The Custodian's Life: The Do-Everything Workers In Our Schools
From climbing into dumpsters to recover lost retainers or cellphones to helping students with jammed lockers or those who are lost find their way to class, custodians in the Newtown school system do pretty much whatever needs to be done to get young learners and their educators through the day - just about every day, from September through June.
Yes, there's sweeping and mopping the floor, cleaning bathrooms, and all of that "someone's gotta do it" work. But the job of a custodian goes beyond what many may first think of - mops and plungers and cleaning up messes.
"A lot of people think we just clean. There's a lot more than just cleaning," said Jack Vichiola, a 30-year Newtown resident and head custodian at Newtown High School. "Not that we don't sweep the halls. But it's a small, small, small part of what we do."
There is painting, washing the carpets in the summer, minor carpentry work, and running packages - such as boxes of copy paper - to rooms and offices. The job includes setting up and breaking down for events in the gymnasiums, cafeterias, and classrooms - some of which takes place on the weekends when outside-of-school programs make use of the buildings. The auditorium and Blue & Gold Stadium host events in the afternoons, evenings, and on weekends, and there is preparation for those happenings as well as postevent cleanup.
The winter months can be challenging at times. Custodians need to be prepared for snow cleanup at any hour, including overnight, in preparation for the start of the next school day in the event school is not canceled. The conditions can change while they are hard at work clearing the walkways.
"It snows, it stops, it starts flurrying again, it rains, it freezes," Mr Vichiola said in describing what the weather can do.
"Wintertime is probably one of the toughest times. You've got to make sure the walks are clear before the staff is in. If it's snowing overnight we try to come in at 4 o'clock in the morning so we have it ready if there's not a delay," Rich Mills, Reed Intermediate School custodian added.
Newtown High School is fortunate enough to have its own swimming pool, whereas many school swim teams have to practice and compete off campus and even out of town. Pool maintenance is part of the work of the NHS custodians, as they sanitize and tinker with the chemistry to be sure it is where it needs to be.
Custodians play the role of detectives at times.
"We're on a search close to everyday. It can be anything, but it's usually cellphones," said Mr Vichiola, adding that it is more common than one might think that students will have to use another phone to call their own, while custodians listen in the dumpster. When phones are on vibrate that makes the hunt a little more challenging.
"Now you're waiting for the garbage to shake," Mr Vichiola said.
At the elementary school level, it is not cellphones; but there is something that commonly ends up in the trash at lunchtime, Mr Mills said.
"We've had to go into dumpsters and pick out retainers for kids who [threw them out] during lunch," Mr Mills said.
"I've had to dump out my vacuum cleaner at the end of the night and pick through the dust and whatever else to find an earring," said Andy Spencer, custodian at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Their work doesn't go unnoticed. Students bring them cookies and other treats as a way to say thank you, said Mr Vichiola, adding that students also pitch in with cleanup in the cafeteria, even if the garbage left behind is not theirs.
"That's just kind of the nature of the whole school. It makes it rewarding to work here," Mr Vichiola said.
"I love it. It's so nice and friendly," said Mr Mills, who has worked nearly two decades in the school system, including the last dozen at RIS after initially working at Newtown Middle School.
A Lifelong School Family
Several of the custodians in Newtown have strong ties to town; some went to school here and now work in the buildings where they once were educated. They consider the school communities to which they belong to be like family.
"I like helping people. We're basically the heartbeat of the school. Whatever needs to be done we're always happy to answer the call from teachers and administrators," said Eric Ventura, 49, Newtown High class of 1985. "No two days are alike here."
Mr Ventura enjoys being involved in the same school community where he spent time in classrooms learning and involved with activities, including serving as team manager for three sports squads at Newtown High School back in the 1980s. He received the Indians' Boosters Award for his work with the baseball, basketball, and football teams back when the school's teams were nicknamed the Indians.
Bobby Hein, 51, who graduated from NHS in 1984, has worked in the Newtown school system for 30 years, spending about half that time with the elementary schools and half with Newtown High School, where he continues to work today.
"We've got a great group of people throughout the whole building that we work with. It's almost like a big family," Mr Hein said.
Andy Spencer, 60, a custodian at Sandy Hook Elementary School, attended school in Newtown while he was growing up. After moving to Waterbury for 17 years before coming back to town, Mr Spencer said Newtown is a different place than it used to be.
"The town has changed so incredibly much since I was a kid that you wouldn't even know it's the same place," said Mr Spencer, noting that there were probably 50 working dairy farms when he was a child. "It's very different."
In addition to helping keep things in order at Sandy Hook School, Mr Spencer, who has played guitar in bands throughout the years, helped write the school song along with music teacher Maryrose Kristopik.
Mr Spencer likes his short commute, but says it is the people who make his job most enjoyable.\
"That is the greatest thing about working at Sandy Hook School: the staff is absolutely awesome," Mr Spencer said. "It's like a family. It's been great working with them."