Alisa Perry Johnson just graduated from Richard J. Daley College with the associate’s degree in early childhood education she had pursued on and off the past 32 years.
Pretty cool at age 50. Even cooler is that it was the same weekend her 22-year-old son, Malik Johnson, graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
Three weeks later, her 18-year-old daughter, Makaela Johnson, graduated from Lindblom High School, and is now headed to Tuskegee University on a full-ride president’s scholarship.
And Makaela’s graduation was days before Mia Johnson, 14, the Englewood mother’s youngest child, who graduated from Jesse Sherwood Elementary School — valedictorian of her eighth-grade class, just as Malik and Makaela had been when they attended Sherwood.
Just your ordinary family, says this mother who, like more and more students nationwide — newly graduated from high school or returning adult learners — took advantage of low tuition offered by the community college system, amid rising national student debt.
“I always knew I was going to go back to finish,” Perry Johnson said.
“But I just wanted to make sure my kids were supported and prepared for anything they wanted to do in life. My mom always said, ‘When you have kids, that’s your priority. You can always get back to what you want to do. Raise them first, and make sure they’re OK.’ That was always my focus,” said the preschool teacher aide.
“Of course, I didn’t think when I gave birth to them the day would come when everyone would be graduating at the same time, because everybody is four years apart. When it hit me, I said, ‘Oh my God, do you know all of you are graduating, and me, too?’ I went and had this stole made, with all of our pictures on it. It said, ‘We did it together!’”
And they did, as Perry Johnson long had put off taking her last class - math - because she wasn’t good at it. Once she made the decision to tackle it, all three kids helped her.
“My older daughter, when she finished her homework, would help me with mine. My younger daughter, when she finished hers, would help me as well. My son, he would do Facetime with me, and say, ‘OK, what’s today’s math problem?’” she said.
“Kennedy-King College Professor Surgey Kuznetsov was so supportive and patient. He gave me tutoring on Saturdays, and if I needed it, on Sundays, too. My classmates were great, too. One student, Charlene, helped me tremendously. I got an ‘A’ in the class!”
City Colleges graduated 4,105 students from its seven campuses last month; Daley College’s ceremony was held virtually on May 23. Registration for classes, both in-person and online is currently open through Aug. 26.
“We all watched my graduation as a family. Me and my son were watching in D.C., because his was the next day. My daughters were watching it at home, along with my sisters and my parents. When they called my name and put my picture up there, we were all so excited,” Perry Johnson said. “It felt amazing. It had been such a long wait.”
She had first enrolled at Daley College after graduating Englewood High School in 1989 — taking classes here and there for two years while working. “As my brothers and sisters behind me grew up, I stopped school so I could work and help out my family,” she said.
Her dad, a construction worker, and mother, a preschool teacher, still live in the same home in Englewood where they raised their six children. Not only Perry Johnson, but two other siblings picked up their mother’s passion for preschool education.
Perry Johnson worked at day care centers nearly 20 years, taking classes in spurts, while raising her children. By the time the world entered the pandemic, her children were pushing her to return, since everything was online.
“That’s when I found out the only thing stopping me was that math class,” she said.
So how did she accomplish these over-achieving children of hers?
Besides all three serving as eighth-grade valedictorian, Malik also graduated valedictorian at Urban Prep Academy.
“I didn’t do anything different than any other parent. I just basically was there,” she said.
“I talked to my children. We learned together. They knew there was nothing they couldn’t come to me with. If I didn’t know the answer, I was going to go find out.
“I always told them as babies, ‘College is free. It’s all how you look at it. You have to earn scholarships.’ My son went to Georgetown with scholarships on top of scholarships. With her presidential scholarship, my daughter doesn’t have to pay anything for Tuskegee,” Perry Johnson said.
“I am extremely proud of my children, but I don’t want myself or them to be so proud that they can’t help somebody else to achieve their goals. I always tell them, ‘If you can’t help solve the problem, don’t talk about it until you find a solution.’”