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Cottonwood Heights Journal

East Midvale Elementary students return to Graham’s welcoming arms

Sep 03, 2022 11:56AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When school children walk in the doors of East Midvale Elementary, they’re likely embraced by administrative assistant Charlotte Graham—figuratively and literally.

“She's this familiar face to generations of parents so when they're bringing their kids or grandkids, they know her and that she’s a welcoming, inviting person who knows the community,” Principal Matt Nelson said. “She knows the families and she really cares about the school. It’s important that the first face, that first welcome, that first hello, is somebody that knows the school, the community, the history. It’s somebody they can lean on, and who is able to help. Our community appreciates that she lives right here in Midvale and is involved and has that connection. She has that loyalty to our families and our school, and our community.”

Canyons Human Resources Elementary Administrator and former East Midvale Principal Sally Sansom agrees: “When I came in, she was the first one who greeted me with a ‘good morning’ and instantly, went out of her way to help—and she does that with everyone.”

Graham has set a culture of warmth at the school since fall 1977, 12 years after the school opened. She began working at East Midvale when her 50-year-old son was a kindergartner, and she was offered a job from the principal.

“I volunteered almost every day and the principal at the time, Mr. Cottrell, asked me if I’d like a job, saying, ‘you’re here every day anyway,’” she said. “I was part time for the first four years. I helped everywhere, and this was the good old days. We did everything by hand.”

With a degree in bookkeeping from LDS Business College, Graham became a “jack of all trades,” as a lunch secretary, assisting in a third-grade classroom and helping the secretary in the main office using an IBM electric typewriter with carbon copies for teachers that left her fingers purple from the carbon paper.

“When I went to school, I wanted to be an accountant. But here I was helping all over the place and I absolutely loved it, Being the lunch secretary involved a lot of accounting. We wrote kids’ names down, then we wrote when they brought in their money and which days they ate. I’d keep track of how much money they had leftover and I had to call and let parents know that they owed money or how much money they had left. It was a really long process,” she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, East Midvale students ate free meals as they were covered by a federal grant. Previously, students just keyed in their identification numbers for meals, which would adjust their accounts, and that reduced the amount of clerical work.

Graham also remembers entering attendance when she started.

“We had attendance sheets with little bubbles, one through 10. I’d take them home and I go through the roll books and when a child was absent on that day, I’d blacken the bubble. That's how we did it then to know how many absences that child has that month. I had all these little bubbles to blacken over and over,” she said.

That, too, has changed through the years.

“It was a different world back then,” Graham said. “The bookkeeping has gone away from these big 3-foot journals with little screws in it to add pages and where I would have to write everything by hand first by pencil, then go back over it with black or red pens to balance it. And it was double-entered, so when I made a check, it would come out of the checkbook, then I'd have to write in which area it came from. We had a budget with the old system that I had to balance by hand. Now for anything we buy, I use the P card; it’s like a charge card and it’s tax exempt. I don't think I've written a check for maybe three years. I used to have a checkbook, then I’d have a printer that I printed the checks out. We don't do that anymore.”

While Graham still keeps track of the funds, the budget now is computerized. The large books have been shredded.

“We used to have to balance to the penny. Now with the new system, I just put it in my computer, and it balances it,” she said. “I learned so much on the job, just starting with learning how to use the computer to now, having meetings on Zoom. In some aspects of the job, we went from all hands-on to virtual. But not with the kids. We’re all hands-on, here for them.”

Sansom said that while Graham is able to her job efficiently, she also finds time to “call a parent to check on a student who may have broken an arm to make sure he was OK, showing how much she cares. I don’t know if she knows how to juggle, but she juggles everything all the time.”

After her first four years, East Midvale’s first secretary retired so Graham took her job as her daughter started kindergarten at the school. Graham’s duties have expanded so a full-time nurse was added taking much of the emergency care Graham handled with her first aid and CPR training. She also has part-time staff to help with attendance and student support assistance, tracking students’ birth and immunization records. 

“We’re one of the most diverse schools in the state of Utah. We have 16 different languages plus English,” she said, adding at the time they were expecting Ukrainian refugees to enroll at the school. “We had a few Spanish-speaking students when I first started here; we were just a little neighborhood school. Our diversity increased when our boundaries included The Road Home (shelter) and we started getting refugees. That’s when we became a Title I school.”

The culture of the school community has extended with a food and clothing pantry to help students’ families as well as an after-school program that was established in 2011 to provide homework assistance and meals. Through the years, United Way also has helped provide backpacks filled with school supplies and other needs for the students for the school that Nelson said averages a 32% turnover rate.

“I try to know every kid’s name,” Graham said. “It’s really important. We have 600 kids, and we have turnover and turnover because at The Road Home, they come and go so fast. We may have students a week, two weeks, maybe a couple of months and then they'll leave. We'll take them out of our system and then, sometimes, they'll come back. We have our neighborhood kids, and we have a number of refugees who now live here. We know we usually have these students awhile because they get them homes and can live there for so many months. It makes it a great and diverse student body.”

Fifth-grade teacher Diana Caldwell has worked with Graham at the school 18 years.

