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The “polar vortex” event in early January (2014) resulted in districts cancelling school because the temperatures plunged below zero. School staff stayed home in the face of this terrible weather. Well, all staff except custodians in many districts, who stayed at their buildings around the clock to make sure the heating and plumbing systems were safe and would be ready for use when students and staff returned. Custodial and maintenance work goes far beyond cleaning the cafeteria after lunch or making sure the grass on the sports fields is mowed. The work is diverse and yet another essential cog in the functionality of our schools.
Kentucky's Nancy Toombs spent two years as a paraprofessional and 16 years as a custodian. And though it's been more than a decade, she can't help but recall a tragic event that changed many lives during one of her custodial rotations.
"One of our custodians left an aerosol can of a chemical that we use for freezing gum on top of his cart when classes were changing in the hallway," she says. "A little boy thought it would be funny to spray the can in his mouth, and it basically froze his mouth and lungs."
"It was a horrible day for all of us."
Had the custodian been given training about chemical safety before he began his job, the accident might not have happened. "There are many districts out there that hand support professionals keys to the building and say, 'go work,'" says Toombs, Kentucky Education Support Professionals Association (KESPA) President. "That's hazardous not only for ESPs, but for all school community members."
Today, custodians in Henderson County, Kentucky meet every other month with Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) officials to review playground, chemical and electrical safety, as well as learn about bloodborn pathogens and other important issues important to custodial and maintenance professionals. Toombs says the district custodians also recently established a successful mentoring program.
But not all custodial and maintenance staff are so lucky. According to a recent NEA ESP study, fewer than half of support professionals receive regular health and safety training on such issues as hazardous waste removal or asbestos, even though many face these issues on a daily basis.
Custodian and maintenance employees are "guardians of the school environment" for students, staff and the community, and their workloads continue to grow as new technology and equipment requires new skills, increased duties and responsibilities.
One of the most important responsibilities is to insure the proper indoor air quality, uniform temperatures, and healthful ventilation. And often with little, if any specific or meaningful training, the custodian must also deal with dangerous materials such as laboratory spills, toxic materials, and, of course, asbestos.
That is why a lack of meaningful, multi-tiered professional development programs are a real health and safety issue for the public school custodian -- and the entire school community.
Delaware Custodian Mike Behm agrees. An activist in the Lake Forest Education Association, Behm works with his UniServ Director to arrange innovative ESP workshops such as "Health and Personal Safety" and "Cleaning for a Healthy Environment."
Custodians as environmentalists? Absolutely. In Behm's mind, a custodian's job isn't cleaning buildings, but providing the safest, healthiest environment possible for learning -- be it through disinfecting classrooms or helping fourth graders prepare a garden bed for a unit on botany.
Behm believes that support professionals should know how their jobs impact student learning, no matter what the title.
"Support staff represent one-third of all school employees," he says. "And we all have something very important to contribute to learning."
In Washington, Shelton Middle School Custodian Hilton Malone actually sought out ways to get professional development to members of the Shelton Education Support Personnel Association.
As President, Malone formed a team of custodian and maintenance personnel, education assistants and food service employees to meet regularly with district administrators.
"We wanted training about stress reduction, crisis intervention with students, and on various types of equipment -- and we made that clear to administrators," he says. "To continue to improve the services we provide, we must receive access to quality professional development opportunities. It's highly beneficial to us as a team, and to our students."
Malone also encourages his local members to sit on district "solution teams" to help solve problems identified by staff.
"It's a way for our voices to be heard," he says of the nine-member teams. "These teams absolutely bring up staff morale by getting more people involved in problem solving."
Sandy Wilson, a Kenowa Hills, Michigan Maintenance Worker, says he feels like he goes to a different job every day.
"My job offers a lot of variety -- clearing snow from building walkways, spraying weeds, doing minor electrical repairs, installing switches and lights, plumbing, spill clean-up, and maintaining boilers to keep them running efficiently and lasting as long as they should," he says.
He and his team have also built a fireproof wall in an elementary school boiler room, painted the school's gym and installed a new ceiling, and completely remodeled a small building once used for storage, enabling a pre-primary special education program to move in -- ultimately freeing up more space in an elementary school.
But that's not all. He is also versed in computers -- having to control the buildings' new computerized heating and cooling system from a laptop and desktop computer. He holds state certification in both commercial pesticide application and asbestos abatement, as well as a basic boiler operator's license. To maintain certification, Wilson takes an annual course in asbestos abatement.
"I maintain a clean, safe environment conducive to learning," he explains. "It's hard for anyone to learn if the roof is leaking, if it's too hot or cold, or if half of the toilets don't work."
