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Professionals on the job
Classified school employees make essential contributions to education

Students arrive safely at school, lights turn on when a switch is flipped, a nutritious lunch is served to hungry kids, computers transmit important information across a school district, and cool air comes out of vents during late spring days.

These essential services occur because of the diligence and dedication of classified school employees—and they are things people definitely would notice if they didn’t happen.

That’s the magic of classified school employees. When they are on the job, they often go unnoticed. From behind the scenes, classified employees provide services vital to the everyday operation of schools. Without these services, school districts across California would grind to a halt.

Providing a clean and safe environment
It’s important for schools to provide an environment conducive to learning. Patti Regan, lead custodian at Romoland School District, said school custodians work hard to ensure facilities are clean and safe.

Regan, president of Romoland Elementary Chapter 499, said she starts her day before children arrive. She opens the campus for children, and cleans up after they finish breakfast. She also locks down the campus once kids have arrived to ensure student safety.

“I open the school at 6 a.m. to clean offices, hang flags, put out cones for the school buses, open bathrooms and do a quick check of the campus for vandalism,” said Regan, a 15-year veteran of the district.

After she sets the stage for the day ahead, Regan’s days are filled with a variety of responsibilities to ensure students are safe. A “Jill of all trades,” she not only changes the school marquee to let parents know what is happening at Harvest Valley Elementary School, she also performs as much simple maintenance she can to fill in gaps caused by short staffing.

“We only have one person on staff to service our four schools and district office,” Regan said.

Maintaining a clean and safe campus is important for student’s morale and health, Regan said.

“I am a firm believer that a clean environment is a healthy environment and that is what students need in their learning process,” Regan said. “They need to take pride in their community and school, and respect that. If the campus is dirty and the buildings and restrooms unattended, what messages are we sending to our young people about pride and respect?”

Regan also plays a mentorship role at the school. In her daily interaction with students, Regan can tell when kids are having a bad day or acting out. To create a safe and welcoming environment, she tells the students everyday how proud she is of them.

 “I believe that all classified employees play a vital part in the student learning process,” she said. “We are their friends, teachers and most of all, we provide a safe haven for them when they are not in the care of their parents.”

Marking absences and fixing boo-boos
School districts don’t get any state funding without students at their desks. That’s why taking proper attendance is such an important task. Middle school office clerk Vivian Garcia said keeping attendance is just one of the many responsibilities handled by the school’s front office staff.

“The school gets its funding based on every student that is in class,” Garcia said. “Keeping accurate records makes sure you get enough funding to run the school.”

Garcia, secretary for Covina Valley Chapter 49, said she and her office team also answer phones, respond to queries about school and athletic practice schedules, and take messages for teachers, administrators and even for students from parents. Garcia said she also performs some health-related responsibilities.

“We take care of four diabetic students that test a few times a day, asthmatic students and others that need medication regularly,” Garcia said. “We clean and bandage small injuries, and call parents for sick students.”

Schools just couldn’t function without front office staff. From enrolling new students to assisting the principal to requesting information on students from other schools, office secretaries are a major cog in the education machine. Additionally, front office staff meet and greet all visitors to the school, which Garcia said can shape their opinion of the district.

“It’s very important to take the time and effort to handle each visitor as a priority,” she said. “It may be a new family enrolling, a parent with a concern or someone from the district office that needs to meet with someone on campus.”

Garcia said that similar to short-staffing in maintenance, nutrition and other departments, the front office staff works together to fulfill responsibilities that have expanded as more office positions have been left vacant due to budget cuts.

While Garcia has regular interaction with students who have medical needs, as well as with students who have disciplinary issues, she also plays a vital role in identifying students who are missing class.

“Regular absences have led to the discovery of truant students. After reporting this to an administrator, we may learn that a student is finding a class too difficult or may have a conflict with another student in the classroom,” Garcia said.

Keeping buses in tip-top shape
School buses are the safest form of transport on American roadways. Bus drivers skillfully navigate millions of miles every year to deliver their precious cargo—schoolchildren—to and from schools.

Behind the scenes, automotive technicians and mechanics work hard to ensure that school buses and other district vehicles are regularly maintained and safe. At San Diego Unified School District, automotive technician Augustine Briceño works as part of a team of 17 technicians to maintain a fleet of 1,000 vehicles—more than 500 of which are school buses.

Briceño, a member of San Diego Chapter 724, said the team of technicians works closely with the California Highway Patrol, which certifies every bus in the fleet once a year. State law also requires school buses to be serviced every 3,000 miles, so Briceño works on more than 100 buses a month.

