Bryan Johnson Found His Place in the Sun and in Life at the Winston School

Mike Peterson, Bryan Johnson and Mary Sterling-Torretti

Mike Peterson, Bryan Johnson and Mary Sterling-Torretti

In his search to find a school where he could learn, Bryan Johnson found himself an unlikely participant in a naval school academy summer program in 1991. Not surprising, the tow-headed teen diagnosed with ADHD and who loved to surf found the other kids aggressive and the military style out of step with his free spirit.

That same summer and just in time to enroll in eighth grade, Johnson found his place in the sun at The Winston School. “I visited Winston during their summer school and knew this was where I wanted to be,” he remembered. Overlooking the scenic beaches in Del Mar, the school for students with learning differences offered not only a beach setting and teachers who “got him,” but even more impressive at the time, an opportunity to start a surf PE program.

Capitalizing on the school’s beach location, Johnson started the surf program his freshman year, which continued through his 11th grade. During those years he had the opportunity to get to know and work with many professional surfers including Evan Slater who surf PE coach David Ross brought in to do a video and talk his sophomore year.

As part of the PE program, Johnson said, he and his fellow students would go to skateboard parks and on overnight trips to the beach where they would surf and fish during the day and coach Arnold Kairdolf would go out and get lobster to cook over the open fire. He said then assistant headmaster Ron Takeuchi was one of the teachers who would spearhead the trips and other teachers would show up during the day. In addition to surfing, his athletic pursuits included being a four-year member of the school’s soccer team.

Johnson said the sports and outdoor experiences were exhilarating and relaxing and contributed to his successful learning experience, but said Winston’s individual attention and small class sizes were key factors in his school performance and the sports opportunities were effective motivators. “Winston taught me using a more hands-on method rather than just having me read books and take a test. That really worked for me. Then, for a reward, I could go surfing or go to the skate park.” He added, “My surf program also helped motivate the other eight or nine kids taking advantage of these activities who also couldn’t participate if they didn’t do well in school.”

In discussing his years on campus, Johnson emphasized that, while he benefited from the Winston School’s specialty in teaching students with learning differences, he disputes the idea that he ever had ADHD. “In my opinion I didn’t have an attention problem. I would put 120 percent into something if I was into it and I just wasn’t in to being in a 30-plus class like in my previous school. I wanted to do my own thing and I learned from having experiences, not just reading out of a book like in other schools.”

Giving an example of Winston’s approach he said, “Mr. (Mark) Hanson created experiences for us to understand science. When we wanted to learn about oceanography, we built a wave tank which taught kids how waves were made. If you read out of a book it’s not as much fun as having an experience. Winston made sure they found a way to teach that suited you.”

He said Winston also helped prepare him for his careers. “My senior year I elected to try business math. I knew I wanted to own a pool business and needed to know the business aspect.” In 2003, his Winston education supported him again when he changed vocations to work with Ninyo and Moore geotechnical engineering firm. In a testament to Winston’s influence, Johnson shared scores from his recent annual review. “The review is based on 40 or 50 qualities and I got sevens or eights out of a possible 10 on most including the ability to focus on task, organizational skills, being results-oriented, writing skills and task planning. I didn’t get anything below a six and the average was seven, which is significantly above average.”

More than 15 years since graduating from the Winston School, Johnson continues to credit the school for his success at work and life. “In general every teacher I had believed in me and dealt well with teenagers. Other teachers at other schools thought I was un-teachable but the Winston teachers figured out how to extract my IQ and apply it. There was no tough love. I would have had a hard time graduating if not for Winston.”


The Winston School of San Diego is a registered 501(c)(3)