MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move inside now to the hallowed halls of education or in some cases around these parts, the worn and torn halls of education. Several of D.C.'s public school buildings have been renovated recently, but others are just crying out for repairs. The job of maintaining the schools and preparing them for children and teachers every day falls to a certain someone, someone who often goes unnoticed. We're talking about the school custodian. DCPS has approximately 450 custodians and education reporter Kavitha Cardoza joins us today to talk about these keepers of the school buildings. Hi, Kavitha.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
So I understand you spent time this week at Jefferson Middle School in Southwest D.C. with a custodian, Charles Allen?
Yes, Allen has worked for DCPS for 20 years in five different schools. He describes a typical day.
MR. CHARLES ALLEN
It's over 100,000 square feet. And I come in at 6 o'clock and check each floor, each classroom, each bathroom, each closet to make sure there is no leak, make sure that the windows and everything is okay, the alarm is okay. I unlock all the doors, set up for breakfast and then I go outside and police the grounds, pick up trash.
And all that work, all those duties before the students even come in?
That's just the first hour. After that, it's fixing toilets, taking out garbage, replacing lights and cleaning. Jefferson is more than 70 years old and this means challenges every day.
Plumbing problems, cracks in the walls. The roof leaks real bad. Not a lot of times, but we really had a major backup problem on the ground level that we would flood when we had a lot of rain so I would have to come in here at 4:00 in the morning and get the water up as fast as we can.
I was thinking one of the busiest times for custodians was probably during snowstorms.
Yes, it is. In fact, Allen says he just stays in school when it snows because otherwise he's worrying about getting there in time the next morning. This past winter, he stayed at school for a week and slept in his chair. It's funny, he says he was the third custodian in DCPS to get the sidewalk shoveled.
The third. So there's like -- what is there a competition among custodians?
Yes, take a listen.
Who has the shiniest floor, the cleanest restrooms and who can get their snow out first, we challenge ourselves. We motivate ourselves. We're close-knit. If I finish one of my floors in a summer ahead of schedule, I will go into another school and see if they need help. And then they will come over and help me on Saturdays and Sundays so we can just get it up.
Talk about teamwork. So we've recently heard so much about teachers and the budget and teachers and evaluations. Are custodians affected at all?
Actually, yes. In Jefferson last year, budget cuts reduced the number of custodians from six to two. And now, custodians are worried about the $50 million shortfall in next year's budget and how that will affect them. But DCPS says that this year, principals will be required to staff a certain number of custodians, unlike last year. And as for evaluations, custodians have those, too. In fact, 5 percent of their evaluation comes from student learning.
You mean like student test scores?
Yes and this is something their union is very upset about. This is Dwight Kirk with the local union.
MR. DWIGHT KIRK
So you're holding a group of employees accountable for outcomes that they have no control over. A custodian can't help to raise test scores in the classroom. He's not or she's not a teacher.
I had spoken to former Chancellor Michelle Rhee about this a while ago and she said that if custodians don't keep their classrooms clean, if they don't have desks set up, for example, the way teachers want them, that affects how students learn. Last year, 30 percent of custodians were rated highly effective, while 55 percent were effective. And then, you have approximately 10 percent that could lose their jobs this year if they don't improve.
That sounds like quite a bit of pressure.
Charles Allen says seeing how appreciative the children are, though, makes it worth it. He and the other custodian there, Robin Miles, have bought winter coats for some children. He checks that some have finished their homework. He's formed a basketball club for troubled children. Most are from other DCPS schools he's worked at. His family helped him through the winter break last year just so they could spend time with him.
My wife waxed the hallway. My son waxed the stairwell. My daughter waxed the classrooms and I did the bathrooms. My family understands, but sometimes I can see it that they, you know, dad's always at work. At the movies, I go to sleep. At the dinner table, I go to sleep.
Still, Allen says he's really happy to be working where he is. He says the children, teachers and principal are very appreciative of what he does.
Kavitha Cardoza covers education for WAMU. Thanks so much for joining us, Kavitha.
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