Administrators, others take a crash course in daily routines in Modesto schools by job shadowing

naustin@modbee.comMay 4, 2014 

— School administrators took a turn in the trenches last week, pairing the higher-ups with folks on the ground to help break down barriers. Ginger Johnson got up early to bake rolls. Pam Able spent some time hauling trash and flushing toilets.

The job shadows paired administrators, trustees and community members with support staff as part of Appreciating Classified Employees, a program of the California School Employees Association. CSEA picks 10 school districts statewide out of its 800 chapters each year.

Modesto City Schools’ Chapter 007 got the nod this year, the largest district in the state participating and the only one in this area, said CSEA spokesman Julian Peeples. In past years, the union has sponsored ACE events in the Sylvan Union, Turlock Unified, Sonora High and Oakdale Unified districts.

Able shadowed chapter President Aaron Castro, doing custodial duties at Tuolumne School in south Modesto on Tuesday. Dressed in atypical T-shirt and jeans, the district superintendent dumped trash and checked restrooms, flushed dirty toilets and picked up strewn toilet paper without complaint, Castro said. He bought her a Tuolumne School T-shirt as a momento.

“She was a great sport. She was cool,” Castro said with a grin. Seeing her talking with students and explaining her job to them, he learned a lot, he said later. If this superintendent thing doesn’t work out, Castro said, she earned his recommendation for a janitorial post.

But Able also gained an appreciation for his job. “It was really hard work. It got a little sweaty,” she said. Back in her customary business attire and heels, she said the way Castro scheduled every minute for maximum efficiency impressed her.

“It was nonstop. It was great to see the system in place and the pride our employees take in their work and a job well done,” Able said. “I got the ultimate compliment. One of the students came over and asked me, ‘Are you Aaron’s new helper?’ 

Reflecting back on the week, Able said, “It’s been an eye-opener. We’ve solved some problems through this process.”

Over at the district’s central kitchen facility, Johnson started work at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, helping baker Linda Ihrig make 4,920 kaiser rolls from scratch for the next day’s chicken sandwiches. Others on the kitchen staff start at 4 a.m., with the cleanup crew winding up the day at 3 p.m., said operations manager Virgina Osnaya.

“It’s always different; you have to multitask. My day goes by like (snapped fingers),” Osnaya said.

Breathing in the aroma of baking bread and cooling chocolate cupcakes, Johnson – the district’s associate superintendent of educational services – said she enjoyed the sense of accomplishing something tangible. “Sometimes I go to my office and I don’t know what I’ve done,” she said. “It’s pretty darn obvious we all work better when we know what people do.”

Such insights were the point of the program, now in its eighth year, said Sylvia Diaz, CSEA regional director. It serves to recognize the work of classified employees and promote understanding between district staff and administration. The program started during Classified School Employee Week in May 200 .

Support staff are usually the first and the last people that students see during the school day, often serving as mentors and role models as well as workers, Diaz said. “They are the support system of the schools they serve.”

Modesto High ride

There were 35 pairings through the week, including seven businesspeople recruited through Stanislaus Partners in Education.

John Schneider, chief financial officer of Modesto-based carwash chain Prime Shine Inc., teamed up with Modesto High School lead campus supervisor Stan Lane on Thursday.

Riding a golf cart before school, Lane pointed out areas of the quad he watches for gang groupings, all the while keeping an eye out for contraband clothing and unfamiliar faces. In the crowds before school, there’s a worry strangers might slip in. Since a recycling stop opened a block away, addicts and homeless people have become more numerous, Lane said, and he makes a point of meeting all the regulars.

He also attends, on his dime, an annual conference offering gang updates, Lane said. “It’s good intelligence.” The west side school has frequent lockdowns for nearby police searches or incidents. “It keeps us sharp,” he said with a shrug.

With the end of school getting close, after-school fights have picked up, he said. Modesto High “campos,” as they’re nicknamed, do not carry handcuffs and try to talk teens down before fists are flying. “We don’t want to go hands-on unless we have to,” Lane said. But a beef between girls turned into a brawl the day before. “I’m still sore,” he said.

