Taking a shine to custodial work

Labor: Carroll County pupils come to appreciate the people who keep their school clean.

April 04, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

They are the keepers of keys, the buffers of floors, the washers of windows.

School custodians, those disinfectant- and dust mop-wielding men and women in uniform who spend their nights cleaning up the muddy footprints, trash-strewn hallways and graffiti-marked desks students leave behind, are essential to a school, yet they often get little respect from students. Their job is largely perceived as dirty and unappealing, not to mention totally uncool.

"We thought they were stinky," said Mark Schultheis, an eighth-grader at Westminster's West Middle School. "Who would ever want to be a janitor?"

In October, that's the way Schultheis thought.

But now, a couple of times a week after school, the 13-year-old Westminster boy can be found pushing a mop down the hallways of his sprawling school, emptying trash and otherwise assisting his school's seven-member custodial crew.

He knows to call the people who clean the school custodians, not janitors. He also knows how hard they work.

And although he still aspires to become a police officer someday, Schultheis would love to mow the school's grass and use the tractor-sized buffers to polish floors if the program's rules allowed it.

"This is fun," he said.

As one of 15 eighth-graders at the school participating in the custodial assistance learning team, Schultheis earns service learning hours in exchange for helping the custodians after school. The state requires that students earn 75 hours of service learning, with guidelines determined by individual counties, by the time they graduate from high school.

The pupil custodian program started in November at the school as a way for pupils to take pride in their school and learn responsibility and respect by working under the guidance of school custodians. Many of the pupils involved have never held a job and have little experience working alongside adults other than their parents.

"How often do you find middle-class kids, bright kids, cleaning with custodial staff?" said Aurora M. Pagulayan, a vice principal at West Middle who started the program. "This is supposed to be dirty work. Is there anything better ... to teach our kids than to experience what this is all about?"

Participation is considered a privilege, not a punishment.

Pupils, who apply for the program, start out by washing desks, cleaning chalkboard ledges and emptying trash in the 45-year-old school's 71 classrooms.

As they gain the trust of the custodians they are paired with, their chores broaden to include stocking the soda machine, mopping the hallways and unlocking rooms for after-school programs.

Pupils are not allowed to operate electrical equipment or use harmful cleaning chemicals. Nor can they participate in the program without the consent of their parents.

Only one pupil has dropped out of the program, and there's a waiting list of others who want to participate.

"It's not just work -- it's more than that," Chris Bruce, 13, said as he wiped pen and pencil marks from desks one recent afternoon. Bruce has earned all of his service hours. He comes to clean the school twice a week because he likes it, he said.

Sure, some of the boys like to tell war stories about the layers of white on their knuckles from cleaning chalk ledges. They relish reeling off lists of the things that people toss in the trash, like bags of Hershey's Kisses and full cartons of chocolate milk.

But these kids can also debate the right way to wash a window. They go out of their way to greet the custodians during school and relish the time they spend with them in the afternoons. And they can go on and on about the thrill of seeing the inside of the teacher's lounge and of carrying key No. 7749, the master key to the school.

"This makes me feel important," said Kevin Sherfey, 13, of Westminster. "Our school is a lot cleaner than it was."

"I didn't know custodians worked so hard," added Bryan Crawford, 13, of Finksburg.

Pagulayan is quick to point out that the school is not taking advantage of the kids as free labor; the custodians spend their work time with them showing them how to dust properly and making sure the pupils complete their tasks, she said. "The kids are not taking the jobs away from custodians," she said. "The custodians have to teach them how to be responsible. We want people to respect what they're doing."

Judy Bailey, West Middle's building supervisor, had her doubts about the program at first. "I didn't think it was going to fly," she said. "You're talking about the upkeep of a school, and I don't find middle schoolers that into cleaning."

And yet there was something about entrusting the pupils with mops that seemed to click.

On their first day of cleaning, the pupils requested uniforms. They were given khaki shirts with navy blue patches on the breast that read "Custodian."

The next day, they wore their uniforms to class.

Since the pupil custodians started work, some members of the school's staff say they've noticed a reduction in litter in the eighth-grade hallway and an increase in pupil advocacy about keeping the school clean.

Parents, such as Chris Crawford, said they like knowing that their children are doing something constructive after school, not just sitting home watching television.

"I think it's good for them," said Crawford, whose son, Bryan, was the first to sign up for the custodial team. "I was really pleased he was as enthusiastic as he is about this."

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