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Homecoming: Sonoma Valley grads return as educators

Friday, October 12th, 2012 | Posted by

SVHS American history teacher Andy Gibson (right) is a 1997 graduate. Dressed as Captain America for the school’s homecoming carnival, he talks to students Rodrigo Rico and Rick Taggesell, both 15. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

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.

Andy Gibson was crowned homecoming king during his senior year at Sonoma Valley High. (Photo courtesy of Andy Gibson)

“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.

Andrew Ryan in 1996, playing a varsity basketball game against Petaluma during his sophomore year at Sonoma Valley High. (courtesy of Andrew 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.”

SVHS English and forensics teacher Janet Hansen is a 1971 grad. During homecoming week, she helps students (from left) Hannah Bates, Delaney Gold-Diamond and Joel Bremner grill sausages. (Beth Schlanker)

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.”

  • Tali Mallory

    Great story, interesting to see how many students return to teach. Fun that this story happened right after homecoming…I attended the game last Friday with my husband whom is a Sonoma High Alum.

  • Patricia Shipman

    Loved the article about grads coming back to teach at Sonoma Valley High, I remember several people from the years before and after my time spent matriculating there. Too bad the article was so short. It was very well written and I would enjoyed a longer article.

  • Dianne Reber Hart

    Does anyone remember Barbie, the cute little girl in the local TV commercials for Bob Nobles Chevrolet? She’s the Barbie Duncan quoted in this story, now a first-year teacher at SVHS. Bob Nobles, her grandfather, is known for his generosity donating cars to SVHS Grad Night celebrations.

    • monica badgley

      I used to babysit her & her brothers. This makes me proud…and makes me feel old :-)

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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