“Char knows everybody, and she cares about everybody,” Caldwell said. “The kids love Miss Char. Every kid loves Miss Char. She remembers kids that were here decades ago, and she knows about their lives. She wants them all to succeed. She can be tough with them, if she needs to be tough. She’ll be kind to them, and she’ll be fair. She just treats them the way they should be treated. If there's a problem that I have, I can go and talk to her, and she can give me some suggestions on how to fix it; she knows the workings of the school and district and who to talk to or who to call. Every school needs a Miss Char.”

Nelson said that since so many people in the community know Graham, they feel at ease with their students being enrolled at the school.

“They already have good rapport with Char; there is already a connection, so it eases their worries to have their students go somewhere where people know your name. It sounds cheesy, but it definitely matters,” he said. “We pride ourselves on being a welcoming school for people to come bring their kids to learn. She's a huge part of that.”

Through the years as thousands of students have stopped at her desk, Graham remains consistently upbeat.

“I try to be positive at all times,” she said. “Growing up, my dad always used to say, ‘Just because you're in a bad mood, it's not their fault. Don't be mad and mean.’ So, I would like to see that happen with lots of kids—to be more positive. I’m here to help these kids, many who have a hard life and that breaks my heart. So, the least I can do is be positive for them.”

The school also has embraced its diversity, hosting an annual Living Traditions event since 2008 that celebrates different ethnicities and cultures, encouraging students to share their backgrounds and heritage. Often, community groups come to perform from their culture as well.

“We've had some pretty good programs and we’re getting back to them now,” she said, referring to the absence of school events during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We're getting back now to field trips, too, and that's really important; it gives our students opportunities. I help with that too—enter the field trips, transportation and all.”

Over the past four decades, Graham has seen two school remodels, one in the 1980s when walls were installed in the open-classroom building, and another, more recently, where the office was moved to the front of the building to best serve patrons. It also has a secure entrance.

“The principal’s office used to be right here in the front of the building with that beautiful view. I’m on my 17th principal now. We didn’t have assistant principals until we became a Title I school,” she said, adding the school’s first assistant principal was in 2011.

Graham’s commitment to education goes beyond her school as she serves on the Utah Association of Educational Office Professionals board, is the secretary/treasurer for Canyons’ education support professionals association and took minutes during the negotiation committee during the Jordan-Canyons school district split that took place more than one decade ago.

“I'm very involved in Midvale; this is my home,” she said.

Through the years, Graham served on the city’s arts council, was the director for Miss Midvale, helped with Harvest Days, volunteered at summer concerts in the park and is the field director for Miss Utah.

“She’s really service-oriented,” Nelson said. “She’s super friendly and will walk a family to a classroom or help them get something. Her service and willingness to help extends beyond working with organizations. She’ll just stop and do anything for anybody.”

Sansom can testify to that. When Sansom’s sister needed her cats delivered to her after moving to New York City, Graham was up for the job.  

“We had these two big cats—19 pounds and 21 pounds—and Char said she’d fly to New York with me to deliver them,” Sansom said.

Graham remembers the opportunity. “We strapped cats in, and we took off to New York. I have never been to New York before, so we took in sights. It was really fun.”

Sansom pointed out that before they got there, Graham took a cat out on the plane to give it some love.

“The guy next to her started freaking out, but then she started talking to him. She can make friends anywhere. We hailed a taxi to explore New York and she was best friends with the cabbie. Then she made friends at Starbucks, or I should say, ‘Char-bucks,’” she said, adding that when she’s traveled with Graham and others to Wendover and Las Vegas, “Char always turns it into the ‘fun bus.’ She knows how to have fun and laugh at silly things that happen, but at work, she still keeps her focus and keeps the office staff working together. My three kids were like everyone else’s kids who went to the school. Char just takes them under her wings as a loving person and helps them grow. Years later, she still cares. She’s the heart of the school. She’s one of the best things about East Midvale.”

Having the ability to bring people together is something Nelson appreciates as well.

“She’s a hard worker and gets along with everyone. She keeps track of everything, but she’s always keeping things positive and light, cracking jokes with people she knows,” he said. “She just loves this school and this community and makes this a really, really great place to be.”

Graham also knows her community’s history having built her house across the street from the school when the area was unincorporated and was being determined if it would be part of Midvale or Murray.

The school, which was the second school built in Midvale, had been called Twin Peaks in its initial conception.

“It had been designed as Twin Peaks Elementary on the plans because you can see the twin peaks in the mountains. But at the last minute they changed it and named it East Midvale,” she said, adding that the town hadn’t been named Midvale at that point.

One year later, Granite School District used the name Twin Peaks for its elementary that opened in Murray.

At age 73, Graham said she’s often sees grandchildren of former students. Her own two grandkids also attended East Midvale.

“Sometimes I have to say ‘remind me of your name,’ because they’ve grown up and changed or they’re wearing a mask, and that’s hard to recognize them. When I hear the name, I know who they are. I just had a lady in here yesterday, and she said that she was so-and-so’s daughter. Of course, I remember her mother; she was a great volunteer.”

Graham isn’t slowing down nor thinking of sitting on a rocking chair on her porch to watch the students go to East Midvale without her.

“I come from a really hard-working family. I'm of the opinion when you retire home and sit, you lose everything and you get dementia,” she said. “I love the school. This is my home away from home. These kids are my family.”

This is the last of three profiles spotlighting long-time Canyons School District employees.