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'A principled approach' Masa Massenburg-Johnson new Rosati-Kain principal

Founded as a private Catholic school, LaSalle, a predominantly Black charter school, served about 120 6th-8th grade students.
Credit: The St. Louis American
Dr. Masa Massenburg-Johnson. Photo by Wiley Price.

ST. LOUIS — In January, Dr. Masa Massenburg-Johnson, along with fellow educators, parents and students at LaSalle Middle School, learned that it would close at the end of the school year.

"There is an urgency to move forward, which is part of the puzzle, but even in the midst of the joy in staying open there is the residue of trauma that has taken place," Dr. Masa Massenburg-Johnson on Rosati-Kain future after near closure. 

Founded as a private Catholic school, LaSalle, a predominantly Black charter school, served about 120 6th-8th grade students. In a letter from the board, Massenburg-Johnson, the school’s assistant principal and others learned that low student test scores was a reason the Missouri Public Charter School Commission had lost confidence in the institution. 

“It stunned me, because LaSalle has been a haven for me, a place where I learned and was really able to connect with the community in servant leadership. It was a jolt.”

Seemingly skeptical of the stated reason for closing the school, Massenburg-Johnson instead only spoke to the positives of the soon-to-be shuttered institution.

“I feel our teachers and our administrators, and our staff really made a concerted effort to do the best for our students-not only academically-but socially and academically as well. LaSalle has had such a great legacy over the years and the fact that it will be no more is heart-wrenching.”

Massenburg-Johnson expected this week, the last for LaSalle, to be bittersweet. She was saying “goodbye” to the last batch of LaSalle students but “hello” to new opportunities.

Last week, it was announced that Massenburg-Johnson will serve as “Principal forAcademic Innovation and Student Experience” at Rosati-Kain all-girls Catholic high school for the 2023-2024 school year. The school is home to around 200 students, nearly 60 of whom are graduating seniors. More than half of its student population are Black, Hispanic or Asian and half live in St. Louis city.

When Massenburg-Johnson heard Rosati-Kain was seeking a new principal at Rosati-Kain, she was somewhat shocked. Not only wasLaSalle closing its doors, but the Archdiocese of St. Louis had already closed Trinity High School in Spanish Lake, a private majority-Black school and identified St. Mary’s High School in Dutchtown, which serves a sizable Black population, as another school slated for closure.

Massenburg-Johnson initially thought Rosati-Kain was going to be closed as well.

Last year, the Archdiocese announced plans to close the high school along with St. Mary’s at the end of the school year. Supporters of both schools, however, scrambled to save the schools by raising funds and finding new religious sponsors. Rosati Kain received a Catholic sponsorship from St. Joseph Educational Ministries and was able to reach a lease agreement with the Archdiocese, allowing the school to remain in its current building located on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End.

This was great news for Massenburg-Johnson. Afterall, she is an alumna of Rosati Kain’s class of 1987. She said she was looking for an “assignment,” she felt drawn to and not just an opportunity to do something new.

“I just believed my new job would be something big and it is,” Massenburg-Johnson laughed.

Massenburg-Johnson didn’t expect to spend her life as an educator. She was born and raised in East St. Louis. Her last name is attributed to her father who has German and African American roots. He and her mother divorced when she was still a child. She attended kindergarten through 11th grade at schools within East St. Louis School District 189. Her mother, a single parent, was an English teacher in East St. Louis for almost 30 years.

“I watched her but wanted to carve out my own life outside of education,” Massenburg-Johnson recalled, adding: “But here I am, carrying out her legacy and walking in her footsteps.”

Unlike the stereotype of poverty and degradation usually attached to low-income East St. Louis residents, Massenburg-Johnson said she was raised in a stable, middle-class neighborhood surrounded by relatives like her grandparents and aunt who encouraged her academically and spiritually. Her bio notes her “deep faith in God.”

“I grew up in the church where my grandmother was a member, Pilgrim Temple CME Church in East St. Louis.  So, no matter what happened Saturday night, the expectation was to get up early and go to Sunday school, choir rehearsals on Wednesday nights and Christian youth fellowship on select Saturdays. So, it was a big part of who I am today.”

At the urging of one of her mother’s friends, she was sent to Rosati-Kain in her sophomore year. It wasn’t exactly an easy transition.

“Rosati-Kain was a very different world than what I was used to,” Massenburg-Johnson recalled. “I had my glory days but there were also a lot of challenges, coming from a predominantly black educational setting to a more diverse one. At that time, there weren’t as many African American students as there are today.”

Thankfully, the high school had a group called the Organization for the Appreciation of Black Culture (OABC) that helped Massenburg-Johnson acclimate. She also found kinship with her music and theater teachers and their classes.

“I was able to find refuge in the arts and I attribute a lot of my confidence-building to those teachers and people who were supportive and got me to where I am today.”

While in college, Massenburg-Johnson interned for the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and spent time in pharmaceutical sales. Still, her activities outside work were education related. She volunteered at local schools, offering tutoring programs and other services.

When she finally decided to pursue a career as an educator, she did so with vengeance. Massenburg-Johnson holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from DePaul University, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Webster University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Leadership from St. Louis University. She has served as a teacher, literacy specialist, assistant principal, and principal in urban and suburban schools including the Kirkwood School District and St. Louis Public Schools.

Reflecting on her educational journey, Massenburg-Johnson looks forward to her new role at Rosati Kain. Coming from a school that recently closed to one that was slated for closure, she understands what it's like to be in a place of uncertainty.

“Fortunately, with extraordinary support, Rosati Kain remains open. However, it is very important to be a servant leader in that process of transition,” Massenburg-Johnson explained. 

“I desire to help Rosati Kain fully become and continue to be what I once needed as a student and what all students need today and in the future.”

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