The job isn’t for everyone, he said. Besides the physical toll, it takes a calm manner and strong people skills. Campos are the first line of defense, he said. “We know if there’s an active shooter, we’re going to take the first bullet.”

Schneider said one of his kids was a Panther, Class of 2012, but he learned a lot about campus life that day. “It’s definitely an opportunity to learn how a school actually runs,” he said. “We hire a lot of young people. I got to see where they’re coming from.”

Money management

Accounting specialist Carol Serpa took Morgan Stanley Vice President Kelly McMurray through the array of revenue sources used by school vocational programs. Serpa oversees a $5 million portion of the district’s roughly $240 million operating budget.

“I’m incredibly impressed by Carol’s passion for it, seeing how much she’s juggling,” McMurray said. “My world is quite different.”

Serpa organizes the fiscal ins and outs of hundreds of courses. April through July is her busy season, she said, with year-end closeout and next-year preparation.

“I love it here. I believe in all the programs,” Serpa said. “The types of things I get to order, to know students are really going to learn from them,” she said. “Everybody benefits from something like this.”

Paper workload

Over at Reprographics, the building that houses high-tech versions of what in Tom Norquist’s school days were ditto machines, technician Jennifer Smith showed him the ropes of running banks of high-volume duplicating machines on Thursday.

Norquist, owner of heating, ventilation and air conditioning firm Tenney A Norquist Inc., got to check the system as Smith processed a job calling for 408 reams of paper. Some jobs were smaller, such as a low-budget elementary school yearbook in full color.

“I’m just blown away with how much they do here, and very, very impressed with the quality of the people,” Norquist said.

Through the summer break, the center will run six days a week, racing to be ready for the start of school, Smith said. “Summer’s our busiest time,” she said, adding that last summer crews ran through 2.4 million sheets of paper. With the switch to Common Core, she expects this summer to be even busier.

Special assignments

Chamber of Commerce President Cecil Russell paired with instructional aide Cathy Eldredge, helping with special education classwork and even demonstrating how to “moonwalk.” Afterward, he said it was a revelation.

“We need more businesspeople that do that,” he said. “The work was focused. I can’t even describe how proud you’d be of those kids. Businesspeople need to be exposed to this. They need to know what you’re doing.”

Modesto City Schools Board of Education member Sue Zwahlen also paired with a paraprofessional, assisting aide Katherine “K.D.” Alwast with special education teens in a foods class at Enochs High School.

“K.D. knows every aspect of each student’s personality, who their friends are, who they should not be paired with,” Zwahlen said. In the class, her students mixed easily with the other students. “They know what’s expected. They’re engaged. They’re involved,” she said.

Board member Steve Grenbeaux cleaned tables and washed fruit at Rose Avenue Elementary School with food service assistant Teri Montanez. Trustee Rubén Villalobos manned a Davis High School food cart with staffer George Sawyer.

Fresh eyes on Elliott

School board member Jordan Dickson spent the day with secretary Terri Basey at Elliott Continuation School.

“Honestly, it was a game-changer for me,” Dickson said later. “One of the things I kept hearing is ‘choice.’ Choice is a big theme at Elliott. Choices about behavior.”

Choices of clothing took up the first portion of his time manning the discipline office counter where Basey multitasks, her job a low-tech version of air traffic controller.

A student wearing a T-shirt good-naturedly covered up one letter of a word – putting herself in compliance with the school’s strict dress code – with pink leopard-skin duct tape chosen from among a colorful pile on the counter. Another girl refused to put a provided shirt over her blue tank top and stalked into the side-office study hall with a scowl. Paint chips on the office wall show a range of reds and blues not allowed on campus, too close to gang colors.

Dickson mastered enough of the district Power School grades and attendance software to find student classes for a visiting probation officer.

The family-like atmosphere and close collaboration of adults at Elliott surprised him, Dickson said. While the board sees teachers and support staff as two sometimes-competing bargaining groups, he said, “at Elliott that division goes away. It’s a team of people, and that’s what it takes to nurture our students.”

“We need to keep an eye on the safety of the students,” Basey said. “We need to keep it calm. It does take a village.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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