CEDAR RAPIDS — At the start of the school year in 1986, a 15-year-old Noreen Bush was working on her 9-hole average, watching Brat Pack movies and — for maybe the first time — feeling at home.
Walking the hallways of Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, teachers recognized her as the little sister of Joel, Peggy and Amy.
As the youngest of seven children in a transient family, it was a familiarity she hadn’t felt before.
“Some little sisters would have been offended by that,” Bush, 48, said. “To me it was — I’m home. This is a school that knows my family. I hadn’t had a lot of that in my life, and so they really took care of me.”
More than 30 years later, as Bush takes over as interim superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, she still believes the district has an opportunity and responsibility to give students a sense of belonging.
“We are a community of hope, a safe haven for our students,” Bush told an arena of thousands at a school district all-staff welcome last month. “We are an aggregate of community resources ... without us, our children who have the least would suffer the most. Our facilities are hubs for community engagement and families. Our students are capable of growing into adults who contribute to our city and our world.”
In her recollection, she told staff, adults she met as a Cedar Rapids student — teachers, custodians, coaches and principals — put her on course.
‘Very enthusiastic, and she never stopped’
As a student, Bush “was one of those students that reminded you why you went into teaching because she was enthusiastic about everything you presented to her,” one of her language arts teachers, Jayne Bernhard, recalled. “She was eager to learn, eager to communicate, eager to share with her fellow classmates — she was just very enthusiastic, and she never stopped. She’s still that way today.”
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Bush, who went on to attend the University of Northern Iowa and become an English, speech and theater teacher, said she gravitated to her English teachers in school because she “felt loved” by them.
“I remember her being very bright, very engaged, energetic — that might sound like a bad thing to some teachers, but when they’re seniors in high school — energy is a good thing,” said Bob Reitz, who taught Bush’s AP English class and was a Cedar Rapids Community Schools Foundation trustee until 2017. “She hasn’t changed that much.”
At the all-staff welcome event last month, Bush sang and danced — fist-pumping and kicking her feet — as marching bands from Washington, Kennedy and Jefferson high schools played a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
To lead the Cedar Rapids district, she said, is surreal.
‘A moral obligation’ to serve home district
She first began spending time in the district’s administrative offices in 2016 while working on her doctorate. Former Superintendent Brad Buck, who resigned this summer for a position in Waukee, served as her mentor while she went through Drake University coursework while working for the College Community School District.
When an associate superintendent position came open in Cedar Rapids the next year, it felt destined, Bush said.
“I feel a moral obligation to go back to my home district and serve,” she remembered telling her husband, Russ, at the time. “Because I know where they’re headed, I know what they want to do, and I want to help.”
She became deputy superintendent the following year, continuing to work with Buck to form the district’s theory of action and strategic plan, a blueprint she still exuberantly supports.
When Buck left, the school board tapped Bush to lead for a year. In August, the board opted to extend her interim contract until June 2021 because of expected turnover on the school board this fall.
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The extension did not include a pay increase, according to Bush’s contract and district spokeswoman Akwi Nji. The board agreed to an annual salary of about $176,800. Buck was paid $243,300.
As Student, she formed bond with custodian
Bush still is in the process of earning her doctoral degree and said she needs to finish her dissertation, which is about Iowa BIG, a project-based high school program.
“I could not have forecast the forward events I had. Who would have thought?” Bush said during an interview in her new office. “Fortuitous, I guess. ... I am so proud, and so passionate, to be in this room.”
Bush’s first Cedar Rapids homecoming, as a teenager, came after multiple moves as a child. Born in Detroit, her family moved to Cedar Rapids, relocated to Houston and then returned to Cedar Rapids “for the school district,” she said.
By then, Bush was loud and outgoing. But when she first showed up in Cedar Rapids, as a second-grader coming from a predominantly black neighborhood near 7 Mile in Detroit, she was a quiet child.
At Fillmore Elementary, which since has closed, she said she started with one friend: Slayton Thompson, the custodian and only African-American person on staff.
He would read to her, and was the first person to make her comfortable in Cedar Rapids, she said.
“It’s those kinds of things within our community, within Cedar Rapids, that our teachers have always done I think,” she said. “They just find out who are our kids and what do they need.”
For Thompson, who went on to have a long career with the school district, Bush was one of many children he made an effort to be kind to.
“I was blessed enough to be able to share something to a little person who remembered it,” he said. “And who has been fortunate to be in a position to be able to help other kids.”
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