Ready or not, school bells are ringing in a new year in the Kansas City area.
Students may not be ready for summer vacation to end, but their school buildings are waiting to welcome them with well-waxed floors, scrubbed-clean classrooms, freshly painted hallways, brightly lighted ceilings and dust-free surfaces.
Throughout the summer, desk by desk, room by room, schools get a deep cleaning by custodians who understand that dirt, debris and disorder are distractions to an education.
For Doris Farage, the appearance of the school sends a message to the students.
A building that’s clean and ready “shows our respect for the kids,” said Farage, assistant director of custodial services for the North Kansas City School District.
Floors that look “fresh and pretty” are what Farage wants students to see when they walk through the doors on enrollment day.
Now in an administrative position in the district’s central office, Farage recalls days well-spent as a custodian at schools such as Chouteau Elementary, where “the kids enjoyed helping me push a dust mop down the hall.”
And the students do notice what’s changed over summer break.
“The kids look forward to seeing what’s different from the year before,” she said.
Karl Klamm, lead custodian at Bentwood Elementary School in the Olathe School District, has been in the business of making schools sparkle for many years.
“First impressions are lasting impressions,” he said.
Klamm cleaned and maintained school buildings for 40 years before he retired from the Shawnee Mission School District three years ago. He started at Bentwood in 2015 and has become known as “Mr. Karl” to some 300 students in kindergarten through fifth-grade.
“Kids need to feel good about going to school here,” said Klamm, who adds that he also considers the youngsters who aren’t yet students during the summer months.
“When a new family moves into the neighborhood, they drive by to see the school where the kids will go,” he said. “You want a building that looks polished and presentable 12 months of the year, not eight or nine.”
Because curb appeal counts whether school is in session or on break, Klamm tends flower beds and the playground at Bentwood every week during the summer.
“Playgrounds demand constant attention,” he said. “The pea gravel gets spread onto the asphalt play area and has to be raked back into the playground.”
The school’s five flower beds require weekly weeding in warm weather.
Getting Bentwood ready for the next school year begins on the last day of school. While students leave their work behind for summer vacation, custodians face their toughest work where the students left it — at the school building.
“We start that night,” Klamm said.
The last day means extra trash for custodians, as students and teachers toss out what they don’t need anymore, Klamm said.
“The next day, we start pulling furniture out,” he said.
Furniture is removed from classrooms so custodians can start the deep-cleaning process.
“In a typical summer, every chair, table and desk in the classroom is moved out and hand-cleaned,” said Tim Armstrong, facility manager at Staley High School in the North Kansas City School District. “We touch every piece of furniture in here.”
Armstrong, who has been with the district for 28 years, has been caring for the district’s newest high school since it opened in 2008.
With furniture out of the rooms, custodians start at the top by cleaning light fixtures and replacing bulbs. Floors are last with countertops, windows, screens, blinds, doors, door frames, ledges and everything else cleaned in between.
And when it comes to floors in the 315,000-square-foot high school, Armstrong says they better be “shinin’ like a diamond” when Staley’s doors open for fall semester.
“Tim’s trademark is his floors,” said Clark Mershon, the principal at Staley.
Black and white tiles buffed to a gleam are “the first thing people see when they enter the high school,” Mershon said.
Keeping the mirror-like shine is a lot of work but “Big Bertha” has made his job easier this year, Armstrong said.
Big Bertha is the name given to the district’s new propane-fueled stripping machine with a 30-inch pass.
Big Bertha cuts the time it takes to do a huge science room to an hour, compared with four to six hours with older equipment.
After Big Bertha removes the old wax, tiles are scrubbed and scuff marks, scratches and stains meticulously removed before fresh coats of wax are applied.
“You have to get out the imperfections or the wax will magnify them,” Armstrong said.
And Armstrong’s discerning eye will see the spot every time he walks by.
Lockers, too, need to look good when students return to school.
That means cleaning and disinfecting more than 1,000 student lockers at Staley and changing the combinations every year as well, Armstrong said.
Usually custodians don’t get into lockers until students leave for summer vacation, said Anthony McCall, lead custodian at Platte County R-3 High School in Platte City.
But sometimes a smell will tell custodians a locker can’t wait until summer.
“We’ve found spaghetti and meatballs at the bottom of a locker and a ham sandwich that was blue of color,” McCall said.
This has been a busy year for McCall at the high school. The school district is growing by 100 to 150 students a year and needs to expand to accommodate them.
