In her two decades in the Rockville Centre School District, the goal for Noreen Leahy was always simple: prioritize the children.
“In general, my focus was always to put children at the center,” Leahy said. “When a problem came up, I thought about what was best for the kids. Everything that I tried to do had that in mind. You build backward from that goal.”
Leahy, 62, a Lynbrook resident, retired from the school district after a 20-year tenure on June 25. She was a guidance counselor at South Side High School for five years, an assistant principal there for four years and then the district’s assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services and special education for 11 years.
Leahy said she was proud of what she and her colleagues accomplished, citing Centre Stage, an inclusive theater program in which general and special-education students have performed each year since 2008, and the Behavioral Health Center, a collaboration among Cohen Children’s Medical Center and the Rockville Centre, East Rockaway, Freeport, Hewlett-Woodmere and Oceanside school districts that enables immediate access to care for any student in crisis.
Additionally, she said, she was proud of administrators, faculty, staff, students and parents for coming together to deal with the unprecedented circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic in the past year and a half. The focus during the health crisis shifted to how to help students return to school and feel safe, Leahy said, adding that social distancing in classrooms, collecting personal protective equipment and other supplies and contact tracing took a lot of logistical planning.
“We had to ensure that we were really diligent in trying to figure out how to keep kids safe,” she said. “The focus was still on children and educating children, but with these new obstacles. In a way, it was a really challenging year, but after you finish a time like this, you can’t help but feel very, very proud about what we did.”
Thanks to administrators’ planning, elementary students had a full year of in-person learning and special-education students spent most of their time in the buildings, while middle and high school students were mostly hybrid until March when everyone came in full-time. In all, more than 3,500 students returned to seven buildings.
South Side High Principal John Murphy said that Leahy was instrumental in making sure the district’s programs excelled. “Noreen has been a confidante, a friend and one of the more focused and determined advocates for equity and excellence for all students I have ever met,” Murphy said. “The inordinate amount of thankless work that Noreen did behind the scenes, unbeknownst to anyone … will benefit students for years to come. I miss her already.”
Leahy earned an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and spent 22 years on active and reserve duty in the Navy. She served on the USS Yosemite as part of the Women at Sea Program, taught at a surface warfare school in Newport, R.I., recruited Naval officers in Boston and worked in field admissions for the Naval Academy and as a reserve officer on the USS Puget Sound. As a recruiter, she said, she discovered that she loved interacting with students, and decided to pursue a career in counseling. She received master’s and doctoral degrees at Hofstra University, and worked part-time at a school in Mineola before earning her education certification and coming to Rockville Centre.
Leahy said she developed a strong working relationship with former district Superintendent Dr. William Johnson, who retired last year, and that she was grateful to learn so much from a man whom she called “a brilliant educator.” Johnson described Leahy as “one of the hardest-working people” he had ever worked with, said she was the heart and soul of the school’s program for autistic students and its partnership with Northwell Health, and added that she never hesitated to help.
“The thing that first comes to mind in working with Noreen was [that she was] child-centered,” Johnson said. “She was very strong-minded, very smart, very hardworking and dedicated to both the district and to her profession. But most of what she was was all about creating new ideas and new programs for children in Rockville Centre.”
Leahy became a major force in the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, which has worked for a half-dozen years to raise awareness of and prevent youth substance abuse. The coalition’s “sectors,” including schools, religious institutions, government and law enforcement, work together to bring programs to the district to help students steer clear of drugs and alcohol. Since its inception, the group has worked on communitywide anti-drug initiatives, billboards, presentations to parents and teens and in-school workshops aimed at educating youth about the dangers of substance use.
“They’re very hardworking people,” Leahy said. “We were able to do really good things in the coalition, and I hope to stay connected with them.”
There wasn’t any one thing that made her decide to retire, she said; she just felt that the time was right. She said she hoped to enjoy the summer with her husband of 38 years, Jim Leahy. The couple have three adult children — Joseph, 35, who followed in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a Naval officer and is now serving in Japan; Meaghan, 32, a child life specialist at Cohen’s Hospital; and Michael, 29, an economist in Chicago.
Their mother said she hoped to continue working with children, and that her long-term goals included interacting with other mental health professionals in the coming years. “I think I’ll always be working for the betterment of kids and students in some way or another in the world of mental health or in the fight against substance abuse,” Leahy said. “It’s very, very gratifying.”