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Secretary performs many duties for school, students she loves

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

Phyllis Halstead's job title may be school secretary, but anyone who knows her will confess there's much more to her work than typing and filing.

On any given day, the Kenai Alternative High School employee serves a number of functions.

"(I'm a) counselor, psychologist, cook, banker, laundress, seamstress, money loaner," Halstead said. "I just sort of bounce back and forth."

"She's always wearing many hats," added school nurse Pamela Howard. "She's a secretary, tutor, cook ... a mom away from home."

Halstead has been a constant figure at the alternative high school since its inception 14 years ago. While the school has seen about seven administrators come and go, Halstead is the one face that's remained permanently.

"I've been a nurse here off and on since 1991," Howard said. "Phyllis was here then. Right away, I felt like she was one of the main factors that made a difference (to the kids). She seems to be a real stronghold for the school."

Halstead always has been interested in education. Born and raised in Massachusetts and bearing the accent Howard said "everybody just loves" Halstead started college to become a teacher. However, she quit school when she married and started a family.

While her husband attended flight school and served in the military in Vietnam and Kentucky, Halstead stayed home raising their two children, Jennifer and Joseph.

After her husband completed his military service, he asked Halstead to try Alaska for a year.

"I didn't like it, but I'm still here, 30 years later," she said.

 

Halstead receives a hug from a student during a graduation ceremony a couple years ago. Both students and staff rely on her through the course of the school year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Halstead worked as a hairdresser for a time in Kenai, but her love was always for children and education. She volunteered at her children's schools and eventually took a job as an aide and later a substitute secretary at Kenai Central High School.

"What I know about Phyllis is she always came to work with an extreme amount of energy," said Mick Wykis, who was the administrator at KCHS during Halstead's tenure and now serves as principal of Sears Elementary School.

"She's very much an advocate for kids, but she makes kids meet high standards for their behavior and their work," Wykis said. "She's just one of those people. It would be hard not to like Phyllis. She has an electric personality, her enthusiasm is really catching."

While Halstead was working at KCHS, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District began considering the formation of an alternative high school to meet the needs of students who had trouble in a more traditional education atmosphere.

She credits Wykis for recommending her for the secretary job at the new school and said she's never looked back.

"I've always said this is the best school in the district," she said. "If you really want to touch kids' lives, make a difference in their lives, this is the place to be."

Kenai Alternative is a unique school, serving students who struggle in traditional environments. They are students who may have dropped out and decided to try again, who have difficult family lives, who have been in trouble with the law or who have children of their own.

While the goal of the school is to help these students earn their high school diplomas, Halstead said academics almost come second.

"What you really learn is how to deal with life, how to resolve conflicts," Halstead said. "If they have a problem, we sit down and talk. It's all about choices. We talk to them about that all the time."

Halstead is central to such lessons, working one-on-one with students all day long.

 

Halstead helps Tara Dunbar with a math problem in a room that doubles as the school's office and student lounge.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Her mornings start at 6:30, when two area churches serve breakfast for students at the school.

Before classes, each student checks in with Halstead. If anyone's absent, she calls their home, trying to get them to class.

"She's cool," said ninth-grader Leann Payton. "Like, when we get to school, she likes to talk about how your day was. If you have a problem, you can tell her something and she'll find a way to fix it for you."

But while Halstead is always there for the teens, she also isn't afraid to be gruff and hold them to her standards.

"She's very much a real person, very authentic," Wykis said. "I think kids like that and respect her for that. She just tells it like it is."

On a recent Wednesday morning, for example, Halstead talked to students at their weekly all-school meeting, reminding seniors about graduation preparations. The rapport between her and her charges was evident as she joked with the students and put her foot down.

"We never tell you what we're going to do. You got a problem with that?" she countered when a student asked for graduation ceremony details.

"Yea, I do," replied senior Donna Dobson. "I'm gonna take it up with you."

For those who were behind in their preparation, she issued a warning: "How'd you like to be on my bad list?"

Halstead's work doesn't stop at administrative reminders, though.

 

Principal Gregg Wilbanks, secretary Phyllis Halstead and teacher Kelly Bishop applaud KAS guitar students after their first impromptu performance in a new class Halstead organized.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In fact, she probably is more hands-on than any other secretary in the district. Rather than a traditional office, her desk is set in a corner of the school's common lounge, surrounded by couches, tables and chairs and often students, strollers and problems.

