School's calming presence

At busy Phelps Luck, secretary Charell Gillian is a steadying influence.

Education Beat

News from Howard County schools and colleges

August 28, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Charell Gillian has seen a lot of changes since she joined Phelps Luck Elementary School as a teachers' secretary 27 years ago. Fewer than 400 pupils were enrolled at the time, and they all walked to school, Gillian said.

Now, the school, which opened in 1972, has an enrollment of about 500, not including 40 children in two prekindergarten classes. And more than a half-dozen buses take the children to school.

"It's definitely busier," she said, taking a moment to sit in the hallway and talk Thursday afternoon, the day before the school's open house for pupils and parents and just a few days before the start of the new school year. She said parents were still registering youngsters for school, and they probably would continue to do so after classes started.

"There are more kids," she said. "We really have a diverse community at this point. It's really different than it was, but it's been a good different."

Gillian, who was a teachers' secretary for 15 years and has been secretary to the school principal for 12 years, has seen other changes, as well. She has remained at the school while six principals have come and gone. The newest is Pam Akers, who is starting her first year as principal after serving as assistant principal last year.

As Akers looked toward the first day of classes in her new role, she said she is glad to have Gillian by her side.

"As a new administrator, it's so helpful to have a secretary who really knows the community and parents and has such a great relationship with the community," Akers said.

The principal's office is a busy place. Some pupils are sent there as punishment, of course, but Akers said she likes to think of her office more as a place where questions are answered and where parents and administrators can work together to find the best approach for a child.

As part of her job, Gillian is bookkeeper, makes purchases, writes the school newsletter, and does everything from organizing the principal's schedule to answering phones and helping with registration. "I just pitch in and do what I can when I can," she said.

"She's so flexible," Akers said. "She's really ready to do whatever needs to be done."

Yet no matter how hectic things are, Gillian never seems to get flustered, say teachers who have known her for decades.

"She's absolutely incredible," said Nancy Koza, the first-grade team leader, who has been at Phelps Luck longer than Gillian - 29 years. "She's wonderful with students, staff and families. ... She always finds time to juggle and balance."

No matter how many people need attention, Gillian always seems able to focus on the person in front of her, Koza said. "She's calm, kind, never flustered," Koza said.

Just that morning, Koza said, she watched Gillian help a mother register her child for classes. The mother was clearly having trouble understanding the paperwork, Koza said, and as the mother sat in her chair, Gillian knelt beside her, talking quietly and guiding her through the process, taking the stress out of the moment.

First-grade teacher Amy Dower, who has been at Phelps Luck for 28 years, described Gillian as "professional, compassionate, calm and personable."

Gillian remembers things about people, Dower said. An avid reader, Gillian often recommends books to others, and always seems to remember the kinds of books they like. She also seems to have the school bus routes ingrained in her memory, a handy attribute in an elementary school.

"You give her a street address, and she can tell you the bus number," Dower said.

Gillian moved to Columbia from Pennsylvania in 1977 and started working at Phelps Luck the next year. She was attracted to the job because she had secretarial skills, and she liked working school hours because her children were young.

When she became the principal's secretary, her 10-month-a-year-job became year-round, but by then her children were no longer living at home, she said.

The Phelps Luck school day begins at 8:40 a.m. and ends at 3:20 p.m., but Gillian's days are longer. She usually starts her day at 8 a.m. and stays until "whenever it ends," she said. "I'm here late some days."

Her hard work has not escaped the attention of co-workers who have come to rely on her calm competence.

"We just can't make do without her," Dower said.

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