Nov. 21, 2017

Craig Hulk

WEARING MANY HATS — Craig Huljak wears multiple hats at Jonathan Jennings School 109. The 16-year veteran at the school is the art teacher and athletic director. 

For Craig Huljak, being an art teacher at Jonathan Jennings School 109 is just one part of his job.

He’s also the school’s athletic director, serving as a coach, administrator and mentor. He organizes and runs all of the school’s sports programs — including soccer (both indoor and outdoor varieties), volleyball and ping pong, along with the school’s running club. Huljak also arranges practices, games, meets and other competitions; schedules field or court access; and performs administrative tasks like preparing permission slips, and securing funds and donations.

It’s a lot to take on, but Huljak isn’t alone. Other district athletic directors also perform various roles within the schools where they work — with most serving as educators.

Created as a districtwide position to bolster and improve the IPS sports profile, the athletic director is also tasked with improving the student experience at school and boosting the district’s athletic performance.

IPS has athletic directors at the K-8 and high school levels. In recent years, the district’s Athletic Department has increased its efforts to offer more sports at the lower grade levels — adding baseball, soccer (and futsal) and flag and tackle football, among other sports, for some of our youngest students. The goal is to grow youth sports programs throughout the district to help younger students achieve the benefits that sports provide before they enter high school.

“There are leagues for younger students to participate in outside of the district, but we know that a lot of our families aren’t in a position to take advantage of these programs, said IPS K-8 Athletic Coordinator Darren Thomas. “There are so many lessons and skills to be learned from athletics participation, and we need our students to be able to have those opportunities as well. We’re working hard to provide that from a district level.”

Having dedicated people like Huljak heading IPS sports programs at the lower grade levels is an added bonus.

Already the varsity soccer coach at Shortridge High School, Huljak knew that sports would positively impact the school. “Half the time I’m like a dad or a big brother,” he said. “A lot of (students) need that disciplinarian that they don’t get at home.”

Sixth-grader Raelyn L. agrees. Known among students as a disciplinarian, kids under Huljak’s watch know to walk the straight and narrow.

“Some of the kids are afraid of him, but once you get to know him he’s not a bad guy,” Raelyn said. “He doesn’t let anyone play. No one plays Mr. Huljak.”

Having district athletic directors serve multiple roles at school gives students a chance to see their teacher outside of the constraints of the classroom environment — allowing them to develop a more meaningful relationship.

Thomas said Huljak is a natural fit in the AD position.

“(When I took the assistant AD job) he was one of the first people who reached out to me to offer help,” Thomas said about Huljak. “He recognizes what sports can bring to kids and wants to make sure he presents those opportunities.”

Huljak has seen the benefits for students firsthand. He said students involved in sports become more outgoing and develop leadership habits, learn to support and cheer for each other, and develop improved self-esteem.

“In class, suddenly they have five friends,” Huljak said. “They’re cool, and they have self-confidence and self-worth. We’re teaching them it feels good to accomplish stuff, and they realize it feels good to get an A or B instead of an F.”

A 16-year veteran at Jonathan Jennings School 109, Huljak doesn’t just use sports to make a difference in the lives of students. He also uses art.

He convinced the administration to allow him (with the help of some creative students) to create murals around the school, transforming blank white walls into colorful masterpieces, and blank ceiling tiles into canvases for students to leave a lasting impression of themselves.

Now he wants to leave a permanent impression on students using athletics as the vehicle. He is working on his master’s degree and hopes to one day take on the athletic director role at the high school or collegiate level.

“I’m just fascinated by it,” he said. “The good things that come with sports, the social aspects, the leadership skills it builds. I want to be the guy who pushes these kids to where they need to be.”