Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Charleston County’s first female and first black schools superintendent who launched a new era of reform, died late Wednesday after a battle with lung cancer. She was 55.

Goodloe-Johnson led the school district from October 2003 until June 2007 before leaving the Lowcountry. Her tenure was marked by a combination of success, failure and controversy, but local leaders said they would remember her passion for giving opportunities to all students, regardless of race, gender or income.

“She was strong and unwavering in her commitment to the idea that … all kids deserved a high-quality public education,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley, who was hired in 2004 by Goodloe-Johnson as chief academic officer and later became her successor. “She lived that vision, and that’s something worth emulating.”

Goodloe-Johnson left Charleston to become superintendent in Seattle. She was fired from that post after a financial scandal, and she most recently had worked in Michigan as deputy chancellor for instructional support and educational accountability for the state’s Education Achievement System.

In Charleston, one of Goodloe-Johnson’s most significant contributions was creating the Charleston Plan for Excellence, a six-year plan to make the district the best in the state.

That has been the basis for the district’s strategic plans since then, Charleston Achieving Excellence and Vision 2016.

“She introduced that framework and started to professionalize the district,” McGinley said. “We need to credit her for bringing that vision into Charleston.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was part of the committee that chose Goodloe-Johnson, and he said one her greatest legacies was attracting other high-quality leaders, such as McGinley.

“The quality of our public schools has advanced so substantially since Maria came here and since then with Nancy’s wonderful leadership,” he said. “(Goodloe-Johnson) got us to look outward rather than inward to chart a course of substantial acceleration and quality education.”

Goodloe-Johnson broke a long-standing color and gender barrier, and the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said the community’s selection of her spoke well for what Charleston can be when it works together.

“That’s the kind of positive thing that can happen in Charleston, and we can make history,” he said. “She had a desire for excellence, and she prosecuted that desire even in the face of opposition.”

Ruth Jordan served on the county school board when Goodloe-Johnson was superintendent. Jordan said the former superintendent inspired her to run for office.

“She was one of the first superintendents who piqued the interest of the entire community to begin to look holistically at the district and ensure it met high standards across the board,” she said. “She made public education a priority in Charleston.”

Goodloe-Johnson was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., and she took her first teacher position in a psychiatric hospital there. She taught special education in high schools in Aurora, Colo., and moved up the administrative ladder, becoming the youngest black woman to serve as a high school principal in Colorado, in 1990.

She was working as the assistant superintendent for elementary instruction in Corpus Christi, Texas, immediately before moving to Charleston.

While here, Goodloe-Johnson introduced initiatives still in place today, such as MAP testing, or assessments given throughout the year that allow teachers to individualize instruction for students, as well as the coherent curriculum, which ensures the same skills are taught in all district schools regardless of their location.

The district’s SAT scores, as well as the number of low-achieving schools, improved under her leadership.

Goodloe-Johnson also had national cache through her work with well-known groups, such as the Broad Foundation, and she helped the school district begin to establish a national reputation.

Still, her time here was not without criticism. She led the controversial plan to reconstitute the former Rivers Middle and Brentwood Middle schools, both of which had been failing for years and now are closed.

She also left behind failing schools that were threatened with state takeover.

In Goodloe-Johnson’s personal life, Charleston was especially significant. It is where she met and married her native husband, Bruce Johnson, and where she gave birth to her daughter, Maya, in 2004.

When asked during her final interview as Charleston superintendent what she hoped her legacy would be, Goodloe-Johnson answered, “That I cared about all kids. That I created a very strong foundation that after I leave, that foundation will stick. And the system will continue to move forward.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at 937-5546.