CEDAR RAPIDS — During lunchtime last week at Washington High School, Valerie Nyberg stood watch — thanking students for busing their trays, talking with others, even catching a student yards away drop a piece of food on the floor. She mouthed to the teenager: “Pick it up.”
Much of her job is that of the disciplinarian, Nyberg said, though the associate principal also works diligently to build relationships with the Cedar Rapids high school’s diverse student population.
“I think kids perceive me as — and it’s evolving — they definitely know that I’m going to be very clear with them about the expectations,” Nyberg, 44, said. “I’m not going to pretty it up, I’m just going to tell you. But as I’ve been here six years, they value the fact that they know where they stand, they know what the boundaries are and they know that I’ll support them.”
Her work at Washington High earned her a top honor this month: Nyberg is the School Administrators of Iowa’s Assistant Secondary Principal of the Year. A committee of her peers selected her.
“She’s extremely conscientious,” her principal, John Cline, said. “She can do anything and everything, and she’s always thoughtful about student needs. … What stands out is her intelligence, work ethic, her focus on details.”
Informing Nyberg’s work — she worked in the education policy realm in Iowa City and as a teacher in Washington state before working at Washington High — is a personal background she said has helped her relate to and understand her students, who attend class on the southeast side.
“Most people think I have a very middle-class background, but I don’t,” Nyberg said. “I went to 13 different elementary schools, my mother had mental health issues, substance abuse issues. … I understand a lot more than what some families and kiddos assume that I understand, because I do have that background.”
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Her adverse childhood experience score, which quantifies childhood trauma on a scale of 10, is about seven or eight.
“I understand if you have something going sideways at home, you’re going to have a bad day, you’re going to have a bad experience, you’re going to be more apt to get into that fight, to get into that argument with somebody because you’re already on edge,” she said. “So I talk to students a lot — lecture, is what it kind of comes out as — about: here are the things you can do to make sure that your future is not what you’re experiencing now.”
Because of her life experience, she said she advocates for broadening her school’s career and technical education courses, concurrent enrollment and giving students’ equitable access to Advanced Placement coursework.
“Those are things that are really important to me because I know that had I not gotten into an AP program in my junior year, I wouldn’t necessarily be sitting here now,” she said.
After graduating from a high school in Sacramento, Calif., Nyberg enlisted in the Navy for three years and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Washington University and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. She has three sons, ages 22, 19 and 16.
At Washington High — as she pushes for broader coursework and more inclusive hiring practices, and encourages events that expose all students to their high school’s many classes — an ideal culture would be one “where kids come to school and they feel safe, safe enough that they can do their best work and that they can see the fruits of that work,” she said.
“I really think that education is the great equalizer. I know that people say that, but I don’t think I would be where I am if it wasn’t,” she said. “But I also think that what we recognize as capable and educable is in the eye of the beholder — and that’s something we have to be more reflective about. … Part of my job is trying to bridge that in a system that isn’t quite there yet, which is the most uncomfortable part of the job.”
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