Principal Gardner retires

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, May 3, 2017
“Kids are kids, that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed,” says Dr. Nancy Gardner. “It’s so funny to see the children of kids I once had in school, sometimes they’re just like their parents were.”

For 33 years Dr. Gardner has been the principal of the West Liberty Elementary School. Buildings have changed, teaching philosophies have shifted and kiddos have come and gone.

But the spirit of childhood has been constant. “Kids are still kids, it’s just so funny,” she adds. “They’re just so much fun and delightful.”

This is Principal Gardner’s last year at the Elementary School, she’s decided to retire from the position she’s held since 1998. She originally started teaching back in 1983.

She’ll be replaced by Jennifer Laughlin this summer, who was awarded a $93,000 contract by the school board last Monday, April 17.

“I want it to be just a really smooth transition. I want to leave it in the best shape possible,” says Gardner. “Jeni is very capable and going to do a great job, the staff is excited to have her come.”

However, taking over for someone with over three decades of experience as a principal in West Liberty is going to be no small feat. She has a lot of knowledge to dole out.

“I do have a Jeni list,” jokes Principal Gardner. “It seems like everyday I remember something and add it to the list.” That list covers everything from teacher evaluations to lock combinations.

However, Principal Gardner has gone above and beyond her duties as a principal. She’s been directly involved with many changes, challenges and new ideas on the district level.

Her biggest: the 1998 implementation of the Dual Language Program.

“I refer to that time as baptism by fire,” she recalls. “Here I was, new to administration and the position and here we were, the first district in the state of Iowa, to take on this phenomenal program.”

The Dual Language Program began with a federal grant in the fall of 1998. It was implemented into the Pre-K and kindergarten levels. The eyes of the government, not to mention the concerned eyes of the community, were all watching.

The programs goal is/was to teach English to Spanish speaking students and Spanish to English speaking students by providing classes 50 percent in one language and 50 percent in the other.

However, the first few years were tough. Hiring bilingual staff, gathering the appropriate materials, integrating curriculum and behind-the-scenes politics all provided challenges.

It took a lot of effort from the teachers and faculty, including leadership from select individuals such as Principal Gardner, who’s elementary students were among the first to be in the program.

“We’re perfect for a dual language program, I had no doubt that we were going to be successful,” she says. “It was just a matter of having that mindset.”

The Dual Language Program would be Principal Gardner’s biggest and continually ongoing endeavor after she replaced short term elementary principal Bill Petullo.

However, in more recent history Dr. Gardner remembers being involved with the big move in district buildings and grade levels in 2009.

During the transition grades 1-2 moved to the current elementary building joining grades 3-5. Meanwhile, grades 6-7 moved to the current middle school building.

Principal Gardner also recalls the battle to keep Pre-K in West Liberty. For awhile the existence of the program was in question due to the lack of available funding.

All of the sudden, the State of Iowa got its teeth into the game when it began working on the idea of universal Pre-K. That’s when Principal Gardner and others struck.

“I remember working with Superintendent Becki Rodocker, we worked really hard on that application..and we got it!” She says. “We managed to keep the program going until the state stepped in.”

She was also involved in establishing the Parent/Teacher Organization (PTO), implementing the Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports program (PBIS) and introducing the Elementary School Building to its first therapy dog.

Gemini was his name, a golden retriever. His handler was Kim Wiele.

“It was just so cute,” says Principal Gardner. “Our secretary would get on the intercom and say ‘Gemini, please come to the office’ and whoosh, that dog would just come running to the office.”

The elementary school now has Checkers. Christine Guerra is in charge of the Golden Lab who spends all of his day in the building with the students.

So what does Dr. Gardner do after the school year ends? After all, she has a Masters degree from University if Iowa, an Education Specialist Degree from Drake University and a Doctorate from Illinois State.

She plans to keep teaching of course.

She’d like to do some teaching in higher education for people going into school administration. She also wants to be available for family, her daughter will soon be having twins.

“You just know when it’s time to move on to that next phase and I’m ready,” she says confidently. “I’ve done a lot here, and I’ve done my very best for the district. I’m ready to move on.”

It’s a life the Quad City native really hadn’t planned on. Few do when they first move to West Liberty, and yet something about the town draws you in.

“You know, I was only going to be here about five years and then I’d be going,” she says. “But then all this happened, and honestly it’s been a blessing.”

It really has been about the children for Dr. Nancy Gardner. Every battle she’s fought has been to keep the tiny feet traversing her hallways moving and learning.

For 30 years she’s been able to get her kid fix when she needs. The hugs, the laughter, playing with the kids. It’s been a dream come true.

In her words, this has been the best gig ever.

“Seeing these kids that were once little and tiny now getting to be college graduates, doing internships, going oversees,” she says. “They’re off to do wonderful things in the world and I’m thinking…”

Principal Gardner takes a moment to look upwards in her office as her mind floods with years and years of memories of the children she’s been involved with.

“I’m thinking, oh my gosh, look at what these kids can do.”
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