Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Custodians: Behind-the-scene machines

Getting buildings ready is no easy feat for thousands of unsung heroes

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Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Jacqueline Rossie is the building manager at Brookhaven Elementary School in Aspen Hill.

It takes 1,335 building service employees to keep Montgomery County's nearly 200 schools fit and trim. The work is tedious, dirty, smelly, and can be the first line of defense in cases of lice outbreaks and MRSA.

And it's a year-round operation. So as work wrapped up to ready schools for the first day of classes on Tuesday — and the nearly 138,000 germ-ridden, mess-making students — we take a brief look into the lives of school janitors.

Last year alone, custodial services went through 17,500 gallons of floor wax, cleaned 139,000 desks, refinished 140 gym floors, tended 3,000 acres of grass and maintained the 6,500 classrooms.

Six days to spruce

By the time this school year officially began, Bill Hicks, building services manager at Wheaton High School, was practically in mid-year form.

For the first time in his 19 years at Wheaton, there was daytime summer school, with more than 1,300 students occupying nearly every classroom until the program ended Aug. 8.

That gave Hicks, who has worked for MCPS for 46 years, just six days to spruce up the school before teachers arrived Aug. 19.

So he and his staff of 16 worked overtime Aug. 9 and 10 to clean the classrooms, wax the floors and fix one group of students' mess so another could tear it all down in a couple weeks.

Hicks, who often walks to the Dalewood Drive campus from his nearby home, arrives each day at 4:50 a.m. to seize control of the building he knows so well.

Despite the early start to the back-to-school season, he knows the bulk of the work will come after the students arrive, mainly because a teenager's behavior is one of the few things Hicks can't predict after all these years.

"You used to be able to tell kids to stop messing around," Hicks said. "Now, they'll turn around and tell you what to do."

‘No easy task'

In her socks, Myrtle Beach T-shirt and shorts, Jacqueline "Jackie" Rossie, 46, building service manager at Brookhaven Elementary School, looked relaxed for someone who was in charge of getting a school ready to open.

Taking a break before waxing the last few sections of floor in the Aspen Hill school two weeks ago, Rossie said her staff's work began months ago — "as soon as the kids walk out the door" and start their summer vacations.

The tasks are endless: washing walls, cleaning carpets, rearranging furniture, stripping and waxing floors, mowing and weeding; the list goes on.

"It really is hard work. Especially with having summer school just end Aug. 1 and making sure everyone's on top of everything and getting the school to where it should be."

Still, she said, she is devoted to ensuring students and staff return to a clean building.

"I love my job working at Brookhaven," Rossie said. "Principal [Rob] Grundy is really a great guy to work for. And I have a great staff that's always on top of everything."

The feeling is mutual.

"The staff thinks the world of her," Grundy said. "She takes a great deal of pride in the schools."

This will be Rossie's seventh year as Brookhaven's building service manager; she has been with the school system for 16 years.

"I think people would be surprised to know how long it takes to get a school ready from start to end," Rossie said. "It's no easy task."

Crunch time

It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Dipping a wooden brush into a trash can full of water and a strong-smelling soap solution, Daniel "Dan" Yankey Jr., building service manager at Sequoyah Elementary School, begins scrubbing the walls of the Derwood school.

"I take a lot of pride in the finished job when it looks good for the teachers and students, and so does my staff," he said, grinning.

This is Yankey's 17th year getting Sequoyah ready for a new school year. He has been with the school almost as long as it has been open — arriving not long after it first opened its doors in 1990.

The 52-year-old Gaithersburg resident has been with the school system for almost 32 years and has spent 25 of those years as a building service manager. So he knows what it takes to get a school ready for the first day.

"Summer time is the busiest time of the year for us because we have to clean the school from top to bottom," he said.

"This is crunch time now," he said less than two weeks before school started.

The four members of his staff began their work even before last school year ended, helping departing and retiring teachers move out of classrooms.

Then it continued throughout the rest of the summer— waxing, dusting, sealing, rearranging and washing.

But their hard work does not go unnoticed.

"They're probably some of the best building service workers in the county," Sequoyah Assistant Principal Christine Woodcock said. "The entire building is impeccable by the time they're done — it's absolutely beautiful."