"It's more of a family atmosphere," Halstead said. "It's the only (setting) I really know, though, and I love it. It's just so open. It's really sort of hands-on. I don't have a glass window there (between me and the students)."

After the Wednesday morning meeting, Halstead motioned to Principal Gregg Wilbanks: "We need to deal with these boys."

While the pair met with a group of students, even more kids came through the door looking for the secretary-who-does-it-all.

A teen mom lifted a stuffed toy from her child's stroller, setting it on Halstead's desk: "This is Phyllis'," she said.

Another came looking for class supplies.

"Is Phyllis in a meeting? I need a calculator."

Always at students' beck and call, Halstead finds little barrier between her and the rest of the school, either. In addition to secretarial work and dealing with the students' every need Halstead also goes out of her way to be involved in other aspects of the school.

She participates in the admission interviews students go through to get into the school.

She works with Wilbanks on discipline.

 

Halstead talks to the guitar students about reading music and working together to make a performance.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've always felt the administrators have respected me," she said. "We sort of problem solve and deal with things together."

She shows up for all the school's "extra" activities.

For example, she's there when students put on their annual Thanksgiving dinner for the community and for the yearly Christmas party, when students and staff share dinner and gifts.

She helps out on the days when Howard is at other sites, taking care of students' health needs.

"I'll be in the building, and kids will go right past me to ask her for Tylenol or a Band-Aid," Howard said. "They're just used to her being here."

She also crosses over into the teaching field, helping with special projects and inserting her own ideas in the school's curriculum.

In the past, she and teacher Kevin Harding have offered culture and cooking classes, in which students study different regions of the world through art and cuisine.

"The kids love hands-on (activities) and they love food," she said. "If you can combine the two, you have a successful class."

The students at the school also tend to be interested in art and music, she said.

"What I see, most of the students here are really, really artistic. It's proven that artistic people learn differently," she said. "This is an area where the district fulfilled that need."

 

Photo by M. Scott Moon

A student shuts out the morning sun as Halstead checks attendance from the hall outside a classroom last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Halstead also has come up with her ways to meet that need.

A quilter in her free time, Halstead has taught some of the students to make blankets and each year a large paper "quilt" hangs in the office-lounge displaying students' artwork.

Area musician Mike Morgan has spent time at the school presenting music to students, and Halstead's most recent brainstorm took that idea a step further.

"She got this wild hair to do a guitar class," Wilbanks said. "Neither of us know anything about guitar, but we're going to do it."

Halstead explained that Morgan's recent time at the school inspired students and several expressed an interest in learning to play guitar.

"We were lucky enough to have an Artists in Schools grant this year," she said. "They loved it, they all came alive. So we're going to try (guitar) this rotation. We're designing a class where they'll learn notes and teach each other. It'll be a cooperative learning experience for staff and students."

After all, the whole point is to keep students interested in learning and willing to stay in school, she said.

"The alternative high school is really an excellent vision the district had," she said. "It fulfills so many needs of students who fell through the cracks."

Students and co-workers, however, said it is Halstead who really meets those needs.

"She's always willing to go beyond her job to help kids," Dobson said. "An alternative school is a school with kids with not really normal lives. She's so willing to help you turn it around, whether it's drugs or parents, she's always understanding, always willing to help you turn it around.

"She always keeps kids in line, which you need a lot of at a school like this."

Nurse Howard said the students accept Halstead's efforts at discipline and respond to it.

"They'll take it off her more than anyone else, because they know she cares down deep," Howard said. "She's always mothering the kids."

"She cares about us as individuals," agreed 11th-grader Alexis Lageson. "She goes out of her way to help."

"She's kept me on track better than any other counselor or teacher at other schools," added senior Chris Nyland.

Whether that means coddling or yelling, it's OK, the students said.

"She yells at everyone equally," another student said under her breath.

"I don't think Gregg (Wilbanks) would admit it, but she basically runs this place," said Chris Stroh, who graduated from the alternative high school last year.

A student poem posted to the front of Halstead's desk may say it best, though:

"Secretary,

Respectful, kind,

Smarts, school, kids, principal,

Yelling, laughing, lecturing,

Friendly, scary,

Phyllis."



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