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Norton took long way to Fontana



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Sara Norton, Fontana Elementary School's administrator and principal, looks up from her work in her new office.

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August 07, 2012 | 03:56 PM
FONTANA — Fontana Elementary School's principal has finally found her home.

Sara Norton became principal and administrator July 25 after working at schools in four different states and earning degrees from three different schools.

"I started out as a high school English teacher in Horicon while my husband was going to grad school in Milwaukee," Norton said. "When he finished his Ph.D., he took a commission with the Navy and went in as an officer. So I taught for five years, then for six years we moved every 18 months."

Their first move was to Washington, D.C., where Norton earned her master's in administration from the University of Maryland and taught at a large high school.

After a transfer to Chicago, Norton was an assistant principal at an elementary school. Their family was moved back to Washington, and she was rehired at the same school.

"The same high school wanted me back again, only this time they said, 'We want you to be our reading specialist,'" she said. "My response was that I didn't know anything about being a reading specialist, but they taught me. The resources that the big counties have, the training they were able to give me, was just wonderful."

When Norton's husband left the Navy, they moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

"He got a job at the university up there," she said. "I worked as the director of the Upward Bound program at the university, and I started my Ph.D. through Western Michigan University. . . When I was in that first class, I met the assistant superintendent of the Marquette area public schools. She suggested I apply for an opening at the middle school."

Again, Norton felt unqualified for the job, but she applied at the insistence of the superintendent.

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"They hired me, and it was wonderful," she said. "For three years, I was principal for the middle school in Marquette."

From Marquette, Norton's family moved to Whitewater when her husband was hired at the university.

"My husband is an environmental biochemist," she said. "The same position he had at (Northern Michigan University) opened up at Whitewater. So on a whim, he applied. They loved him. My sisters live down here, so it was just a no-brainer."

Norton said her family is tight knit, and she wanted her two daughters to live near family.

"We moved to Whitewater, and that position opened up at Eagle (Elementary)," she said. "I applied. So I became an elementary school principal for four years."

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Those four years proceeding becoming Fontana's principal were tough for the school and Norton.

"At Eagle, the summer before my second year, there was a tornado," she said. "My third year, we had a huge mold incident, and my fourth year, all the gym tiles popped up. It's been a really interesting experience."

Now that's she's working in Fontana, she'd like to stay.

"I know that we are home now," Norton said. "I want to be in one place. I love the area, and I love what a small school has to offer. I've been in both, and I've seen that change happens a lot more quickly in a small school. If a school needs to change, you've got the people who are right there, boots on the ground, to do it."

Though she's principal, she expects to spend much of her time in the classrooms of the school.

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"I actually went into administration, not because I wanted to leave the classroom," she said. "I didn't want to leave the classroom. I had the opportunity to work for some very strong administrators and some ones who maybe weren't as strong. In the back of my mind, I thought, I could do it better. I know I can."

Norton, who's parents are both educators, said she tried to rebel against the family tradition.

"No way was I going to become a teacher," she said. "I went to the University of Wisconsin River Falls. I was going to be a business person. That lasted all of a semester, and I just couldn't fight it anymore. I know I'm a teacher. That's what I am. That's who I am. When it's your calling, that's what you do."

Her brother and sisters are also educators, and Norton said nearly all family interactions revolved around education.

"When we sat down at Christmas dinner, it was never normal conversations," she said. "It was 'What is the role of special education in the schools? How far should we be going for children with special needs?' It always ended up in big arguments. It wasn't until I went to college and started going to friends' houses that I realized people don't always talk about education."

Now, she wants to apply that passion to Fontana.

"When it's your calling, that's what you do," Norton said. "I can't imagine doing anything else. Even when things get tough, when the political climate affects what you do on a daily basis, when state decisions affect what you can and cannot have, even with that, I love what I do."

There are no plans for big changes in the school, yet, she said.

"When thinking about goals, the easy up front goals are that I have so much to learn," Norton said. "I mean, how do we do things, how do we teach things, how do we differentiate math. How does it happen? I need to get a year of seeing how it happens under my belt and then form a vision with the staff to see where it is we want to go."

For that first year, she hopes to observe the teaching and learning processes in the individual classes.

While she likes the school and the village, Norton said her daughters will stay in the Whitewater schools.

"My girls will stay in Whitewater because that's where it's easiest for us as a family," she said. "With my hours here, I could bring them to school with me in the morning, and probably two days out of 10 I could actually go home with them. Other than that, my day might end at 6:00 or 8:00 or it might end at 4:00."

With her unknown schedule, Norton can't imagine what a typical day will be like, though she knows how she will handle student discipline, a major part of her job.

"Sometimes kids just need to cool off for a while," she said. "What I want students to do is identify and own their behavior. Once they own it, they have to tell me why. Then, how else could you get whatever it was you needed, how can you get that in a safe, responsible way. Sometimes I'll say, there will have to be consequences for this, but I'll need some time to think about it."

She did make one promise, though.

"The students will never hear me yelling," Norton said. "Silence is much more effective."

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