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An Enormous Leap From the Reservation

by PAUL RIEDE

Antoinette Cavanaugh’s faith in the power of education was forged early — and painfully. Growing up in a broken home on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nev., she found stability only at school. In her teachers, she saw a future.

“I made a decision that the only way for me to have a better life was to go to school and get a college degree,” she says.

Antoinette CavanaughAntoinette Cavanaugh


For Cavanaugh, superintendent of the sprawling Elko County School District in northeastern Nevada, where she spent her childhood, that was an enormous leap. As a young girl on the reservation, she was raised by her mother and two successive stepfathers. Poverty and alcoholism took their tolls; her mother divorced twice, then left home when Cavanaugh was a sophomore in high school, leaving her to raise her three younger siblings.

One of her several after-school jobs was in the high school cafeteria, where she was given leftovers to take home to sustain her family.

A childhood filled with such experiences convinced her to find a way out. “There’s a feeling you get when you ask for assistance that you’re lesser than, and I didn’t like that feeling,” she says.

When she graduated from high school, her older brother returned home to take care of the children, allowing Cava-naugh to go to Boise State University, and become the first in her family to get a college degree. She has since earned her master’s degree, and at 49 is working on her Ph.D.

After college, she landed a job as an English and math teacher at her old reservation school, Owyhee Combined School. She rose through the school district’s ranks and in 2003 was named superintendent.

She could hardly have taken on a bigger challenge. Elko County is the fifth largest school district in the continental United States, covering more than 17,000 square miles and two time zones. It takes the good part of a day to travel the breadth of the district, which serves 9,700 students.

The district is home to a half-dozen distinct cultures, from the K-12 reservation school to one-room schoolhouses in the conservative ranching communities of Independence and Ruby Valley, to the Hispanic communities of Jackpot and West Wendover, the gold mining town of Carlin, and the gaming and mining city of Elko.

She lined up Save the Children and the Boys and Girls Club to help with after-school programs in Owyhee and Elko. For high-performing students in far-flung schools, she established a videoconferencing system for honors and AP courses.

The Elko school board president, Patty Jones, says Cavanaugh is willing to tackle any challenge and see it through. Three years ago, she decided to establish an Elko County Reads program, where everyone reads the same book. Within nine months, she had raised enough support and funding to make it a reality.

Bob Gallagher, a retired deputy superintendent, calls Cavanaugh the most impressive educator he’s met in his 32-year career. “Doing what you say you’re going to do is becoming a rare quality, and she does it every day,” he says. “She makes the best decisions she can, and she stands by them.”

Like everyone else, Cavanaugh now is dealing with budget cuts. When she took over the district, it had a $125 million budget and a fund balance of only $100,000. She gradually built up the latter to $5 million and used about $1.3 million of it to balance this year’s spending plan. She credits that foresight to lessons learned in childhood.

“Having the responsibility of taking care of my brothers and sister, you have to think forward, you can’t just think of right now,” she says. “Knowing that you have to be thoughtful about where your next year’s funding will be is essential.”

Paul Riede is editorial page editor with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com

BIO STATS: ANTOINETTE CAVANAUGH

Currently: superintendent, Elko County, Nev.

Previously: director of special services and federal programs, Elko County, Nev.

Age: 49

Greatest influence on professional career: Two teachers, Linda Stogsdill Morse (business education) and Gwen Ann Thacker (English and journalism), made an impact during my high school, formative years. Through them I came to understand my self-worth and my capacity for growth.

Best professional day: May 14, 2009. I spent it in three schools where I was able to teach at two of the one-room schools and visit the rural K-12 combined school in Owyhee, Nev. The distance between schools spanned nearly 80 miles, with a dirt road connecting the three in two different time zones.

Books at bedside: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; From Standards to Success: A Guide for School Leaders by Mark R. O’Shea; and Rethinking Educational Change With Heart and Mind edited by Andy Hargreaves

Biggest blooper: My secretary says I don’t have any, so it must be true because she has survived five superintendents! That being said, my biggest blooper was calling a long-time, local administrator with whom I had worked for a number of years in different capacities by the wrong name … and it happened on local TV.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA promotes and provides networking opportunities, ongoing professional development, up-to-date announcements about changes in law that impact the business of education from an administrative perspective, and professional updates regarding educational issues that arise across the nation.