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'This Is the Hub of the School'


They're managers, technicians, associates, coordinators, executive assistants--a reflection of their growing responsibilities.

They're the glue that keeps it together.

They hear it all.

They know it all.

They guard it all.

And, today, their bosses will salute them in the annual celebration known as Professional Secretaries Day, an idea originated in 1952 with Mary Barrett, president of the National Secretaries Assn., founded a decade earlier.

Today, the group is called Professional Secretaries International--the Assn. for Office Professionals. And the Kansas City, Mo.-based group is working harder than ever to change the public and workplace perception of secretaries.

No longer are the 3.4 million secretaries known merely for "taking a letter" or identified by the "S" word in a job title. Sure, they file, answer phones and occasionally make coffee. But take a closer look. They're also supervising, training, managing--and likely to be more Internet savvy than anyone in the office.

All this and they never get sick.

Here are three worthy of the title of Secretarius Honorarius.

To know Elsa Sandoval is to know her boss, Lupe Simpson, a champion of children who is in your face if kids aren't first in your heart.

Simpson is the principal of Chester W. Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park, the second-largest junior high in the nation. Enrollment: 3,500.

Sandoval is Simpson's secretary, her confidant.

She also is the school's office manager, handles the payroll for more than 300 teachers and employees, and helps supervise 17office assistants and 17 student office workers.

But it's the everyday surprises that come with guiding a school this size that keep Sandoval on her toes from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week.

"This is the hub of the school. This is where it all happens," she says from behind her desk just outside her boss' door in the school's main office.

Most days, business for Sandoval is about as routine as it gets: meetings with the principal, answering her phone, reminding her of a parent conference, trailing her down the hallways for a signature on important paperwork--the usual.

"Mrs. Simpson likes to be in the classroom or outside with the kids. The kids are first with her. I tell her, 'I need you to sign this first, now do this, this I don't really care about.' I am always chasing after her."

The hub--the vicinity of Sandoval's desk--is also where major problems are dealt with, where the code of confidentiality is never cracked.

"We get all the surprises," Sandoval says of issues involving students, parents and teachers or a combination of all three that are often played out in public before being sorted out in the privacy of the principal's office.

Coming to a school the size of Nimitz from a smaller elementary school four years ago was a bit of a shock. But Sandoval adjusted in no time, taking on more responsibility than ever before: payroll, bookkeeping, training staff and taking charge of securing substitute teachers at an average rate of five per day. Occasionally, that number can be as high as 17, "which takes all day to do."

Still, it's the kids who mean the most to Sandoval, a mother of three, especially on those rare days when a student has run away from home.

Parents come in crying, desperate for help. Sandoval has been there, and parents know that.

Her son, Nicolas, ran away from home for one week when he was 13. Today, the 18-year-old is in the U.S. Marine Corps, stationed in Washington, D.C., studying, working, making his mom proud.

She shares her experience with parents.

"I know how they are feeling. How nobody wants to help them."

So Sandoval acts promptly, summoning one of five assistant principals to the office, sending for Simpson and remaining with the parents, comforting them, jotting down names of friends and teachers who might have seen the student last.

Later, when Sandoval sees the parent in school again, "I ask them, 'How is your child doing now?' and they like that. 'You remember,' they say. They smile.

"You know those days when you're doing this, this and this, and it seems like you're not getting anything done? I get those days. And then other days I get those smiles. And I think to myself, 'I've accomplished a lot.' "

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