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Retiring Wandering River principal stays in his hometown

New principal at Wandering River School Lisa Iverson continues long-staning community connection.

WANDERING RIVER - Amidst a line of pint-sized, knee-high grad caps and gowns, one entry in the Wandering River School's kindergarten class graduation parade stood out. 

Retiring school principal Dan Coonan walked with the 2020 kindergarten grad class — the last official business of his 31-year career with Northern Lights Public Schools.

The principal of the Wandering River School for the last 10 years, Coonan has come full circle — being born and raised in Wandering River, and now retiring in his home community after a career of teaching and school administration that has taken him to the classrooms of Kikino School when it first opened, back to his Wandering River for 12 years as a teacher, then to Ecole Plamondon for eight years, and back to Wandering River 10 years ago as an administrator. Coonan is also a J. A. Williams High School grad. 

Simply put, said Coonan last Wednesday after walking in the Kindergarten grad parade, carring his own 'end of school' poster announcing his retirement, "I'm local from Wandering River and graduated from JAWS, and ended up pursuing an Education degree, and worked here. It's been great."

The career was an enjoyable ride, said Coonan, grinning after hearing the cheers and applause from dozens of people along the parade route who were encouraging the young graduates as well thanking him for his efforts.

"My true love is working with kids for sure. That's my passion for sure. But as well, for the last 10 years connecting with admin at other sites . . . knowing more about how the division is working . . . that part I really enjoyed too," he told the POST.

Class dismissed?

As well as some local business opportunities — some farming and an RV storage operation — Coonan says he isn't saying goodbye to classrooms for good.

"I might try some subbing. You know, getting back to a classroom, maybe. Dipping my toes back into the water," he said.

Community support

After three decades in the area's classrooms and communities, Coonan said one of the standout highlights of his career actually came from outside the division's boundaries.

"The one that stood out for sure was the evacuation of Fort McMurray. Our school tripled in population for about two months," said Coonan, remembering how the community and the school rallied around the evacuees forced from their homes by the massive forest fire in 2016. "That really stood out in how the community came together — the school, we had the room here, and the connections we made with Fort McMurray."

That natural disaster created some silver linings within the community and for the people whose lives had been turned upside down. To be a central part of that event is a proud moment for the school and the community, said Coonan. 

Finding similar opportunities in challenging times, he said the shortened school year due to the coronavirus pandemic has presented some unique memories.

The graduation parade, seeing the streets lined with community members, and his participation is something that wouldn't have happened had it not been for the pandemic.

"As it turns out, it was a pretty cool thing," he said, laughing that the idea of a parade in a small community to some might sound a little corny. "But you know what — it was so cool. And from my perspective, seeing a lot of my older students from years ago that are parents now as well, that was really cool."

Coonan plans on seeing more of the community members as he expects to spend some available retirement time helping out locally.

"My plan is to be active in the community and keep on working with what I'm doing — and still be in touch with the school, for sure. It's hard to walk away from that," he said, adding that the transition to new principal — and long-time Wandering River School teacher Lisa Iverson — has been seamless. " I was here when Lisa came here as a first-time teacher 20 years ago. It's almost like running a relay where you hand off the baton."

Iverson is looking forward to the new role. She came to the Wandering River School directly from university and has remained in the community, raising a family — and loving her work.

"We get to know each of them. We don't have a school of 600 kids. We have less than 30, so we get to know them all personally . . . I love our little school," she said of the K-6 building that had 25 students and two in pre-school in the last school year. That small student population in a very tight knit community gives the students a unique and personalized learning experience.

"The connections are really important," she said, explaining that the end of the school year and the switch to virtual classrooms was a challenge for the students and staff who are used to the close contact of the school and the community — but they've adapted. "This year it's been tough  — online teaching  — but Google Hangouts has been our saviour. The little guys just light up when they see their friends on the screen. So it's neat to see that connection continue, even online."

School plans

With plans still unknown for what the upcoming school year will look like due to the continuing COVID-19 restrictions, Iverson knows that her first year in the school's principal chair will be interesting. She hopes to use the pandemic experience as a learning and connecting tool for the students.

"If we are allowed to all be together, I'd like to do some whole school things together... but if not have, I'd like lesson plans to talk about what has happened, to be mindful .. and lots of connection activities," she said, adding that no matter what the next school year looks like, the support of the community will continue to help. "We have tons of comm support. All of our parents are very supportive. We are very fortunate how we are set up and we can work together like a big family."

Iverson will continue to teach the K-3 students as well as her new administrative role. 

Officials from Northern Lights Public Schools and all other provincial school divisions are awaiting information from the provincial government on what the next school year will look like. There are currently three scenario that provincial school authorities say they are considering; keeping classrooms closed and maintaining virtual learning, opening up schools as they were before the pandemic closures, but with additional health measures, and a hybrid with social distancing and restrictions on group activity sizes within the school, plus additional health screening and restrictions on public access to the schools.






Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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