'The first smile'
Although teachers are the focal point at school, there are many in behind-the-scenes roles that directly shape students' educational experiences.
At Cedar Ridge Middle School, the first face many students see is Principal Nicole Johnston's secretary, Kris Scharfenberg.
In her role at the middle school for almost 32 years, Scharfenberg, although not a teacher, feels her duties are just as important to student success.
"(I've always heard the phrase) 'Leave people better than you found them' — that's a pretty large goal I think, but one I'd hope for," Scharfenberg told The Post. "We never know what (students' lives) outside of school is like. Maybe their parents leave before they're awake in the morning, so I'm the first smile they see. I'd hope that when we see each other they'd feel happy, encouraged, welcome (and) comfortable. I like having that influence. It's important to me that I show that kind of spirit to kids when they come. I really count it as a privilege to have the opportunity to be that to young lives."
The secretary role at Cedar Ridge was the Gresham native's first job. After graduating from Centennial High School, she became a wife, and later, mother to two children. When her kids entered Sandy Grade School, "I basically just followed along after them."
Scharfenberg's first brush with working in education was as a volunteer in the Sandy Grade School parent-teacher club. That's when the idea to make a career from helping kids really began to take shape.
"I was around the school environment all the time and really enjoyed it," she explained.
When the former Cedar Ridge secretary moved to a different school, Scharfenberg threw her hat in the ring, and has been at the desk ever since.
"In this position you're a teacher of sorts," Scharfenberg noted. "Because, especially these days, being in education doesn't mean just teaching kids reading writing and arithmetic. It's a lot of life skills. I admire the heck out of teachers, but that's not what I want to do. I love being in that supportive role. One huge part of my job is to make it easier for them to do their jobs. Just being here and helping out with that side of it is very rewarding. I like what I do in my position."
Besides educating kids on life skills, Scharfenberg also takes care of school finances, scheduling students' classes, talking to parents, placing maintenance requests and whatever else she can do to help the principal.
"I help Nicole out with different things," she said. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle. I feel like there are some days I'm just running a mile a minute answering questions, helping people out. I like the public relations part of it, meeting with new people and new families."
In her decades at Cedar Ridge, Scharfenberg has seen a lot of change.
There have been 10 different principals in her time — from former superintendent Dale Sheppard to current Principal Nicole Johnston — and she's had a front-row seat to the way technology has affected education.
"When I first started I don't think anyone had a computer," she noted. "I had this gigantic electric typewriter. It was a year or so after that they got computers for the district office and principals as well. That's been a huge change, (and) the new technology is mind boggling."
There have also been some expected changes.
"Education, I think, changes nearly every year," Scharfenberg said. "There's always something new about education."
She was also present for the possibly largest change: the school's address. In 2017, Cedar Ridge moved from its old location to the site of the former Sandy High School. Scharfenberg couldn't have been happier.
"It was fantastic. This is such an improvement," she said. "I have never had a moment's sadness."
One of the most notable things Scharfenberg said has remained the same in 30-plus years is the sense of family in the school, which has helped her through some very difficult times.
Time for change
Seven years ago, during summer break, Scharfenberg's daughter passed away at the age of 35 from an undiagnosed heart condition.
"It was probably the darkest time in my life," she admitted. "It was a real lifesaver (working here). I was really excited about coming back to work, being around people, and having work to do took my mind off of things and helped me to focus on other things. Being around young kids and seeing their joy and excitement about life has (also) been really good."
Her connections at Cedar Ridge, Scharfenberg added, are what helped her change her mentality about her loss from one of "I'm sorry. I'm devastated she's gone," to "I'm so thankful for the years we had with her."
"That made all the difference," she noted. "Once I realized I should be making thankfulness the priority, that made a huge change."
While Scharfenberg now has only one child and no grandchildren of her own, she also sees her role as a maternal one.
"I have one child and no grandchildren, so I just kind of latch on to everyone else's," Scharfenberg said. "Because I've been here for so long, parents who went here have started bringing their kids here. It's so neat to see those kids grow up and become responsible adults and parents to sweet kids. It makes me really proud."
Though Scharfenberg said she has thoroughly enjoyed her time at Cedar Ridge, she admitted that next year will be her last at the school.
In her retirement, Scharfenberg plans to increase her volunteer time and spend more time with family and friends.
"I always kind of wished I'd done something in the medical field, (so I might volunteer in hospitals)," she noted. "If I work somewhere else later, it'll be because I want to, (not because I need to). Leaving will be really bittersweet. I still really enjoy coming to work every morning and love my job and the people I work with. But, it's time.
"I have lots of things I want to do," she added, "and these people deserve to have someone younger with some fresh ideas."