Along with a stash of sweets in the office "chocolate closet," Debbie Collette, secretary at , keeps a small shrine devoted to actor George Clooney.
Imagine her embarrassment the day Dr. Steven Keller, the superintendent of the , stepped behind the closet door to hide from a teacher he wanted to surprise in the classroom before reading to her students.
Collette suddenly remembered the pictures of Clooney—but when Keller emerged, he said simply, "It will remain our secret."
As for the bowls of chocolate candy? Those are for teachers who may need a lift during a hard day, just as duplicate keys rescue those who may have locked themselves out of the classroom.
Collette has been adding those creative touches at Tulita for more than 20 years, almost since the day her son, Tony, started there in kindergarten. Tony is now 26 years old.
Beginning with a two-term stint as PTA President, Collette went from a part-time job in the health office to school secretary 16 years ago.
Collette's extracurricular efforts on Tulita’s behalf—everything from the annual Western Night to the Turkey Bowl at Thanksgiving to Hollywood Park Night to student Spirit Competitions—have endeared her to the entire school district.
"She is Tulita Elementary," Keller said, explaining how skeptical he was when first hearing about Collette. He was quickly won over. "She is the platinum standard for customer service," the superintendent said, "the real deal … everyone truly respects and loves her. Plus, she is an artist and an advocate for all kids."
Collette, a lithe redhead with an impish grin, realizes she may not fit the clerical mold.
"I never thought I would become a secretary," she said in the teacher's lounge after closing the school office late one afternoon. "I'm an artist and performer. I taught dance for 20 years … I worked at a flower shop … anything creative."
Wanting to help with family finances and knowing her husband, Paul, who taught drama and English at , would retire before she did, Collette said she stepped into the secretarial role "partly because it was this school, and partly it was good timing."
"I just loved this school so much," she said, her eyes lighting up behind rectangular specs. "Working with the PTA and doing all the family programs, the Western Night, the Hands on Art Program, Sixth-Grade Science Camp..."
One thing that makes her job especially rewarding, Collette said, is working with people like Keller ("my greatest supporter") and Tulita Principal Danielle Allphin. Said Collette, "It's great to have a principal where you can just walk in and say, 'I've got this great idea...'"
Family night at Tulita, for example, used to consist of parents bringing pizza and getting acquainted with other families and teachers. "But there was nothing for the kids," said Collette, who wanted parents and children to interact.
"I don't know exactly what gave me the idea of Western Night, but at that time line dancing was becoming huge," she said. So she turned the evening into a country fair and initiated line dancing, a pie eating contest, a chili cook off, etc.
Allphin, who calls Western Night "a cherished Tulita tradition," said the event, which Collette launched during her PTA tenure some 20 years ago, is attended by hundreds of people and "attests to the legacy Debbie has created in our school community."
Collette laughs about her reputation: "Staff sees me coming and start running … 'What is she going to have us to do now?'"
Every other year the school hosts a variety show. "I feel like Judy Garland … Let's have a show!" she explained. Even though she assumes the lion's share as producer, director, choreographer and performer, Collette, who sometimes feels "like a cruise director," doesn't dare hold the show every year "because I don't think people would participate."
As she began working full-time at Tulita, the former dancer saw her role more as a public relations person than secretary. "It's more about having a team spirit with our staff," she said, delivering her mantra with a grin: "The staff that plays together stays together."
Collette's creativity—the hallmark of her tenure at Tulita—blossoms into the community.
Five years ago, Collette and teaching aide Patti Linnet decided to create a mosaic out of extra mugs presented to teachers by the Tulita PTA. The mosaic, which graces the Teacher's Patio, ended up incorporating mementos contributed by teachers from the school's pre-renovation days—everything from keys to a fork to a screwdriver.
The wall spawned Everything Mosaic, a company owned by Collette and Linnet that designs and installs mosaics for individuals as well as the city.
With approval from the Redondo Beach City Council, Collette and Linnet were commissioned for the city's first public arts project, "Ocean Steps," a mosaic stairway at the , a project unveiled in 2009.
The mosaic was to be a public art donation, but the Redondo Beach Art Group (RBAG) and Friends of the Arts raised funds to pay for supplies. (Collette is heavily involved with RBAG and the group's huge community event held each fall, Power of Art.)
Just this year, Collette and Linnet finished another public art donation, four bollards on the Esplanade at the end of Avenue C, cement blocks decorated with colorful mosaic sea life.
"What's been wonderful is to continue to do those creative things here [at Tulita], like the mosaic wall or putting on a variety show," said Collette, who fits these and other projects in around an eight-hour day, doing most work evenings and weekends. "I love putting teams together, having people work together."
With budget cuts, teacher layoffs, a bad economy, dwindling enrollment and expanding class sizes, the little extras—whether a "chocolate fix" or a night at the races—can boost morale, reasons why Collette "supports everything I can" at Tulita and in the district.
She does not discount the stress of her job, however, which includes meeting payroll for 45 employees, maintaining school records for 425 students, ordering supplies, taking inventory, answering phones, composing correspondence and greeting visitors.
That doesn't take into account the daily dramas: the scraped knees, lost inhalers, sudden asthma attacks, forgotten lunches, family problems. "There are so many divided families; so many things where people need help," she said. "Parents come in, leave a suitcase because the student lives two places."
Her job is like "running a business," she said. Collette, the only full-time clerical employee at the school, said her work is never done at the end of the day: "You have to learn to prioritize." She does have an office clerk three hours a day, and they both sub for the health nurse.
One great thing about her job, Collette said, is that she can "refresh" over the summer and "figure out what I can do better next year."
Aside from "a warm staff environment" at Tulita, Debbie Collette has a supportive family. Her husband, who she met while doing community theatre, writes children's plays and young adult fiction, and Tony is an artist and musician. Both pitch in on Collette's projects.
But one of her greatest thrills came when, after winning the RBUSD Classified Employee of the Year award in 2009, she was elevated in 2010 to represent the district in the final California Classified Employee of the Year contest. "It was an honor to go that far," she said.
(Where teachers are known as "certified" employees, all other workers—librarians, clerks, cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries, health clerks, etc.—fall under the "classified" umbrella, Collette explained.)
In a glowing, three-page recommendation for the state competition, Allphin wrote:
"Staff members and parents regularly refer to the Tulita community as a family. It is thanks to the hard work, commitment, leadership and dedication of Debbie Collette that those family bonds exist and are strengthened in the Tulita community year after year."
Collette has received the Honorary Service Award from the PTA twice in the past six years, and another district award in 2007 for "Excellence in Education" for "going the extra distance for children."
The district trophies bear a child's high-top, red tennis shoe along with a poem that talks about children learning how and where to walk by Collette's example.
"Your footprints will be the stepping stones to their future," it reads.