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By Terry Dean
Building a school from scratch isn't easy.
Victoria Sharts knows that firsthand. Six years into her job as an Oak Park middle school principal, it was her responsibility to help transition Percy Julian Jr. High School students and staff into a new building with a new name — Julian Middle School.
2012 marks the 10th year for the Julian and Brooks middle schools, both built new in 2002. Staff and students started classes in the still-unfinished buildings the year prior.
This year also closes out 17 years in Oak Park's District 97 for Sharts, who is retiring this summer.
The school year wrapped up two weeks ago, but Sharts is still at work until June 30, her last official day in the building whose construction she helped shepherd. The construction of Julian, 416 S. Ridgeland, actually began much earlier than 2002 for Sharts, as she recalled in a recent interview with Wednesday Journal.
It was a four-year project in all, Sharts said, involving meetings with staff and with the architects.
"There was a lot of early input involved, a lot of feedback from teachers. I had conversations with the architect about space needs. That was not unusual," she recalled. "Both principals gave input to the architects."
There was also discussion between the middle school principals and their counterparts at the elementary schools, Sharts said.
The plan was to move sixth-graders into the new buildings. That presented many challenges but also opportunities and resulted in one of her biggest achievements, she said.
"Two-thirds of our students would be new to the school, and a third of our teachers were new. There were a lot of meetings on the development of the curriculum and what that would look like for students and staff. But the focus was on building our middle-school philosophy around team teaching and working together. That's where the discussions with the architects came into play as we wanted our teams together in certain wings of the building," Sharts said.
Other challenges included continued growth in the school's test scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). Though the achievement gap at the middle schools has not disappeared, she said there has been a "leveling off" at Julian.
Sharts' professional career didn't begin in education but in business. She worked at Boeing before deciding "that's not what I wanted to do as a lifetime."
Her first teaching job was in Jackson, Wyo., working with sixth-graders. After eight years she moved to Bellevue, Wash., to teach second grade, but not before taking time off to get her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wyoming.
Sharts was hired at Julian in 1995 following a stint as assistant principal at Urbana Middle School.
The low-key Oak Park principal's tenure took a more public turn in 2007. Her edict to staff to keep kids moving along in the hallways between classes turned into a national media story about a "ban on hugging." Kids greeting each other was clogging up the halls making some students late for class, Sharts said, but there was no "ban" and she had to set the record straight in local and national media interviews.
As for working in a vocal community like Oak Park, Sharts saw it as less a challenge than an opportunity.
"Oak Park is known for parent and community involvement. I see that as a great help and benefit," she said. "It makes decision-making in the end more rich and thoughtful. I always look to keep it focused on what's best for the students and make that the target for any decision."