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When everybody knows your name

Sparta — It may have sounded like chaos, but it was a typical day recently for Brenda Kline and Sue Porter, the first faces everyone sees when they enter Sparta Appleview Elementary.

“Someone dropped this phone off at the office, do we know whose it is?”

“His aunt left $20 and said we could do whatever with the change?” 

“Do you know if Sam ordered a hot or cold lunch today?” 

“Has my mom brought my computer yet?”  

They are administrative assistants, keepers of school records and schedules, phone answerers, assistant nurses, computer fixers and so much more.

“These ladies are the lifeblood of the building,” Principal Mike Birely said. “They are the first contact with visitors, attentive to the needs of everyone who comes into the building, and always have smiles on their faces. Everyone in the school depends on them to know what is needed — parents, teachers, staff and students.”

Said Porter: “We don’t know all of the other people, but they know who we are.”

Who They Are

Porter and Kline each have served in the district in one way or another for 20 years or more, starting as volunteers and in substitute positions. 

Porter started as a parent representative and has held multiple positions through the years, as well as serving on a district improvement team. Before Appleview she was in the front office at Englishville, and when the district closed that building in 2013, she didn’t know where she would end up.

Kline became involved with the schools as her daughter grew and needed her less at home. Like Porter, she gradually moved into the position of a full-time secretary. She said that while serving as a Title I assistant at the middle school, she really wanted to stay there.

Appleview lost its administration team and both secretaries in 2013 and Kline was reassigned. “They forced me to move to Appleview, and (when I got here) I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. 

Added Porter, “When I heard Brenda and Mike were coming here, I was glad it was where I would be.”

Sue Porter, left, and Brenda Kline are the faces greeting students and visitors at Appleview Elementary

COVID Challenges

While — as Porter put it — the front desk staff “punts a lot, because things happen around us we have little to do with, COVID has been exhausting.”

She recalled that on March 13, 2020, “we thought it might last a couple of weeks. We had no idea what we were in for.”

Added Kline: “We did not know how to handle a pandemic. We are  grateful now, as we seem to have made it through, but we don’t know yet what next year will bring.”

The front desk has always been the go-between for visitors to the building and teachers and students, “fielding between the parents and teachers has become so much more,” Birely said. “With COVID, parents didn’t come inside the building and nearly every scenario has been a little different.”

First, there was handling virtual classroom packets; then the district switched back, with some students learning in person and some virtual. Just managing attendance became complicated, they said. 

There were technical issues every day. In addition to handling students’ Chromebook challenges, they had to make sure families without internet connections had working hot spots. 

“We took many, many calls from families whose children couldn’t get online, with either computer or connection issues,” Kline said.

Volunteers or upper-level students used to deliver messages as they piled up throughout the school day. “Now we deliver them ourselves,” Porter said. 

Another unique problem they faced over the school year was helping collect pictures for the yearbook. 

“It was hard to figure out how to include the virtual students,” Kline said. “And all of our candid pictures have kids behind masks, of course.”

Chuck Yates delivers a package to Appleview’s Sue Porter

Revolving Spreadsheets, Protocols

Pandemic challenges greatly affected the front office, Birely said. 

“There has been a substantial increase in the workload, managing student attendance, (and) staying up to speed on changes in school, county or state protocols,” he said. “They had to adapt to new protocols every time there was an update by the (Kent) County Health Department, or new school board policy. And they needed a huge awareness to make appropriate decisions about who came into the building.”  

District nurse Amy Roselse called Porter and Kline “an extension of me when I am in other buildings. They are trained to pass out meds, deal with minor injuries, and so much more. They are amazing at their jobs and mine. I couldn’t do my job without them.”

Kline, who kept spreadsheets of those who were quarantined and those who had returned to the building, said Appleview dealt with more than 275 cases. 

“Sometimes it was just a family member who was exposed, sometimes a family member was sick, sometimes a student had symptoms. Every situation was different.”

Moving Ahead, Together

If you ask them, the pair will likely tell you there wasn’t a lot of laughter early in the 2020-21 school year, but that together they learned to make the most of every situation. 

A favorite pastime for them was adding a bit of comic relief into each day. One of their favorites is to scare Nurse Amy, which they find easy to do since she is usually too focused to see them make the jump from behind a door or whatever other small prank they can devise.

Both said they miss seeing the usual volunteers in the building, and interactions with parents and former students who stopped in regularly after school just to say hello.

They have worked together so long they claim they sometimes finish each other’s sentences. But more importantly, they have found a way to blend their strengths and weaknesses so they can tackle everything together. 

“We are a team,” Kline said. 

Added Porter: “Between the two of us, we usually can figure anything out.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio

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