Decatur’s custodians adapt to additions

April 20, 2018

Jamel McDonald walks into a cluttered classroom, visualizing the final product: a clean learning environment. He removes the furniture, gathers his equipment and begins to work. Stripping the floor and rinsing it, McDonald sees the tile begin to shine. When he’s done, he waxes the floor and steps back. Three hours later, McDonald has successfully cleaned this classroom. On to the next.

Students queue to enter the pristine building on the next Monday morning, but it’s raining.

“I come back to the classroom that evening to clean up and there’s scuff marks, there’s dirt on a brand new floor, but there’s nothing you could do about that,” McDonald said. “For three years it was a virtual quagmire.”

As one of Decatur’s 14 custodians, McDonald is among those who are glad that the three-year construction process is complete.

“The biggest challenge of all the construction was keeping the floors clean,” McDonald said. “It was virtually impossible because of all of the dirt being tracked into the school on a daily basis. And we had construction on all four corners.”

The rain just worsened the mess, according to McDonald.

“Now you’re tracking mud in, which just happens to be red. And red mud dies so anything it gets on it colors it red, and as far as these white tile floors, it’s the worst. The worst.”

The custodial staff works in three shifts with the morning shift (including Strickland) taking on the bathrooms and hallways, while the evening shift (including McDonald) focuses on cleaning classrooms.

McDonald, now a four-year veteran of the custodial staff, attempted to keep Decatur clean throughout the construction process.

“[The difficulties were] understood by the administration and they gave us a lot of leeway because there was nothing that could be done about that,” McDonald said.

With the removal of the last dump truck and the quieting of jackhammers, McDonald and the other custodians can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Decatur has now added a new library, a new cafeteria and almost 30 classrooms.

McDonald and his coworkers are not just janitors, but custodians of the entire Decatur High School facilities.

“We clean half the time but we’re maintaining the building all of the time: leaks, floods, spills, breaks, outages, power outages,” McDonald said.

Standing in the boys bathroom on the 3100 floor, McDonald remembers the opening days of that wing in the 2016-2017 school year. He points to two soap dispensers

“The first week these were destroyed, two doors were broken off and there was paint and writing all over the walls,” he said.

Not only did this cause McDonald to feel frustrated and disappointed, but it also posed a problem for the ultimate boss: the custodial budget.

“We didn’t expect $10,000 worth of damage in the first two weeks, so where’s that money coming from?” McDonald said. “ We can’t pull from books, we can’t pull from supplies for the school because y’all need that on a daily basis. When it’s all said and done, it’s usually going to come from the custodial budget. It’s a ripple effect.”

This ‘ripple effect’ often means the custodians have to stretch allocated supplies, according to McDonald. Because his career centers around creating a cleaner final product, on many days McDonald has left Decatur at the end of his shift feeling frustrated due to both a lack of equipment and student vandalism.

“It’s irritating because when you clean for a living you tend to see things from the end result because you know where you’re going,” McDonald said. “When you’re starting off and you have all of this dirt but you know what the end result is and you have everything necessary to clean up that dirt, yet the end result still looks like you didn’t do anything? It’s frustrating.”

McDonald often wonders at student vandalism, remembering back to his own childhood. When he and his nine brothers were growing up, their mother made sure they learned the value of cleanliness.

“When we went to [restaurants] she would make us wipe down our table,” Hill said. “Another time, during a room check [after cleaning the room], we thought we were all good and she swiped the light to check for dust. Who does that? She is the reason I’m so organized today.”

As the most experienced custodian, Clarence Strickland has worked at Decatur for 25 years. In his career, he’s seen the school grow in both space and students.

Strickland gestures to the cafeteria around him. “[There are] more things to do and more space to keep clean,” he said. “For instance, this cafeteria is bigger and it takes more time to clean.”

Strickland identified a need that comes with the growth in physical facilities.

Meeting and getting to know the students that pass through Decatur’s classrooms is Strickland’s favorite part of his job. This takes on a special meaning when those kids are the kids of students he’s already met, or grandkids of his own high school friends.  “It’s cool to met the kids and now see their kids going here,” Strickland said. While he’s seen change at Decatur in his time as a custodian, Strickland remembers even farther back to his own high school years at Decatur from 1971-1975. If Strickland could give his high school self one piece of advice it would be, “Stay in class. Don’t walk the hallways and try to cut class, just stay in class and learn all you can learn.”

“We need at least 3 or four more [custodians],” Strickland said. “We are not updated in the old school. Our equipment is old.”

McDonald also said the school desperately needs new tools for the custodial staff.

“There’s an old saying, ‘a craftsman is only as good as his tools,’” McDonald said. “That’s my motto. [While] you have to know how large your crew is or how efficient they work, if they have bad equipment they still can’t do as good as their capabilities. The equipment we’re using right now is about 20 years behind.”

A walk-behind floor scrubber helps custodians increase their cleaning efficiency. Consequently, when the machine breaks, as it frequently does according to McDonald, the time necessary to complete the task of hallway cleaning dramatically increases.

“If it’s not putting down, I have to take the mop bucket down, wet the floor first and then use the machine to scrub,” McDonald said. “Think about how big these hallways are. Now I have to mop every day, whereas I could have a machine where I could just [push].”

Despite the need for new equipment and more custodians, Decatur can’t simply add more staff or buy new equipment, according to Assistant Principal Matthew Woods.

“Unfortunately, when you step back and look at the bigger picture, education is always underfunded,” Woods said. “What would have to occur is the money would have to be pulled from somewhere else. I think sometimes people don’t think about the big picture like that.”

City Schools of Decatur’s (CSD) Central Office controls the custodial budget for each school.

“In regards to needing more people? Yes,” Woods said. “However it doesn’t just work that way.  Even though we now have additions, it doesn’t mean that we get more money or more people-that’s all set by the budget. We just have the people that we have and I’ve had to divvy out what they do a bit differently.”

In years past, Decatur’s custodians were assigned to a specific amount of classrooms, but this year Woods now assigns by zones and floors of the school.

Assistant Principal LaTanya Alexander also oversees Decatur’s custodial staff. Once she receives hiring information from the CSD Central Office, she works with the rest of the administration team to zone and assign the custodians. Since joining the administrative team a year ago, Alexander has focused on improving communication among the custodians.

“They’re more just a positive part of our culture, our community, our family; they’re not just a separate entity,” Alexander said.

Alexander also sees the value in student contribution and recognition for the custodians.

“I think there’s a more positive energy because while the work is so much, they know it’s a community effort and the kids are helping out more, the staff is helping out more,” Alexander said. “That helps them to make it through those daunting tasks a little more easily.”

On the week before the December break in 2017, the custodians found thank-you notes from students at their time clocks.

“[Students are] doing whatever they do in this school to have fun, get educated, and enjoy their teenage life,” McDonald said. “But they’re taking the time out to say, ‘Hey. These guys do a hard job and I want to take the time out to acknowledge them.’  That’s a beautiful thing.”

Whether or not the custodial staff receives additional personnel or equipment in the future, Strickland and McDonald both hope students take responsibility for their brand new spaces.

“I hope to see more respect and more help from students to keep the cafeteria clean and the building clean.  Pick up after themselves, you know?”

Listen here to McDonald take me through experiences of the new wing opening.

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