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Schools, Cleaning, and Health - Two failing schools saved after extensive cleaning and remodeling

Written by  Dawn Shoemaker

The story of Charles Young Elementary School in Washington, D.C., goes down in cleaning history as one of the most important experiments on how a rundown educational facility can be cleaned and revitalized with several positive results.

Charles Young Hilltop Academy, as it was originally known, was built in 1931 in honor of Colonel Charles Young, one of the first African-Americans to graduate from West Point. The school typically had an annual enrollment of about 500 students throughout its more than 80-year lifespan. While students were from diverse backgrounds, like many public schools in Washington, D.C., most of the students were from underprivileged families.

The two-story school had been renovated a couple of times, but by 1995 it was in very serious disrepair. According to reports, among the problems were water damage throughout the building, leaking roofs, pest infestation, and visible mold on walls, ceiling tiles, window frames, carpets, and hard surface flooring. Steam pipes released so much steam that at times students mistook it as smoke from a fire. And because of a faulty HVAC system, temperatures could fluctuate from 60°F in winter to over 100°F in the summer. Further, by most environmental standards, the facility was poorly cleaned and maintained. There were odors and soiling on floors, restroom tiles, walls, and ceilings, as well as on counters in food service areas. All these problems were readily noticeable and considered unacceptable for an American school.

Topophobia is a word we rarely hear, but it is not uncommon to some school administrators. Topophobia refers to the dread of, or fear of, a specific place. By 1995, many students, teachers, and administrators experienced topophobia at Charles Young Elementary. As mentioned earlier, the facility was structurally compromised, and along with being poorly cleaned and maintained, it had a blighted, unwelcoming appearance.

Observers believed that there was a direct link between the condition of the school facilities and the fact that students attending Charles Young Elementary did not perform well academically. Half of the students tested below national averages for math and reading.

Further, an unhealthy, “no future” mentality permeated the school among both students and teachers.

What typically happens when a school is in such a condition is that the school is closed and then abandoned, becoming a blight on the entire neighborhood. However, a different approach was taken at Charles Young Elementary. Administrators decided to clean up and repair the school and see if this deteriorating urban institution could be turned around, with significant improvements in learning and a “bright future” mentality replacing defeating, no-future thinking.

The restoration
With the help of federal money, Charles Young Elementary was set for restoration, with the goals of completely transforming the school into a clean, model school environment; finding resources, organizations, and companies to help accomplish this; and then, once completed, educating school personnel in how to maintain the school and prevent deterioration from occurring again.

Among the steps taken were the following:
• A total of 232 windows were replaced. • Peeling lead paint was removed and rooms were repainted.
• Roofing and brickwork were repaired to prevent water intrusion. • Water-damaged materials were removed. HVAC systems and ductwork were repaired or replaced.
• Drums of chemicals found in the basement of the school were removed, and the basement was thoroughly cleaned.
• Pest infestation was eliminated, and pest barriers were installed.
• The Carpet and Rug Institute, on behalf of several member companies, donated the replacement of more than 45,000 square feet of carpet.
• The school was thoroughly cleaned, and custodial workers were instructed on how to clean and maintain the school on a regular basis to keep the building looking good and its inhabitants healthy.

Comparisons to Songhai Elementary
Before discussing the results of the cleanup and restoration of Charles Young Elementary, let’s discuss a similar project that focused on how effective cleaning can improve the health of a school as well as student performance.

Songhai Elementary is a century-old Chicago school located in what was once a very comfortable, middle-class neighborhood. However, over the last few decades, the area where the school was located had been in steady decline. The school’s educational standards had also been deteriorating. According to the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which tests children in grades three through eight, Songhai Elementary School was well behind the state’s averages in every category. In some categories, less than 10 percent of the students were able to meet or exceed state performance averages.

To help turn circumstances around, Dr. Linda Longhart was appointed Songhai’s principal in August 2003. A 30-year veteran of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Longhart believed that the school could be a healthier place in which to learn if the institution’s custodians had access to more efficient, technologically advanced cleaning tools and more comprehensive training and education.

“Cleaning was one of my first priorities,” said Longhart. “I knew the first step in helping my kids get a good education was to make their school environment clean, safe, and healthy.”

"Observers believed that there was a direct link between the condition of the school facilities and the fact that students attending Charles Young Elementary did not perform well academically."

Longhart believed that the school’s unhealthy conditions required management and staff to work together to find the best solutions. At about this same time, Kaivac, Inc., a manufacturer of no-touch cleaning systems, along with several other manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry, were invited to help with the cleaning efforts.* These industry leaders developed a plan to make Songhai a clean, environmentally healthy place in which to learn and work, especially in terms of reducing germs, bacteria, and contaminants in the school.

Over a period of several months, a number of areas in the school were detail-cleaned— everything from floors to chairs and tables in the cafeteria. A particular problem was the school’s restrooms. They were very large restrooms, but the floors and walls were lined with tiny one-inch tiles. The big problem was that germs and bacteria coated the grout areas, causing serious odors that were noticeable throughout the facility. Fortunately, the no-touch cleaning systems were effective in cleaning the tiles, helping to eliminate the odors.

Results at both schools
After restoring and implementing an effective and healthy cleaning program at Charles Young, it soon became a school that students wanted to attend and teachers wanted to work in. Between 1996, when restoration began, and 2001, after it was completed, student attendance was up four percent; student attitudes shifted from what were termed “frightful” to energetic; teacher retention went from “normal to low” to “very high”; staff attitude went from “sought retirement” to prideful and “delayed retirement”; and student and teacher health complaints went from “frequent” to “infrequent, normal, very much improved.”

Ron Goerne of 1.2.3. Training Systems headed the restoration of Songhai Elementary. Similarly, he reported that shortly after the project was completed, a dramatic change had taken place there as well. “The attitudes of the students that attended the school greatly improved, and their teachers, staff, and the community [now viewed] Songhai Elementary as a healthy learning environment. The custodians are better aware of cleaning’s impact on the health of the school, the education of children, and the environment.”

Goerne added that by the time the cleanup program was over, there was a sense of pride in Songhai that no one had seen before. “Everyone—the students, the administrators, and the community—is proud of what has been accomplished… they are proud to be here.”

Dawn Shoemaker is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Note: Even though these improvements in health and cleanliness occurred, we must add that the Charles Young facility is now closed. As of this writing, arrangements are being made for the school to be used as a charter school or private school. Songhai Elementary Learning Institute in Chicago closed in 2013; at this time there are no future plans for the building. Both schools were closed due to budget cuts in their respective cities.

*Along with Kaivac, the other companies and organizations that assisted in the cleaning and revitalization of Songhai Elementary included: • 1.2.3. Training Systems, Bloomington, IL
• Milliken Floor Covering, Spartanburg, SC
• Multi-Clean, Inc., Shoreview, MN
• ProTeam, Inc., Boise, ID
• Rochester Midland Corp., Fort Wayne, IN
• The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, IN
• Windsor Industries, Inc., Englewood, CO


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