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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

School secretaries: They are the heart - and eyes and ears - of their schools

BY RHONDA B. SEWELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mary Peterson is a secretary at Scott High School, the school from which five of her six children graduated. Mary Peterson is a secretary at Scott High School, the school from which five of her six children graduated.
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Sitting at her desk at Scott High School, Mary Peterson dons a pin on her red silk shirt in the shape of a heart which reads, "Making A Difference For Kids!"

Mrs. Peterson, affectionately called "Miss Mary" by students, is a school secretary - also known as an administrative assistant - and her button says it all. Considered the pulse of any school, secretaries like Mrs. Peterson are difference-makers everyday in the lives of the parents, teachers, principals, staff, and students.

Central Catholic High School principal Michael Kaucher said the school's main office secretaries, Mary Lou Snyder and Anne Bonanni, are the true heart of the 1,050-student operation.

"I joke with our faculty and parents that it's certainly not the principal that runs the school, it's the two secretaries in the main office," Mr. Kaucher said.

"From the phone calls, they field questions from the parents, they know it all. When [alumni] come back, they know them by name. They're always the first people anyone sees," said Mr. Kaucher.

Mrs. Peterson and other area school secretaries have jobs that involve much more than answering phones, keeping records filed, assisting the principal, typing up suspension reports, and finding a substitute teacher when a teacher can't make it in to work. Most often, they are the most knowledgeable employees about the school's operations, the parents and, of course, the students.

Sylvania Northview High School secretary Joanne Ehrsam, nicknamed 'Jo' by students, is a 1961 graduate of the school. Sylvania Northview High School secretary Joanne Ehrsam, nicknamed 'Jo' by students, is a 1961 graduate of the school.
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"Kids come in here crying, or they'll need a Band-Aid. It's just like being a mother to 1,300 kids," Joanne Ehrsam, a secretary for 33 years at Sylvania Northview High School, said of her unofficial job description.

She knows the school all too well. Mrs. Ehrsam is a 1961 Northview graduate, which made her a member of the school's first graduating class.

Northview students have nicknamed her "Jo," and on a recent day a young former student who's now in the United States Army and was in town to visit with her grandfather, stopped in to say hello to Mrs. Ehrsam.

"When she was in boot camp I received a letter from her every week," Mrs. Ehrsam said.

St. Ursula Academy principal Jane McGee said her secretary Kay Felton is the school's 'second line of defense' and has the 'pulse of the building.'

"She's responsible for keeping the whole school organized and everything working in an orderly fashion," said Ms. McGee.

The all-female school's principal said in addition to handling students in their unique requests, the secretary also handles an enormous amount of scheduling, writes the newsletter, keeps the web-based calendar updated, works with parent volunteers and students who assist in the main office, and coordinates the parent-teacher conferences.

"She is indispensable. If you want to know anything ask her," adds Ms. McGee.

On a recent day, Mrs. Peterson put out many fires in a short period of time. One student needed a bus pass. As she handled that request, a teacher with a look of urgency interrupted "Miss Mary" and asked where her keys were. Then a fellow staff member asked if another employee was out of the building, followed by a parent who stopped in the office to pick up some T-shirts.

It never ends in a field that is almost overwhelmingly female, in both the worlds of education and business. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 4.1 million administrative assistants and secretaries worked in the United States in 2002. The Census Bureau reported that 10 years ago, 98.5 percent of them were women.

Mrs. Peterson, who said five of her six adult children graduated from Scott, was hired by the Toledo Public Schools as an accounting clerk in 1972, and has worked at several schools, including Washington and Warren elementary schools and Bowsher High School. She is a secretary in Scott's arts and media department.

Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Ehrsam said what they enjoy most about their jobs is interacting with the kids, a sentiment that was echoed by other secretaries interviewed at Toledo School for the Arts, Clay High School, Rogers High School, and St. Francis De Sales High School. Most of them had student photos from prom, cheerleading teams, and even pictures of graduates and their families decorating their desks, nearby bulletin boards, and taped neatly around their computer screens.

Chris Walendzak of Clay High School, who is expecting her first child, says her job gives her training for motherhood. Chris Walendzak of Clay High School, who is expecting her first child, says her job gives her training for motherhood.
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Chris Walendzak, a secretary to Clay High School principal Mike Zalar, has been on the job almost two years. She said the students are giving her a lesson about motherhood.

She and husband Dennis, himself a 1990 Clay graduate, are expecting their first child.

"It's like I'm getting on-the-job training. I'm still learning. It's always something new. I think all kids are good, but sometimes they make bad choices," Mrs. Walendzak said.

Jackie VanDemark, a 24-year secretary at the 650-all-male student St. Francis De Sales High School, said although all students are usually required to wear a sport jacket and tie, she has seen the influence of fashion trends over the years.

"Some years are a little more sloppy than others, but I think we're going back to more of a professional look," said Mrs. VanDemark, of Monroe, whose two sons attend the school. Justin, 18, is a senior, and Jonathon, 15, is a freshman.

On a daily basis, Mrs. VanDemark, a secretary to principal Andrew Hill, also witnesses numerous students coming to the main office for all sorts of reasons.

"One kid asked me what color shirt he should wear for his senior picture, and I get asked for some dating advice," she said.

"Most of the students have so many good qualities. Sometimes, they may not be the most academic kids, but they have other qualities about their personalities that they show through their kindness and they go out of their way to help others," said Mrs. VanDemark, who like other area school secretaries usually has some student workers in the office to assist in tasks such as delivering mail or answering phones.

Rogers High School secretary Norma Hernandez does double duty as the school's cheerleading coach. Rogers High School secretary Norma Hernandez does double duty as the school's cheerleading coach.
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Norma Hernandez, a cheerleading coach and secretary to the assistant principal of curriculum at Rogers, said most school secretaries have an excellent rapport with students.

"Kids will come in here and tell us that they've left their homework and then I charge them a dime. Sometimes if you cut them some slack, in turn, they respect you even more," said Mrs. Hernandez, who has worked at Rogers since 1998.

She spent 18 years in the banking industry before changing her career to secretarial work. Most Rogers students affectionately call her "Mrs. H."

"I'm happy. The kids make the day go by so fast. I can't wait to come in and see what the kids are talking about. There are more good kids that outnumber the bad," said Mrs. Hernandez, who is the mother of a daughter, 20, who graduated from Rogers, and a son, 25.

Cheryl Hammond, a part-time secretary at Toledo School for the Arts, said it's the secretaries who are usually the people students go to first, and as a result it's one of the most important jobs in a school.

"You're interacting with them so much during the day. They're giving us messages, leaving messages, you have to play nurse, they tell us when something isn't working, when a teacher wants something, there are disciplinary issues and they come in the office, they want to know if something is in the lost and found They come into the office constantly and that's when you get to know the kids," she said.

Contact Rhonda B. Sewell at: rsewell@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.



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