This summer, Paxton School is being converted into an annex for the high school. Adjacent to the R-3 high school, Paxton has been a school for fourth- and fifth-graders.
This school year, the annex will be used by sophomores and juniors who have applied to participate in a new Flexible Personalized Learning system, designed to pace instruction according to individual needs.
“The school will have more of a college atmosphere,” Armstrong explained.
Custodians here have had not only the routine cleaning to handle but also the additional drywall dust and debris caused by construction. Floors have been replaced and rooms reconfigured. The former library, for example, is now is a lecture hall and one of three large learning centers.
Besides the challenges of deep cleaning a building in the midst of renovations, custodians work around activities and events in the summer.
“Our schools are far from vacant in the summer,” said Matthew Brooks, custodial coordinator for the Blue Valley School District.
In many buildings, classes are replaced by summer camps.
There are camps for science, art, computers, sports, robotics and a wide variety of other interests. For some schools, there’s child care for families in the district. And cheerleaders, dance teams, wrestlers, and basketball and volleyball players all need a place to practice, too.
Some schools also lease space to local churches for services on Sunday.
“Nothing stops around here,” said Kelli Buckler, custodian at Platte County R-3 High School. “Summer can be hectic.”
Buckler has been with the district 26 years and at the high school nearly 21 years.
In March, high school students surprised Buckler during a state convention of the Missouri Association of Student Councils in Platte City. Buckler was honored as an everyday hero at the opening session of the convention, and was recognized with cheers and an ovation from some 1,000 students and faculty advisers.
She was chosen by members of Platte County R-3 High School Student Council for the kindness and caring she consistently shows to students.
Custodians like Buckler can play an important role in the morale of the school. Students often consider them more than custodians. They think of them as friends.
Caring not just for the building but also for those whom the building serves — the students — is what makes Buckler a custodian rather than a janitor.
It’s a reflection of the origin of the job title: custody. Custodians assume responsibility for those in their buildings and figuratively in their custody.
Melody Burns, a night-shift custodian at Stanley Elementary in the Blue Valley School District, started out as a cook for the district.
She said she enjoys being a custodian more “because you get to see the kids all the time.”
Burns doesn’t just clean the building, she also teaches the grade-schoolers to clean up after themselves.
“I encourage them to leave their pencils in the desk, not on the floor,” Burns said.
Burns said the classroom teacher will even warn the grade-schoolers that “Melody is watching you.”
She’s not the only one watching the 440 pupils in preschool through fifth-grade at Stanley.
Mysterious, anonymous “clean desk fairies” leave notes praising the children for their cleanliness, said Stanley principal Desiree Rios.
“Being neat and orderly shows respect for the school,” Rios said.
She credits the work of the custodians with making the job of teaching easier.
“An organized environment sets the stage for us to focus on instruction,” Rios said.
Caring for the facility where education takes place is about “creating and maintaining exceptional learning environments for student success” — the mission statement for the Blue Valley School District’s department of operations and maintenance.
Joe Chick, director of operations and maintenance, wears his commitment to that mission on his sleeve, literally. The statement is embroidered on the cuff of his work shirt.
“We are part of our students’ educational success,’’ he said of the maintenance and custodial staffs.
One way they improve the learning environment, for example, is by reducing the dirt that enters the building, whether tracked in on shoes or brought in through the air circulation system.
“When the indoor air quality is at a high level, then students perform at a high level,” Chick said.
The end of summer vacation often means the end of summer work schedules for custodians. Many have returned or are preparing to return to their regular shifts after working four 10-hour days weekly during the summer.
Shauna Thompson, lead custodian at Stanley, has been working 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday to get the building ready for the August rush.
“I enjoy the variety of summer cleaning,” Thompson said. “During the school year, I am doing the same thing every day.”
She started summer cleaning on May 20 when school let out. The building is ready for school to start on Thursday, and Thompson returns to an eight-hour afternoon shift five days a week.
The schedule has allowed Thompson to enjoy her own version of summer break: “My vacations are the three-day weekends.”
Clay County school districts
▪ Excelsior Springs: Aug. 18
▪ Kearney: Aug. 18
▪ Liberty: Aug. 17
▪ Missouri City: Aug. 17
▪ North Kansas City: Aug. 17
▪ Smithville: Aug. 16
Platte County school districts
▪ North Platte: Aug. 18
▪ Park Hill: Aug. 11
▪ Platte County R-3: Aug. 18
▪ West Platte: Aug. 17
In some districts, start dates are staggered, so, some grades may start later.