In March 2003, NEA President Reg Weaver presented the annual NEA ESP of the Year award to Martin Meyer, head custodian at Fernan Elementary School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"Marty's job doesn't begin or end at the schoolhouse door," Reg explains. "Whether he's testifying in Boise for ESP legislation, lobbying in Washington, DC, writing letters to the editor, running a political campaign, or challenging and educating public education's foes, Marty gives his all and he's doing it for the children he works with every day of the week."
Meyer's colleagues say as head custodian of a 49,500 square foot elementary school, his responsibilities -- and philosophy -- extend far beyond the simple cleaning of the facility.
Meyer himself agrees: "My job is to make sure teachers concentrate on teaching, food service workers on feeding children, and office personnel on caring for children and parents."
In more ways than imaginable, hundreds of custodians and maintenance workers make a profound impact on students every day.
Tucson, Arizona's Amphitheater High School Custodian Mark Cavendish is one of them. Several years ago, Cavendish organized a school-to-work program -- called "Jobs for Today's Students" -- in which more than 50 students shadow ESP employees as custodians, computer aides, secretaries, even health inspectors.
"I care about these kids and I care if they drop out of school," he explains. "My thinking is that if students work for the school rather than fast food restaurants or in other businesses, they are more likely to stay in school."
Cavendish gained funding for the program through parent outreach and political organizing. He's also brought the Tucson Literacy Coalition to the high school campus, where more than 250 volunteers assist in ESL adult and family literacy instruction.
And he's done it all on his own time.
Phil Krueger, a custodian at Park Lawn Elementary School in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, along with his wife, anonymously "adopted" a family that couldn't afford to pay for school lunches for their three children.
His generosity touched Park Lawn's staff so much that together they created "Phil's Fund." In just two years the staff has anonymously donated more than $3,600 to families at the school for groceries, winter clothing, and even medical bills. The Fund's committee has also developed a network of dentists and doctors who volunteer their time to the children.
"It's all about helping these children succeed," Krueger explains. "If they can succeed in school, then chances are good that they will succeed in life."
Pennsylvania Custodian Jim Verazin, who has a passion for computers, used his free time to create a website for his school, the Greater Nanticoke Area Education Center -- a middle school just south of Wilkes-Barre. Eventually, he included information about all of the district's schools on his site.
In 2001, the school board recognized Verazin's volunteer efforts by "adopting" his site as the district's official homepage, which now includes everything from schedules to links for webhomework resources.
The district's teachers, many who were new to using the Internet, also benefited from Verazin's help. In a section called "Classrooms," Verazin built in space for each teacher to have his or her own website. But he did more than just post the information they supplied to him. He found additional web resources for teachers and showed them how to use them.
In Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, Kenny Bloch, a 28-year veteran custodian, spent every Saturday and Sunday at Neil Armstrong Middle School during a recent summer break to paint a mural in the cafeteria depicting the school and its grounds and students.
He's also used his art talents to paint a picture of a German castle with knights on horses for a foreign language teacher's classroom and another mural in the health room that depicts the various seasons of the year. Next up: another cafeteria mural that includes a police dog and an antidrug message for students.
"The bottom line is that we're not in this job to get rich, we're in this job for the kids and it doesn't matter what role we play," explains Sandy Wilson. "This job is about teamwork."
Verazin adds that it's not as easy as it looks. "When someone says 'janitor' you think of a guy with a cigar pushing a broom," he laughs. "But there's so much technology involved in school buildings now that we all have to be technicians, and we all have to be good at what we do."
Want proof that custodians and maintenance employees can make a real difference?
In 2001, New Hampshire Custodian Bob Waterman -- affectionately known as "Mr. Bob" to the K-12 students at Sacred Heart Public School -- used skills he learned in an architecture class to turn the school from dull to delightful.
"The school looked like a prison," he says about the 100-year-old building that once housed a Catholic school. "If you can imagine an old two-story brick building surrounded by an eight-foot high chain link fence, where even the playground is paved with asphalt, then you are picturing Sacred Heart."
Bob mapped out ideas for a new school look -- with grass, curved walkways, flowers and tree -- and spent six months getting feedback from the principal, teachers and other support staff.
He then presented his ideas to the local Parent Teacher Organization and the school board, which unanimously agreed to fund construction. In just one summer, the school was transformed, as Bob took the lead in working with contractors and city officials on the school's behalf.
When kids went back to school in the fall, they were met with Bob's dream: flowers, park benches and new playground equipment on a large grass field.
"I'm not a sentimental guy, but what I witnessed on those children's faces the day they came back to school still chokes me up," he says. "One little girl told her mom, 'Look at how beautiful my school is.'"
Bob is proud to use his architecture know-how to better the school. "I'm always looking at how we can better utilize our space so the kids will benefit," he says. "It's so important to me that kids have a good place to learn, and I'm going to use all of the resources in my power to make sure they do."
The Key to Success? Extensive and Meaningful Training
Professional development for custodians and maintenance employees should include some of the following elements: