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Cathy Peterson: A Nevada County education icon for 42 years

Vice Principal Cathy Peterson has worked in the Nevada Joint Union High School District for over 40 years. Photo by Taylor Wohlgemuth

When most students see the vice principal walking down the hallways of Bear River, they get nervous, probably thinking something along the lines of ‘I’m about to get in trouble.’ What many don’t realize is, underneath her authoritative facade, Vice Principal Cathy Peterson is a warm, compassionate, genuine woman who has graced the campuses of Nevada Joint Union High School District for over 40 years.

When she was young, Ms. Peterson knew that she wanted to be involved in education, primarily in teaching. What she never predicted was spending the entirety of her career in a variety of educational positions that she never personally pursued.

Ms. Peterson was hired in 1976 as an English Teacher at Nevada Union High School, and actually founded the District’s Advanced Placement program in 1982.

“I started the first AP class in the district that was in English,” said Ms. Peterson. “… I had 46 children in my first AP English class and thought it was gonna kill me, but it was great, awesome kids.”

Today students view Ms. Peterson as merely vice principal, albeit a darn good one.

Junior Isabella Marshall said that she is fond of Ms. Peterson’s abundance of empathy.

“She understands a lot of students, and … even though kids are getting in trouble, she still likes to handle the situation in a good way,” said Marshall.

Seniors Dylan Starkey and Zachary Rubey both said that they admire Ms. Peterson’s disciplinary style. Starkey said he appreciates “…(that), every time I go into her office, she says that I’m never going to be the one that’s in trouble.” 

“She always cares about the kids, and I respect her too,” said Rubey. “She’s like stern, but she’s fair at the same time.”

Ms. Peterson credits her uncompromised morals for her positive relationships that she has cultivated with students.

“You stay within your integrity, you don’t compromise your belief system, and I think if you are fair and consistent, kids get it and they respect that,” said Ms. Peterson. “… I thank God everyday for my counseling background, I have a masters degree in counseling. Anybody can do discipline if its just detention, suspension, expulsion, that’s not what I’m about, (the students) have to be learning or I’m of no value if not.”

Many never realize that there is much more to Peterson’s career than being a vice principal who, unbelievably, has never missed a day of school, and that the path to her current position was just as unexpected as it was extensive.

After teaching at Nevada Union, she was moved to a counseling position in 1982, which she kept for 19 years. To do so, she had to take four more years of school to obtain her masters in counseling. Then, when she was asked to move into administration, she stayed in that position until 2011 when she came to Bear River to be the vice principal.

Ms. Peterson never intended to become vice principal. She said she was content with her previous position of counseling, as she had been, in her original position of teaching.

“I’ve done a lot of things in the district, the only job I ever asked for was a teaching job,” said  Ms. Peterson.

Ms. Peterson credits many for her success but, mainly, her late father.

“My father was a very, very educated man, kind of a renaissance man,” said Ms. Peterson. “He owned his own business. … He would take business classes on his own at Sierra College. Very mathematical brain, spoke French fluently. … He taught me to read when I was three.”

Ms. Peterson had a very unique college experience as well attending with, not only her sister, but her father as well.

“I applied to go to Sac State and while I was applying, … I filled out an application for my father,” she said. “… He hadn’t a clue, and his acceptance letter came three days before mine, and it was like, ‘what have you done?’… and I was like ‘what you should’ve been doing all along.’ So my sister, who was older, my father and I all trotted off to Sac State.”

Due to being a part of the Nevada Joint Union High School District for so long, Ms. Peterson has some wild stories.

“When I was in counseling … I had a girl come in and (the kids had asked her to) please dress up for Halloween … and so I was a clown,” she said. “I had the wig, I had the nose, the stupid big ‘ol shoes, and I was in. About 3 hours into the morning, a girl comes into my office and doesn’t even identify herself, just shoots through the door and sits in the chair and burst into tears, and I said ‘Hey hey hey! Happy clown, happy clown, what’s going on?’ And she says ‘You need to help me… I’m pregnant, and you have to tell my mom.”

Overall, Ms. Peterson claims that her job relies fully in the effort put forward into relationships with the students, and she is more than happy to put in that work.

“I just love kids, hopefully they see that,” said Ms. Peterson. “I think again … you can be tough but, if you’re fair and you take time with them, you don’t just rubber stamp and you listen to them they get it. They know that you have their best interest at heart.”

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Cathy Peterson: A Nevada County education icon for 42 years