Principal gains

Could anyone be more surprised at Carver Principal Sharon Sandberg’s retirement than Sandberg herself?

“It doesn’t seem possible. There are days here that I think, ‘Oh gosh - I just started!’” Sandberg admits. “When I started in the district, I remember thinking about those people who had worked 34, 35 years, ‘Oh gosh, how did they do it?’ and now I’m one of them!”

When Sandberg started in the district - in 1972 - she’d just gotten her teaching degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, after doing her initial coursework at St. Cloud State.

The small-town girl - she grew up in the tiny town of Pillager, near Brainerd - got her first job in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, embraced this community, and never left.

She began teaching in the district’s smallest school, Beaver Lake, only to be transferred to John Glenn when Beaver Lake was closed in 1981.

At John Glenn, she taught special education, moved briefly to Cowern Elementary and then went to Webster Elementary, where the principalship opened up in 1990. Joe Wemette, then-principal of Webster, was moving to the district center to begin a new position coordinating curriculum and testing, and both he and then-Assistant Superintendent Kathy Huyen encouraged Sandberg to take on a new challenge.

“I enjoyed teaching ‘my’ classroom of children, but I really felt that I could give something to a whole school,” Sandberg recalls. “I’m a pretty positive person, and I just felt I could contribute strong, positive leadership. And Kathy Huyen was very instrumental in placing me at Webster.”

Sandberg stayed with Webster until another principalship opened up at Carver in 1995, at what seemed like an opportune time for a change. “It’s very difficult to leave a community like the one at Webster and move on,” she says. “But at Webster, we were changing boundaries that year, with half of Webster’s students going to Richardson and part of Weaver’s enrollment coming to Webster. That made it easier for me to make a change. Our district doesn’t move principals around (in other circumstances), and so I felt with Jerry Hauble retiring from Carver, that might be my only chance of moving to a larger school.”

Over the years, Sandberg, 56, completed her degree work at the University of St. Thomas, and adapted to myriad changes inside and outside the school walls. “I can’t even count up how many superintendents have been here,” she says. “There’s been such a change in leadership over the years.”

Probably the biggest thing that’s change is federal control, Sandberg says. She says she welcomes the new emphasis on accountability and the tools it gives teachers and administrators to figure out the progress they’re making. “But it’s also a challenge to have people who aren’t educators making education decisions,” she adds. “That kind of bothers me. We’ve got wonderful educators and we need to listen to their thoughts and ideas.”

The children who come through the doors of the district’s elementary schools “are more worldly” than those who were in school in the early 1970s, she says.

“And the biggest change, probably, for this district is the increase in diversity,” she says. “We now have lots of children speaking different languages and needing lots of support. There’s also a great increase not just in diversity of languages but in diversity of learning styles and needs, with special education students more mainstreamed now.”

Sandberg’s husband has been retired for five years from Teamsters Local 120, and when she became eligible for retirement in October, she jumped at the chance to join him for some travel and time with family.

“I also want to spend some time reassessing what part of education I’d like to be in - I can’t imagine not doing something in education,” she says. That could be anything from consulting to helping train future teachers at the college level, she says.

The couple’s daughter, VeRonica, teaches language arts at North High School, though Sandberg’s quick to stress she didn’t exert any “pull” before or after VeRonica got the job - in fact, few are aware that the two Sandbergs are related. “Not many people know that,” she says. “When she got the job, it wasn’t because her mom worked at the district.”

Sandberg is very proud of VeRonica, who recently got her master’s degree from St. Thomas, continuing a family tradition. “I’ve come from a long line of educators; my grandmother and my aunt were both teachers,” Sandberg explains. When she was a girl, her grandmother used to regale her with stories of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, first in Piers and then Belle Plain. “It was in the days where when you got married you were done teaching, but she did go back later, after she had her children,” Sandberg says. “And she went back and graduated from St. Cloud, with a two-year degree.

“She used to tell stories about her one-room schoolhouse and how she taught first through eighth grade there. We spent a lot of time together discussing education - she’s the reason I went into education.”

Finding a district where she says children come first was what kept Sandberg here throughout her career. “622 is so child-centered; they really work hard to do what’s right for children. I’ve worked with a wonderful group of people in all the schools where I’ve been. . . I think people who are in teaching are there because they’re really child-centered, very service-oriented.”

Sandberg has a good interim replacement in Tom Mealey, who was principal at Webster briefly and is now teaching at Carver. He’ll lead the school while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement.

Cathy Boehm, Carver Parent-Teacher Organization president, says she’s known Sandberg since her son, now a fifth-grader, began going to Carver. “She’s been fantastic. She’s a very hands-on principal and genuinely cares about the students at Carver,” Boehm says. “From a parent’s perspective, she’s been very open to what we felt were the needs of the students and has been so helpful in working with us.”

From helping coordinate school carnivals to jumping into action to get teachers microphone and speaker equipment, Sandberg has been a powerful and involved ally to the PTO, Boehm says. “She works as a team member in all aspects - she actively asks information of us and assists us.”

And children at Carver, far from being “afraid of the principal,” respond to Sandberg’s warmth and friendliness, Boehm says. “I know my kids really enjoy her. They’re sad to see her leave and are going to dearly miss her.”

The feeling was likewise, as Sandberg wound down her last days at Carver before the winter break. “Leaving this school and these students is the hardest part. I keep thinking, ‘Oh no - I only have four more days with kids!’

“I can’t imagine not doing something in education - I can’t imagine walking away from it entirely.”

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