We Are APS: Payton Johnson

Payton Johnson, 17, is the jack of many trades: poetry, photography, Ultimate Frisbee, piano, basketball, chess, robotics, and academics – just to name a few.

“Throughout my entire academic career, I’ve always been looked at as the smartest student, especially after being ranked No. 1 and valedictorian in eighth grade,” said Payton. “Personally, I didn’t enjoy anything that I was doing. I didn’t feel that I was learning anything.”

That all changed when offered an opportunity to take a semester off from standard school and matriculate at Lab Atlanta – a semester school that satisfies the requirements of a 10th grade academic semester through an honors-level academic curriculum and immersive, city-based design and innovation experience.

“Going to Lab Atlanta was a nice change of scenery,” Payton said. “It opened my mind to different people and different ways and styles of learning. Now I focus on myself. I’m involved in more activities and clubs. I’m more outspoken. I’m not just completing work and doing things that other people tell me to do. I’m doing things that I think will best benefit my future.

“Lab Atlanta was a huge highlight. I never truly enjoyed the structure of school. I was doing assignments just because. I saw Lab Atlanta as an opportunity to try something new. I tried it and it was so different. There were just 10 students. Individualized learning and we could also do more things such as field work. The classroom was the city.

“We took field trips to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), High Museum of Atlanta, to the airport to speak languages. We were able to go out in the world,” Payton continued. “This is something that I never got a chance to do. No worksheets, no grades. The founder said once you put a grade on something, the learning stops. At Lab Atlanta it was more of how much more did you know before you arrived? I took it back to Mays. It opened my eyes and opened my mind to finding value in even the little things, learning while being taught, and made school more enjoyable.”

Payton’s renewed appreciation and perspective for learning is evident in his 2018 TEDxMaysHighSchool talk titled, “What Does It Really Mean to Be Smart?”

“Every single person is smart in their own way,” said Payton, summarizing his Tedx. “It’s learning to bring out those gifts within you and also surrounding yourself with those people to bring you to success. That’s smart.”

Next fall, Payton plans to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he will major in mechanical engineering.

“Through engineering, it teaches me how to problem solve and use the engineering process to design a solution based on what I’ve researched,” he said. “I want to travel and spread my creative talents throughout the world. Using the design of problem solving through engineering will help me spread that awareness throughout the world.”

An accomplished artist in his own right, Payton has received numerous visual arts recognitions. While at Lab Atlanta, his engineering course assigned students to design a furniture design for the Atlanta Beltline. His design won. A NextGen Artist, Payton was awarded a summer scholarship to SCAD, and his work can be seen at The Bakery and at the Four Seasons Hotel & Spa. His first solo exhibit was held April 27.

Payton has accomplished all of this while remaining in the top 10 percentile all four years of high school.

“With all the pre-conceived notions about being in an inner-city school, we do great things that other schools in other systems do,” Payton said. “Graduating from APS has taught me that even if you don’t have the best in the world, it doesn’t take away anything from you. If anything, it teaches you how to make the best of what you don’t have out of what you do have.”

College/UniversityOccidental College
Intended MajorMechanical Engineering
Career Goal Mechanical Engineer
Awards/Recognition Top 10% of Class, Senior Class Vice President, Second Attendant Mr. Mays, Student Representative for GO Team, POSSE finalist, Poetry Club member, Project Ready, Maynard Jackson Youth Academy, Next Gen Artists Program, Art Club, National Honor Society (NHS) vice president, Science NHS member, Mu Alpha Theta Math Honors Club member, Debate Team (11th), Academic Decathlon (11th grade), Chess Club (11th grade), Robotics Club (9th and 10th grades; president in 10th grade)

Atlanta Public Schools will host high school commencement exercises Saturday, May 18 – Friday, May 24, 2019. All ceremonies — except Atlanta Classical Academy and Charles R. Drew Charter School — will be held at Georgia Institute of Technology, McCamish Pavilion,965 Fowler Street, NW, Atlanta, GA 30318. For more information on commencement exercises, go to http://www.atlantapublicschools.us/gradnation.

We Are APS highlights APS visionaries (parents, students, teachers, principals, support staff, community members, partners, etc.), who exemplify our vision of a high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators inspire, families engage, and the community trusts the system. To recommend an APS visionary for a We Are APS feature, contact your communications liaison or email apscommunicationsoffice@gmail.com.

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