The sisters will tell you there’s nothing extraordinary about them. Well, actually Kamaryn and Kailee will do that. Karter is more likely to smile or giggle, and then draw your attention to her image on a poster promoting St. Eugene School in South Los Angeles.

What has drawn attention to them this graduation season really is not extraordinary: The fact that all three sisters are graduating from various levels of education this year is simply an accident of birth days and academic intervals. What is not accidental is the firm foundation that St. Eugene has given them to go far — very far. 

Kamaryn Johnson is graduating from Northwestern University outside of Chicago and will continue her graduate studies at USC. Kailee Johnson is graduating from Santee High School just south of downtown, and will be attending UCLA in the fall. Karter Cotton is graduating from kindergarten at St. Eugene, where a life-size image of her graces a poster that hangs outside the school. The 5-year-old is literally the face of the school.

Kailee has been recognized as Santee’s valedictorian, an honor Kamaryn received from the school four years ago. Kailee, who attended St. Eugene from transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, will speak at the school’s graduation ceremony, which will include Karter. 

“I’m going to tell them it’s OK to be nervous about that next step,” Kailee said. “It’s OK because they have a good support system here at St. Eugene, which they can always come back to and provide them all the help they need.”

Kamaryn Johnson, who recently graduated from Northwestern University, credits the hardworking example of their grandfather, Lloyd Gamble, for her family's success. (Submitted photo)

Kamaryn, who attended St. Eugene from preschool through 8th grade, spoke at the school’s graduation four years ago. That ceremony included her brother, Michael, who was graduating from kindergarten. Now, in a few months, Kamaryn will return to St. Eugene to teach transitional kindergarten while starting grad school. 

“I saw her interaction with the children when she came back to speak at graduation and I thought, this makes sense,” said Principal Celynda Wilder Kingsby. “She’s got the qualities you need to teach young children: She’s spunky, fun, caring, patient, and nurturing. She grew up here and now she’s coming back to give to the community. Those are the stories you want to hear, right?”

Kamaryn is ebullient and funny, Kailee a bit more reserved, with a dry sense of humor, Michael is quiet and a gifted basketball player. And Karter?

“Karter is probably one of the smartest people I know,” Kamaryn said. “There’s this 17-year gap between us, but you can see she’s observing us, picking things up.”

Their mother, Kaci Johnson, holds multiple post-graduate degrees and is Dean of Students at Santee High School. She is often given the lion’s share of the credit for her children’s success, with her clear expectations, discipline, and constant support most often cited.

“They are successful because of [Kaci],” said Wilder. “Her kids come first, her kids are everything, her kids are her life.”

If you ask Kaci why they succeed, she will dismiss any talk of extraordinary intelligence. Rather, her kids work very hard. And she knows where they get that from. 

“Their grandfather has a sixth-grade education, because he had to leave school to pick cotton,” Kaci said of her father, Lloyd Gamble, originally from Arkansas. “My dad worked harder because he wanted to prove something to everyone. He’s always kept us humble about working hard.”

His daughter said Gamble continues to set that example. At 72, he still works full time as a landscaper, waking up early every morning to trim trees and mow lawns. 

“He is the hardest worker I know and because of him, my children know that education doesn’t make you. It’s work ethic, because they know their grandfather, who doesn’t have an education, has surpassed so many people who do.”

That mentality, passed down over generations, make Kaci’s children “ideal students,” said Stephanie Thomas, Karter’s kindergarten teacher who has taught each of the siblings at some point. “They’re easy to love, easy to teach because they’re eager to receive it.”

Kaci Johnson (second from left) laughs while talking about her family, which includes son Michael (left), and daughters Karter (second from left) and Kailee. (Victor Alemán)

For Kaci, St. Eugene has been a constant presence throughout the Johnson/Cotton family’s history of success, a place where the legacy born in the fields of Arkansas was added upon. It is a place she could always depend on to nurture her kids, keep them safe, build their confidence, and teach them things that could not be taught in public schools.

“St. Eugene is our village,” she said. “I always know they will protect my babies and instill in my children from an early age self-esteem, standing up for themselves, as well as morals and God’s love.”

Kamaryn said she is “super excited, super blessed” to be coming back to teach at the school.

She’s not the only one. Thomas said that Karter recently walked into her classroom and announced that, “You know. This is my sister’s classroom.”

Leaving the family atmosphere was not easy for Kailee when she left St. Eugene, with a student population of just more than 200, to go to Santee, with a student body of just less than 2,000.

“For me, the small community meant you got more of a personal relationship with everyone,” she said. “I knew everyone at the school. At my high school, after four years, I’m still meeting people I don’t know in my class. [St. Eugene] was like a haven.”

Naturally, the family faces a busy graduation month ahead. They will all travel to Illinois to attend Kamaryn’s graduation, but because Kailee’s graduation ceremony is soon after, Kamaryn will have to forego several other graduation ceremonies to attend her sister’s. 

Likewise, Kailee will have to forego some grad-night activities so she can go to — where else? — St. Eugene, for an award ceremony involving brother Michael. Do any of them mind? Kailee put it best.

“That night, I’ll be the one cheering loudest for Michael.”