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Lisa Noonan goes back to school for first day

by Scott Neuffer
sneuffer@recordcourier.com

“This is elementary life,” Douglas County Superintendent Lisa Noonan said while exiting Scarselli Elementary School on Wednesday. “Obviously, I’m a big believer in rigor and challenging the kids, but there should also be giggling, laughter, friendship, jokes and all that.”

A few children scurried on the sidewalk before her, excited, no doubt, to see their friends, or perhaps to partake in the chicken nuggets and French fries being served in the cafeteria. In the distance, a green soccer field shimmered like a mirage against the cinder-block bulwarks of Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School.

Noonan, 50, gripped the collar of her blouse as the wind blew and sent her hair in golden sprays.

“My favorite memory of working here before is how I was supported and treated well,” she said. “Part of that still feels exactly the same. The support is not phony, but genuine, and the great message behind that is not that it makes me successful, but that it makes the kids successful.”

On Wednesday, the first day of elementary school in the Valley, Noonan visited several sites in her electric-blue Toyota FJ Cruiser.

“Those little faces all lit up are too cute,” she said. “I raised my hand and said ‘I’m the new kid, too,’ and their little eyes got brighter… You just feel it – the palpable excitement of the first day of school.”

Noonan was born and raised in San Diego in what she called “an ideal childhood.” When her father became an international vice president for Lockheed, the family temporarily relocated to Singapore. From there, Noonan traveled and explored southeast Asia, its differing cultures, religions and educational systems, its conflicting politics and wars, including the Fall of Saigon.

“It had a profound effect on me,” she said. “People weren’t just poor. They were, ‘Can we make it through the night?’ poor. I then appreciated not only what we have in this country, but our democracy itself. I know it’s not the perfect system, but it’s the best one I’ve found yet.”

Noonan describes herself as patriotic, not political. She said she’s a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, whom she refers to as “the father of public education,” and she contends that it’s a fallacy to compare America’s student data with other nations – not when children in those countries are screened at an early age for strict societal roles, not when America keeps its doors open for everyone.

“Obviously, we’re never finished,” she said. “We need to get better.”

Originally interested in social work, Noonan’s career in the field of education began in California at the elementary school level. She was a teacher, an outdoor instructor and a school improvement coordinator. After earning a master’s degree in elementary curriculum and instruction in 1988, she relocated to the University of Nevada, Reno, in pursuit of a doctoral degree in educational leadership, which she earned in 1992.

Noonan’s dissertation was, “The influence of community resistance on the board policies, practices and procedures of textbook adoption within public school districts.”

Given the recent SpringBoard controversy, she said, “My charge is to implement what the board and the staff have selected. I want to move on in a way that respects employees, so that students win.”

Noonan was an adjunct faculty member at UNR for more than a decade, meeting her husband Dave in the process. In the early 1990s, she took the leap into administration, first as assistant principal of Tahoe Truckee High, then, as most in the district know, as assistant principal of Jacks Valley Elementary School from 1991-1993. Sixteen years later, she was chief academic officer of Washoe County School District with 94 schools under her watch.

“I love this district, this size,” she said. “Before, I could visit every school maybe once or twice in a year. Here, I can get it down in three days.”

At Scarselli, Noonan met with principal Brandon Swain in his office, one of her former “principalship” students at UNR. After recollections and talk of enrollment, Noonan praised Swain for getting his school off the federal watch list; Scarselli has made adequate yearly progress, as mandated by No Child Left Behind.

“It’s really about additional instructional time,” Swain said. “The curve is getting steeper and steeper; it’s very challenging. But to make this kind of gain, it shows our teachers and staff are really heroic.”

Noonan said academic improvement results not from luck, but rather from focused, deliberate, almost “surgical” intervention.

“No Child Left Behind is like the 100-yard dash in track and field; everybody has to get across the line by the end of year,” she said. “Any teacher will tell you, though, that all students are not at the same starting point. The challenge is in creating places for that extra time needed to get them there.”

When Noonan entered Scarselli’s cafeteria, she discovered what Swain had called “quite a production,” the buzz and bustle of the first wave of students hauling their cold lunches in on wagons, or lining up at the kitchen window for the day’s hot fare.

“I call it ‘The land of a hundred hugs,'” Swain said. “Every time I come around the corner, there’s someone else who wants to be hugged.”

For Noonan, it was the land of a hundred greetings: greeting the reading specialist, the head custodian, a group of third-graders busily munching their lunches.

“Graduate schools don’t teach you how to run a lunch shift; there’s a huge science to it,” she said. “The first-graders are the real riot because it’s the first time they eat lunch at the school.”

Calvin Doerr, 8, was feasting on the contents of his sack lunch: a deli sandwich, fruit snacks, grapes, all washed down with lemonade.

“The first day is going good,” he said. “My teacher’s nice, and I got 10 friends in my class.”

Noonan struck up a conversation with 9-year-old Ryon Haggard, who was returning to Scarselli after spending the end of last year at Meneley Elementary.

“It’s nice to walk in and see someone you know,” Noonan told him. “When I see you in class from now on, you have to give me a wave.”

Later in the day, Noonan visited Gardnerville Elementary School on the other side of the Valley.

“It’s going real well so far,” principal Shannon Brown reported while patrolling the cafeteria. “We had kids registering up to the last minute yesterday. Not counting kindergarten, I think we have 54 new students. Of course we’ve lost some, but we’ve been pretty steady over the last three years.”

Noonan surveyed a cluster of students using a time-tested method – thumbs up, thumbs down. Her line of questioning got thumbs up on all counts: new teachers, new classes, lunchtime, recess, friends.

“Did anyone have butterflies in their stomach this morning?” she asked.

Kennedy Lash, 8, raised her hand.

“I did,” she answered, shyly.

“I had them a little, too,” Noonan reassured her. “The butterflies settle down after the day starts.”