Homecoming: Sonoma Valley grads return as educators
By DIANNE REBER HART / Towns Correspondent
On a recent school day, history teacher Andy Gibson ditched his textbook for a publication closer to his heart — his 1997 Sonoma Valley High School Dragons yearbook.
There, in his crowning glory, is a teenage Gibson as homecoming king. On a whim, he shared the photo with his students, who attend the same high school he did.
“They got a kick out of that,” says Gibson, the history department chair and one of a dozen graduates who now work at Sonoma Valley High School.
Gibson is in a unique position. Several colleagues are either his former teachers or former classmates, and he knows the families of many of his students.
That comes with the territory, says Andrew Ryan, a vice principal and 1998 grad. Returning to teach at your alma mater is something like a dot-to-dot puzzle: Full of connections in this one-high-school small town.
With 23 years at the school, English department chair Alison Manchester is the senior member of the alumni teaching staff, and has taught several of her colleagues, including Ryan.
Recent retirees Pamela Adams, Richard Alexander, Shawn Martin, Glenn Moll and Darrel Ross were longtime educators at their alma mater, part of a long line of alumni teachers and administrators at SVHS.
Manchester, however, holds a place of distinction. She was the school mascot in 1976 during her senior year. She and a friend danced around in bulky dragon costumes, rallying school spirit right alongside the cheerleaders.
Although she had fun, Manchester says, “I felt awkward,” adding that it’s still up for debate whether she convinced her friend to become mascot or her friend convinced her.
Louann Carlomagno, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District superintendent, is another spirited alumni. She was a song leader, the Valentine sweetheart and was voted “most friendly” in the class of 1980.
Carlomagno taught science at the high school for five years before moving into administration. She says it isn’t by chance that so many educators return to work there.
“It’s that allegiance to your community,” she says. “It’s so unique what we have in this valley.”
Geography teacher Lenny Pieraccini, class of 1985, says the “nostalgia factor” drew him back to SVHS. “We had a great class, a lot of fun.”
He says the common experience he shares with students is an asset for both. When he hears the decades-old cry, “There’s nothing to do in Sonoma,” he empathizes.
“I have that advantage as an insider,” Pieraccini says. “I can relate to what they’re going through.”
English teacher Janet Hansen says that having a personal connection is especially beneficial. “Having the ability to say, ‘I know your mother’ is a huge asset for a teacher,” she says.
Hansen graduated in 1971, married her high school sweetheart, Eric Hansen, and is grateful to her now-retired SVHS math teacher and former Principal Bob Kruljac for hiring her, “since I was not very pleasant in his algebra class.”
She credits the school with having a strong sense of tradition and says it isn’t uncommon to encounter third- and even fourth-generation SVHS students.
“We have deep roots here,” she says.
First-year history teacher Barbie Duncan is one of those third-generation SVHS graduates. A 2001 alumni, Duncan says it’s always fun when students discover the link with their teacher.
“As a graduate, I can immediately identify with the students, and they can identify with me,” she says. “I hear, ‘Oh my God, you went to school here?’ ”
That familiarity has a proud legacy in the athletics department, where generations of student athletes return to coach Dragons teams.
Bob Midgley, the athletics director and a 1984 alumni, fulfilled his own goal of coming back to teach and coach at SVHS. Time and again, he has heard alumni coaches from every sport repeat the same sentiment: “I want to give back, I owe it to our community.”
That Dragons pride can be found throughout the 1,300-student campus. Other alumni are teachers Drue Jacobs, Leslie McLean, Kambria Metcalfe, Carrenne Purtell and Bernadette Weissmann; counselors Betzy Chavez and Peggy Murray; and several office staff. School custodian Dennis Bollman (class of 1969) long held two SVHS track records.
While changes have been plentiful, technology has made the greatest impact, the educators say.
“They’re using technology in ways that 15 years ago we didn’t even know existed,” says Ryan.
Facebook, Twitter and texting can cause distractions, though, and compete with the more rigorous curriculum demands for today’s students. Yet the alumni find that as much as things change, they also stay the same.
“The conversations I overhear are the same conversations I had in high school,” says Gibson. “The faces are different, but they’re still Sonoma kids, and I say that with pride.”