“It’s not just the cleaning, the sweeping and vacuuming, the window washing, the chair carrying, the desk moving, the board cleaning. It’s a service. It’s matching my service with people’s needs.”
Neal Brand arrives at Woodridge Elementary School each day long before the big yellow busses pull up out front and students stream into the school. The sun isn’t even up yet when Brand arrives at 5:45 a.m. to open the building and get the school day started right. As Head Custodian at Woodridge, the entire building and the grounds surrounding the school are Brand’s responsibility. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously. “This isn’t just a job,” Brand says. “We are involved in educating these children.”
The Bellevue School District employs 92 custodians, who clean 2.6 million square feet of space in our schools and administrative offices. Keeping all that space in tip top shape takes hard work and commitment. Custodians must keep on top of the latest cleaning techniques and technologies. Head or Chief Night custodians in buildings working with steam or hot water heat must have a boiler license. Custodians must also be certified in First Aid/CPR and conflict resolution.
Brand has been with the district since 1972 and has worked at several Bellevue schools. He’s been at Woodridge for the last few years and has his routine down pat. First thing every morning, Brand checks the boiler to make sure the heating plant is working. From there, he gathers his cleaning equipment and tackles the administrative wing, the gymnasium and cafeteria. By the time staff and students enter Woodridge that morning, the building is sparkling and ready for learning to begin.
When Brand has a moment to sit down, he checks his email to find out if there are any special events happening at the school and respond to staff requests that have come in. He delivers any packages that may have arrived, takes care of the kitchen recycling and takes a quick breakfast break before heading out to check the grounds and set up the cafeteria for lunch. As students fill their lunch trays, Brand lends a hand with any messes. Later, he cleans, mops, and disinfects the cafeteria so it’s ready for the next day.
Throughout the day, custodians are on call for any additional cleanup needs, like a student getting sick in a classroom. After Brand leaves for the day, the evening custodians take over. Evening custodians not only get the classrooms spotless for the next day, but also set up and tear down for events and secure buildings for the night. They assist the many community groups that use our schools after hours and turn out the lights after the last person leaves.
As students enjoy summer vacation, school custodians enter their busy season. “Sometimes people think the lights go out at the end of the school year and everything goes quiet, but we have some of the busiest times of the year reconditioning buildings.” During summer break, buildings get a thorough top to bottom cleaning. Custodians also complete projects there just isn’t time for during the school year, projects that keep the building working properly and ensure a healthy environment for students.
The district tries to use green cleaning products whenever possible. All new vacuums have HEPA filters, which helps keep the dust down and improves air quality. New equipment like riding scrubbers and carpet cleaners help custodians work more efficiently and effectively.
A healthy environment translates into a positive learning climate for students. “I think I have an impact on their attitude during the day and that is a tremendous thing,” says Brand. “Their health, attitude, and environment, that’s what we contribute.” Custodians who work in the same school for several years also get to know their students and watch them grow up. “You would be surprised how many times you get to give an encouraging word to a child. That is really rewarding.”
Custodians also make sure other school staff is taken care of. Brand is the first person at Woodridge each morning and makes sure all systems are “go” for the day. “Other people coming in can’t do their job if the lights aren’t working or the heat isn’t running.” Custodians contribute to building safety by giving the “all clear” after emergency drills. In the event of a natural disaster, like a windstorm or flooding, damaging a school, there are custodial emergency response teams who are activated to help get the building back open quickly.
From before sunrise to long past sundown, the custodian’s job is non-stop. “There’s not an army of little gnomes that comes in the evening and cleans the building,” Brand jokes. He’s right. Throughout the district, there’s an army of custodians working to keep our schools in great shape and providing a positive, healthy environment to help students succeed.