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By Jeff Pack

Fallbrook High teacher wins $50K award from Harbor Freight


Last updated 10/27/2019 at 11:28am

Jeff Pack photo

Fallbrook High Transportation Technology teacher Dennis Johnson poses with Fallbrook High cheerleaders and the $50,000 check he received from Harbor Freight Tools on Thursday, Oct. 24 as a second-place winner of the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Dennis Johnson, a transportation technology teacher at Fallbrook High School, thought there were far too many people in the Bob C. Burton Performing Arts Center for a meeting about plastics.

He was right.

The students, staff, band members and colleagues in attendance on Thursday, Oct. 24 were there to see Johnson surprised with the news that he was a second-place winner of the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

As one of 18 second-place finishers, Johnson earned $35,000 for the school's skilled trades program and $15,000 for himself.

"I was thinking, 'Man, this is a big event for plastics,'" Johnson said explaining how he had been surprised by the announcement. "I do want to say this. My premise is pretty simple. I'm a very competitive person and what I do in business whether its an engine, a car that we're building for SEMA, I want the best. I always want to represent the best. I take that and I look at all my students as my VIP customers. That customer, that student that sits in my seats, they're not an aggravation, they are the reason that I am here and I want to give them my best."

Johnson graduated from Cal State San Bernardino with a bachelor's degree in career and technical studies and spent 30 years working in the automotive industry before becoming a teacher in 2003.

He came to Fallbrook in 2017.

Johnson teaches students with Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation standards, and his custom curriculum recently qualified to fulfill the University of California A-G requirements from the University of California. That rare designation means Johnson's class is officially a college preparatory course.

Fallbrook is one of the only high schools in the country to have a Mainline DynoLog chassis dynamometer, an innovative vehicle testing and evaluation tool that lets students simulate road conditions in their classroom.

Johnson teaches students applied science, mathematics, technology and engineering, and leads students as they themselves teach fellow students about vehicle maintenance.

"I'll tell you, Mr. Johnson, myself included, shop class has impacted me," Alex Drago, Regional Manager for Harbor Freight Tools said. "I had the opportunity to have shop class in high school and it ultimately turned into a four-year career in the automotive industry. Not as qualified as you are, sir, but I do have myself two ASE certifications and it's because of a teacher like you. So, thank you."

Drago said everyone at Harbor Freight Tools is behind what Johnson is doing at Fallbrook High and mentioned that trades like the one Johnson teaches are going to be in high demand in the very near future.

"The work that you're doing here today in preparing your students for a bright future is incredibly important," Drago said.

Drago said Johnson's application for the award was one of 750 from across the country that was scrutinized by three different panels and judges and he is one of 18 teachers sharing in the $1 million in award money doled out by Harbor Freight on Thursday.

"Mr. Johnson not only sees doors of opportunity for his students, but he opens those doors of opportunity and he escorts his students through those doors," Fallbrook Union High School Superintendent Ilsa Garza-Gonzalez said. "So that they know there's someone who cares, someone who believes in them and someone who recognizes in them what they may not even recognize in themselves. Dennis Johnson is not only a teacher but a mentor that shows a genuine interest in his students and has a passion for what he teaches."

Johnson listened and smiled as people talked about him during the event, laughed a little when his father came on stage to talk about his son. He was most animated when his students sitting in the audience roared with applause and cheers during the event, often pointing to them in the audience.

He wiped away tears as a video was played with messages recorded by students talking about the impact he has had on them.

"I look at this scholarship like a student applying for a scholarship," Johnson said. "If I'm going to encourage them to apply for a scholarship, I need to apply for a scholarship to help our students. So, that's what it's all about. It's not about me, it's what can we do to help our students."

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at


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