IU Northwest alumna and IU Bicentennial medal recipient fosters little success stories
Sharon Johnson-Shirley was in for a challenge. The newly-minted superintendent of Gary’s Lake Ridge Schools, quickly learned the struggling school district was about to be taken over.
But it wouldn’t happen on Johnson-Shirley’s watch. Even though the IU Northwest alumna had inherited the problems, she was motivated to be the one to fix them.
Today, more than a decade later, Johnson-Shirley is the enthusiastic superintendent of a flourishing Lake Ridge School District.
“I walked in the door and somebody said, ‘we’re going to take you over in six months if you don’t make a change,’” she said.
To which she replied, “Give me an opportunity, and I’ll show you what I can do—I’m bold enough.”
Within six months’ time, Johnson-Shirley had re-established Lake Ridge New Tech Schools by implementing new programs and bringing in the brightest team members. “I got test scores up and academics changed. That was 16 years ago, and we have never been there since then,” she said.
Behind Johnson-Shirley were years of education and a wealth of experiences. She earned her bachelor’s at IU Bloomington, her master’s at IU Northwest, a license from Purdue Calumet, and her doctorate at Loyola University Chicago. Johnson-Shirley said while all these institutions gave her the depth of knowledge she needed to succeed, her overarching love for IU continues to shine brightest.
“I love being on campus,” she said. “I always want to have that connection with the university—it rejuvenates me to be part of the university.”
Johnson-Shirley is certainly still a pillar of IU Northwest, serving on the campus’s Board of Advisors. And just a few years ago she was honored with IU’s Bicentennial Medal, an award presented to individuals who have shown extraordinary dedication to broadening the university’s reach.
“It’s an honor to be recognized for anything you do,” Shirley said of being awarded the medal. “I’m so pleased and thankful that they thought enough of us [IU Northwest Board of Advisors] to grant us that. I am just elated—the award is in my cabinet front and center.”
Students: her greatest successes
While Johnson-Shirley definitely sees the Bicentennial Medal as a huge honor, she looks at her students as her greatest successes. Over the years, she has had the opportunity to mentor dozens of students and help them pave their own way.
“Two of my students told me how prepared they were for college. They were able to go to classes from the start and do presentations,” she said. “There was no fear. They were ready, and that’s a success story for me.”
During her tenure as a superintendent, she’s seen classes of kids come and go, but the legacy Johnson-Shirley has begun will last for years. In fact, she said one graduating student brought his younger brother to talk to her and ask about a potential mentorship for him. “I thought that was a high honor,” she said.
For Johnson-Shirley, success is a journey. It takes a lot of elbow grease, but with enough commitment, anything is possible. “There are going to be times when things aren’t good,” she said. “But if I have commitment, it’s going to make my day better and it’s going to make my next week better—just do it.”
That sense of commitment led Shirley to a thriving school district and scores of students who see her as a mentor. Recently, she was asked to be a facilitator for aspiring superintendents—just another way her expertise and dedication will influence the next generation of educators.
“Never pass up a time to mentor somebody,” Shirley said. “I am really sincere about helping others be successful in whatever their desires are.”
After 37 years of tireless work as a teacher, administrator, and superintendent, Johnson-Shirley has definitely inspired countless students and aspiring administrators. She proves that a daunting challenge is a chance for boldness, not a time to back down.