Getting ready for first day Behind the scenes: The real work in starting the school year could not be done without teachers, staff and volunteers.

September 04, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

At General Wolfe Elementary School, Maria Manuli's classrooms are ready for the opening of school today in Baltimore.

"You can check my corners for dust and you won't find any," says Manuli, the solitary custodian who keeps after the school's 22,000 square feet, 215 preteens and 26 employees.

Toiling behind the scenes, Manuli and others are linchpins of the no-frills city public schools -- the secretary who works magic on computers, the unstoppable volunteer, the teacher turned repairman, the whirlwind custodian.

Ask city principals what it took to prepare schools for the arrival of 100,000 students today, and many will cite the labor of an employee deemed to be indispensable.

A trip down the halls of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical School sheds light on the subject -- literally. If corridors seem brighter today than last school year, students can thank two of their peers and teacher Stephen Holloway.

This summer, the trio repaired or replaced more than 700 fluorescent light fixtures in the four wings of a sprawling campus covering the area of about two city blocks.

An electrical construction teacher, Holloway supervised as the students, Tennille Phillips and Robert Summers, learned trade skills and earned $7 an hour. They wired a school lab, repaired broken lights, and replaced fuses and bulbs throughout the 44-year-old building, on Hillen Road near Lake Montebello.

As the going rate for an electrical contractor is more than $40 per hour, their effort saved the school hundreds of dollars, Holloway said.

Principal Gene Lawrence and other teachers plan to make this type of activity an annual learn-and-earn program.

Can't do without

"Name one of the people I couldn't open schools without this year? That would have to be Stephen Holloway," Lawrence said.

Principal Anna Coplin of Cecil Elementary School counts such savings as gifts.

Her extended school "family" includes Elizabeth Rodwell, a neighbor of the school located near North and Greenmount avenues. Rodwell is an irrepressible voluntee who has scrubbed floors, served breakfasts and monitored halls for at least 14 years.

Over the years, Rodwell has had to slow down a little, stop doing so much manual labor, but she's still at it, assisting in the &L cafeteria and managing the parent rooms.

Yesterday, she stopped by the school to size up a problem in the school lobby, where she tends the potted plants that make the entrance to the building cheery. Some of the plants withered and died over the summer, and she was seeking replacements for the new school year.

"She's one of a kind, who will take no remuneration for her work," Coplin said. "We tried to give her an honorarium and she wouldn't take it."

In Northeast Baltimore at Thurgood Marshall Middle School No. 171, Principal Elnora Saunders learned how much she needed someone after that person was gone.

Near panic

Saunders was near panic when school secretary June Kinnear suffered a mild stroke and needed time off late in the summer. There was no budget for a substitute and no time to get someone trained so close to today.

"It's taken two or three people to do the work that she would normally do -- I'm sitting here right now in front of the computer trying to figure this out," Saunders said, finding herself typing lists, fielding routine requests from parents and answering telephones.

To her surprise, one of her first callers was Kinnear.

She called in daily to talk the principal through the secretarial ropes related to back-to-school. She explained how she maintains student records, what the school system paperwork procedures are, where to find important documents and forms, how to coax a certain machine to behave.

Then last week, the door opened and Kinnear limped in -- sneaking off to school between doctors' appointments just to check for herself that her office was ready for school to begin today.

One of the traits of uncommonly devoted school workers, principals say, is their attitude that the school is not the mayor's and not the superintendent's but their own. This is especially true of nonteaching employees, who make up the majority of the school system's payroll.

In East Baltimore, for example, the taxpayers' property at the corner of Wolfe and Gough streets is entirely Manuli's turf.

There is no grime on her school lunchroom tables.

The pink walls in her corridors are fingerprint-free.

She scrubbed the elevator floor, then went back and cleaned the elevator housing that nobody else in the school needs to see.

During the academic year, she maintains a 6: 30 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule and often brews the morning's first pot of coffee, over which she and the principal trade news of the world.

"Without her, this place would grind to a halt," Principal Clayton nTC Lewis says of Manuli, whose old-fashioned work ethic has earned her a reputation across the city. He fends off other principals' attempts to woo her away.

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