BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Debra Saponara, the administrative secretary at Fairview Elementary School who has worked in the district for 23 years, has retired. She and her boss, Principal Sal DeSimone, departed at the end of June.
Saponara grew up in Bloomfield, coming to the township when she was 2 years old. She attended Demarest Elementary, North Junior High School and graduated from Bloomfield High School in 1970. She continues to reside in the township.
Destiny certainly took a hand in her being hired by the Bloomfield district, but that was after she had experienced a brief career in the New York fashion world.
Following her graduation from BHS, Saponara attended secretarial school with an emphasis on business and fashion merchandising. She worked in the New York garment district as a showroom saleswoman, selling fashions to retail buyers.
“It was a fascinating industry and I really loved it,” she said. “That’s what I love.”
She stayed with the fashion trade for five years. But after getting married and beginning a family, she became a stay-at-home mom.
She was at home for seven years before deciding to either go back to school or join the workforce. But whatever she was going to do, she knew it would be synchronized with her children’s schedule.
At this time, she was close to the principal at Oak View Elementary. He told her she would be a great asset to the Bloomfield school district. She took the advice and went to the district human resources department. She was told to take coursework in computers and she did.
Once she was qualified, Saponara was called in to substitute for a secretary who was on jury duty.
“The call came and here I am, 23 years later,” Saponara said. “I went there and, believe it or not, I never left Bloomfield after that day,” she said at Fairview recently. “They liked my style of work and asked me to continue with them. I guess you would call me a hard worker with energy and determination. I wanted to do what I could to please people. I’m a people person.”
After two years at the administration building, she saw a posting for Fairview Elementary as the administrative secretary. She said she liked the idea and excitement of having a job with children around.
“When I think of myself, I think of myself as a mom,” she said.
Saponara said there was plenty for her to do when she got to Fairview.
“It really was disorganized,” she said. “I jumped in, two feet forward and started to organize. I’d say that is one of my exceptional abilities.”
In the main office at Fairview, Saponara said four people are at work: the principal, the administrative secretary, the office aide, and the nurse.
“Each of us has to know what’s going on,” she said. “It’s an exceptionally busy place and a lot of people don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes. There’s a lot of work and different reports. You have to be meticulous. We have a lot of work to do and also be gracious with the public.”
One of the changes to her job, from when she first started, is the number of reports mandated by the state.
“There were always reports,” Saponara said. “One or two when I first came. Now there are four state reports a year. The state wants to know everything.”
Of course, the use of technology has increased and especially in her work over the last two or three years, she said. And now there are monthly meetings for administrative secretaries.
“More often than not you’re learning about technology,” she said.
The people coming to the school have also changed in a way.
“Families come from all over the world,” Saponara said. “A lot of times they don’t speak English.”
She said when parents learned that she was retiring, many came to thank her for being the first smiling face they saw when they brought their children to Fairview, and for making them feel at ease.
“I always helped them in any way I could,” Saponara said.
She started to think about retiring two years ago and made her decision last year.
“I have grandchildren now,” she said. “I loved this chapter in my life. Maybe I’ll get into the world of fashion. Maybe I’ll do something new.”
Just a day or so before being interviewed, Saponara said a bunch of sixth-graders came down to say goodbye, hug her and take pictures.
“It’s heartwarming to know you’ve touched so many lives,” she said.
For the person taking over her job, Saponara would tell them to be super organized.
“There’s a lot of multitasking,” she said. “And be prepared to be interrupted many, many times.”
A warm personality is important for the job, too, she said; not only for the children and parents but also the staff.
“When you have a student population as high as 575 children, you’re dealing with a lot of people,” she said. “And you’re dealing with a lot of people attached to those students. You have to be prepared to being pulled in many directions.”
Looking back over her years at Fairview, Saponara said she never thought she would be working in the main office of an elementary school for as long as she did. But there are no regrets; far from it.
“Your relationships are your riches in life,” she said.