February 2015 District Superintendents of the Year (Districts 1, 2 and 3)

Posted on January 29, 2015


District 1

Lake Ridge School Leader Named District I Superintendent of the Year

Dr. Sharon Johnson-Shirley Recognized for Changing Culture About Education

In her first year as superintendent, Johnson-Shirley faced stabilizing the district financially by reducing staff, decreasing spending and removing costly programs that weren’t producing success. During her tenure as superintendent, she implemented mandatory annual budget cuts ranging from $300,000 to $1.5 million.

With support from her leadership team, she transformed Calumet High School into the first New Tech High School in Northwest Indiana. Over six years, Calumet High School has changed from a school on probationary status to a nationally recognized educational institution for excellence.

Implementing academic programs funded by grants helped the district decrease illiteracy rates and increase test scores significantly. She is credited with changing the district’s culture to a true sense of excellence and professionalism.

Johnson-Shirley is a founding member of Lake Ridge Schools Educational Foundation and the Lake County School Safety Commission.

Johnson-Shirley joined Lake Ridge School Corporation in 1997, serving as assistant superintendent/curriculum director and principal of Hosford Park Elementary School.

She earned her Bachelor of Science and master’s degrees at Indiana University and her doctoral degree at Loyola University.

District 2

Wa-Nee School Corp. Leader Named Superintendent of the Year for Dist. 2

Superintendent Joseph Sabo Honored for Educational Success Despite Budget Cuts

Sabo credits his success at Wa-Nee to a tremendous team effort from administrators and those who work on the front lines of teaching. The school district faced severe financial challenges from the recession with the loss of $930 million due to reduced state funding. But even with those issues the district has achieved positive results for children. In year 2013 four of five Wa-Nee schools were graded “A” schools by the Indiana Department of Education, and 95 percent of third graders passed the IREAD-3 tests on their first try. The system maintains an average class size of 23 students in kindergarten through fifth grades. In 2010 he implemented an energy savings program that has resulted in energy cost saving of more than $760,000 in the past four years.

The Wa-Nee Community School Corp. serves 3,000 students in three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Its faculty and staff totals 375.

Sabo has served as Wa-Nee Community School Corp. superintendent since 2001. Before that was he assistant superintendent and principal in the district. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Bethel College, and his master’s of science is from IU-South Bend.

He is a board member of the Horizon Education Alliance of Elkhart County and the Elkhart County Special Education Cooperative Governing Board. He is also a past board member of the Boys & Girls Club of Nappanee, past President of the Nappanee Noon Kiwanis and Bethel College Alumni.

District 3

Wabash City Schools Leader Named Superintendent of the Year for Dist. 3

Superintendent Jason Callahan Honored For Creating a Culture for Education

Callahan instituted numerous programs in the school district and community that created a mission statement “to provide a relevant and rigorous education to ensure each student is college and career-ready for success in a global economy.” Wabash High School has been recognized nationally for its advanced placement and state standardized test scores by US News and World Report magazine for 2012 and 2013. The high school has also achieved a 90 percent graduation rate for three consecutive years and received “A” ratings for the last two years.

In cooperation with two other Wabash County school districts, Callahan helped organize a school readiness network that led to an early childhood education program called Begindergarten. The program, funded by the Community Foundation of Wabash County, provides a six-week summer program for incoming kindergarten students who have limited or not preschool experience. Another six-week program in partnership with the YMCA of Wabash County provides enrichment for students who are at risk of falling below grade level in reading. The district’s third grade students have shown a 90 percent pass rate on the IREAD test every year, even though 70 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Wabash City Schools is one of the state’s earliest adopters of 1:1 computing. In years 2014-2015 every kindergarten through second grade classroom will have a combination of Macbooks and iPads and every third through 12th grade student will have a Macbook.

In partnership with the Wabash County YMCA, Callahan helped create the Wabash County Promise. This initiative brought together all Wabash County public and private schools, local and regional businesses, families and the faith community to build a college-going identity by providing every Kindergarten through third grade student a 529 college savings plan. Due to this effort, over 70 percent of Wabash County K-third grader students have a college savings plan.

Callahan began his career at Wabash City Schools in 2005 as high school assistant principal. He was promoted to principal in 2007 and became superintendent in

2011. He attended Ball State University and earned a bachelor of science degree, a master of arts degree in education and his educational specialist degree.

Callahan has received the prestigious Indiana Sagamore of the Wabash tribute presented by Gov. Mike Pence for his work in changing the educational culture in Wabash County. He is an active member of numerous education and professional organizations. In the Wabash community, he is chair of the Success for All, vice-chair of the Wabash Chamber of Commerce, chair of Development of Wabash County and president of Wabash Marketplace, Inc.

District Superintendent’s of the Year were given the opportunity to respond to some questions about their district and the superintendency in general.
The following responses were received from these District Superintendents of the Year:

District 3–Jason Callahan

What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?


Three years ago, Wabash City Schools adopted a mission statement that we will provide a relevant and rigorous education to ensure each student is college and career-ready for success in a global community. In our attempt to define and meet college and career-ready, Wabash City has developed a school culture that seeks to support the learning growth of all kids at all levels. When we talk about change, we talk about people, not programs, making all the difference. Through our culture shift, we are creating an expectation that all students should have a pathway and that we must do everything not to stigmatize pathways. We like to talk about multiple Plan A’s for kids. This shift in culture leads to programs such as the 1:1 computing initiative, the Wabash County Promise, Wabash County School Readiness Network and the Wabash High School Early College High School. All of these initiatives seek to support a culture that values multiple pathways for kids.


What have been your most significant challenges as a supt. and how have you dealt with them?


State level changes in school finance have made for significant challenges in school planning. Since 2010 there have been major inconsistencies with our budget, which makes managing personnel and programs very difficult. I fear that the outcome-based compensation is misguided and will do more harm than good for our school systems.


We have found opportunities in our community and beyond to grow our capacity. The Community Foundation of Wabash County funds our early childhood intervention program. We have several educational initiatives with the YMCA of Wabash County to include summer learning loss prevention for students grades K-3 grade and the Wabash County Promise that seeks to get every kid grades K-4 signed up for a 529 college savings plan.


If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?


We are at a tenuous crossroad in education today.   Advancements in technology have changed both the workforce and the way we educate our future generations. We need to transform our educational system to be far more intentional than we were in the past. The current system has two pathways: one for kids pursuing higher ed and one for kids who do not: Path A & Path B. The former is for the winners and path B is for the losers. We need to create multiple Path A’s that prepare kids to leave our system enrolled in an institution of more concentrated education; or employed in a career at a living wage. In order to accomplish this, K-12 will need to blur lines with industry, PreK, and higher education. We need to be far more intentional with pathways and the training to enter and be successful in those pathways.


What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?


Do not attempt to do this alone. I think successful superintendents understand that education is about people and in order to be successful, you need to surround yourself with good people who care about kids.   I earned this award because I have an organization with good people doing good things for kids. Unfortunately, the current educational climate where dollars follow kids lends itself to competition. It’s easy to fall into a survival of the fittest mentality. Some school leaders choose to close the district doors, opting not to collaborate or trust their neighbors. I would encourage new superintendents to seek out superintendents who are willing to share, ask a lot of questions, get involved with local, state and national educational and community groups. Tear down the silos between districts and look for opportunities to grow collectively. Listen to your people, community and colleagues. Only when you are willing to listen to others, are you able to grow. And in this ever-evolving climate, the ability to manage change will help you to grow and survive.