and have not stopped in terms of leaning into a new culture, knowing that their voice matters as much as any adult’s does,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but the students are building something that they know is meant to be different, and they’re taking that challenge with the responsibility and respect that you would hope they would.”
The lab has four studios, the Create Studio, Make Studio, Grow Studio and 3 Rivers Credit Union Venture Studio. Students spend time at the lab working on challenges, which have the three P’s: problems, processes and people, Amp Lab’s Community Coach Jeff Roberts said.
“We’re hoping organizations give our kids real authentic problems to solve,” he said. “The process is they would come in and give workshops on something they were skilled in, and the people part is more organic, like where people are coming in and giving feedback or providing job shadowing.”
Jeff Kingsbury, a partner in Ancora, the lead developer of Electric Works, said he’s thrilled with Amp Lab.
“I think this is a unique and innovative way to meet the region’s workforce needs by giving young people career pathways that they wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to see,” he said. “It’s about talent, attraction, retention and development.”
Students had their first Community Day, with more than 80 community members visiting Amp Lab to give students feedback, on Aug. 25. The challenge was to choose a problem, whether local to Fort Wayne or a global issue – and propose a solution that would better the community, Roberts said.
Community members were instructed to give students feedback but avoid proposing solutions. While students were nervous about having adults come in, Roberts said it went off without a hitch.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is going really, really well,’ ” he said. “It was inspiring, the way they looked yesterday was not a fearful situation.”
FWCS Superintendent Mark Daniel said Amp Lab is a game-changer which will give students skills and knowledge sought by any employer.
“Amp Lab is a great opportunity for students,” Daniel said in an email. “No where else that we have found is immersing high school students directly into such an entrepreneurial experience.”
The staff of 16 are either FWCS teachers or industry experts who chose to become Amp Lab teachers.
“I’m biased, but I have arguably the best classroom teachers in the city,” Johnson said.
Daniel called Johnson’s enthusiasm for teaching, learning and developing partnerships contagious.
“Riley is an authentic educator,” he said. “He believes in students learning through real experiences. His experience is centered around making education relevant to students to inspire them to work hard and solve problems.”
Roberts insists the lab’s success is due to Johnson and his passion for the solution and experience-based program.
“I think Riley has done a really great job,” he said. “This is all Riley. It’s been in his head for five years. The last few years, he’s been on his own, developing all of this.”
Johnson’s foray into project-based learning started with his first teaching position at New Tech Academy at Wayne High School in 2009, which is where he met Roberts. Johnson, Roberts said, recognized his ability to get community members involved in his classroom, which is his role at Amp Lab.
“It was a very progressive, project-based learning school within a school,” he said. “I think from day one, I was exposed to what it could look like if school was done differently. Because of the culture at New Tech and who I worked with and the students, I fell in love with the fringe of education.”
He returned to Ball State to earn a master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision in 2013 and began as the assistant principal at New Technology High School in Napa, California, in 2014. After a year, he became the school’s principal.
The time Johnson spent in Napa further affirmed his passion for project-based learning.
“Living in a very innovative culture such as the (San Francisco) Bay Area, very much influences the way that I have chosen to lead Amp Lab,” he said.
FWCS began talking about a possible STEAM school, which eventually became Amp Lab in 2017. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics but the lab is now centered around entrepreneurship and innovation.
Johnson said knowing the project was developing was a large factor in his family’s decision to return to Fort Wayne in 2019, even though there was no guarantee he would be involved.
After a year as the assistant director of FWCS Career Academy, Johnson was tapped to head Amp Lab and dove right in. Roberts said Johnson is always brainstorming, even when he’s not on the clock.
“He’s such a cerebral dude,” he said. “He’s a learner. Today, all of a sudden, he was talking about some education podcast he was listening to last night and I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, he never stops.’”
But Johnson does stop. He’s very rooted in his friends and family and loves spending time with his wife, Sara, and their two boys, Cael, 6, and Kai, 2.
“I think my biggest hobby is spending time with my wife and kids, just trying to soak up as much as possible with them,” he said. “We love to be outdoors.”
And Johnson still manages to find time for others. For about the last three years, with some interference due to the pandemic, he has been meeting with a group of childhood friends weekly to watch 1980s and 1990s horror films.
“We joke that we’ve watched more movies that we shouldn’t have, that are just terrible, but we love it,” he said.
Maintaining connection with a core group of friends mirrors Johnson’s education philosophy including in the Amp Lab – of caring about people and relationship building, Roberts said.
“(Johnson) is the quintessential servant leader. He does this because he knows there are kids that need us, like really, really need us,” Roberts said. “I think his goal is to make sure that every single kid that walks in here is appreciated and cared about but also challenged.”