“We’re carrying the most precious cargo in the world. The buses are carrying kids—not boxes or vegetables,” Briceño said. “Safety is our first concern.”

Everyday, Briceño said he catches dangerous problems like frayed brake lines and balding tires. After 34 years with the district, he can identify potential problems by simply listening to a bus (although he still performs a thorough inspection).

“We don’t compromise safety,” Briceño said. “We know our buses are carrying somebody’s children.”

Nourishing hungry stomachs and minds
Much like the old adage that an army travels on its stomach, students at school need fuel to be able to learn. School districts provide nutritious food everyday to students throughout California.

Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District food services worker Karlene Lockwood estimates that, along with her co-workers, she serves about 180 breakfasts and 450 lunches per day. Lockwood said they offer four entrees every day for three different lunch shifts. The staff is responsible for set up, preparation, serving, taking money for the meals and cleaning up.

Lockwood, a member of Fairfield-Suisun Chapter 302, said they make sure no student goes without a meal.

“We see everyday the importance of good nutrition because the students who act out and have trouble
will calm down after eating,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said staff in each kitchen take a state-approved course on food preparation and safety every year. She said that food safety is of the utmost priority.

In her nine years on the job, Lockwood said she has known of five students who ate their only meals of the day at the school. She and her co-workers always make sure these kids get as much to eat as they need.

“It’s heartbreaking to have to know it,” Lockwood said. “It’s our job to make sure they get enough without letting everyone else know. These kids are always appreciative of anything they get to eat.”

Lockwood said working at the school makes for some interesting interactions off the job. She said she often runs into students in the community, who sheepishly smile and say hello.

“It’s like they are surprised that I don’t live in the kitchen,” she laughed.

Creating a place for learning
The breadth of temperatures facing schools in California makes heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians essential. From the cool breezes of the North Coast to the snowy Sierra Nevadas to the hot days in SoCal and the desert, California has many climates.

Robert Rodriguez works in HVAC, indoor air quality and roofing at Visalia Unified School District. He said the maintenance department in Visalia responds to more than 10,000 service calls during a given year, which means that there is always work to be done.

“We continually monitor and inspect HVAC systems and roofing for any issues that may be developing that could lead to a negative impact on the classroom environment,” said Rodriguez, chief job steward for Visalia Chapter 83. “We strongly believe proper air filtration, along with maintaining HVAC equipment, directly affects the learning environment for our students.”

Heating and cooling classrooms has a direct impact on students. A classroom that is too hot can make students tired and uncomfortable, and be downright dangerous.

“With the extreme heat here in the valley, a classroom can quickly become very hot,” Rodriguez said. “We use an online work order system that provides immediate notification of any problem at a school site. This allows our department to respond very quickly—usually within an hour. We also maintain a stock of temporary and portable heating and cooling units for emergency use.”

Temperature can also impact other parts of the district infrastructure. Computer server rooms and food storage areas are particularly vulnerable. Rodriguez said such areas have temperature alarm systems installed
to alert technicians in case of equipment failure.

In Visalia, Rodriguez said the hot summers cause HVAC technicians to take extra measures to ensure systems work.

“Our department has always been proactive with pre-season start-up programs that allow us to service and have the cooling equipment up and ready before it gets hot,” Rodriguez said. “Seasonally, we work additional hours daily and Saturdays in order to have the equipment ready to go. This only happens due to the dedication of our techs to the students and staff.”

Rodriguez said that students and staff appreciate the effort spent by technicians to ensure that classrooms are temperate. Teachers and students often thank HVAC workers and let them know they are appreciated.

“We receive emails and cards from classes thanking individual (workers),” he said.

Giving students needed attention
Were it not for special education paraeducators, many students wouldn’t receive the personal attention necessary to achieve daily milestones.

Debbie Gieseman is a paraeducator with Vista Unified School District. She busily works seven periods a day with special education students in subjects including math, reading, social studies and language. Throughout these classes, Gieseman, a job steward with Vista Unified 389, works directly with kids to practice their skills and increase their retention.

Gieseman also maintains daily behavior/reward systems, prepares attendance reports, inputs information for Individual Education Plans, calls parents and enhances curriculum, among other things. With the wealth of tasks to complete, Gieseman is very busy all day long. But she does it all for the kids.

“I know that what I do has a very positive effect on my students,” Gieseman said. “I spend the most time with the lowest performing students, and I see the changes. They go from hating math to maybe not loving it, but it becomes their best subject.”

She explained that paraeducators work a lot with students who have behavioral issues, helping them to deal with anger issues or other disruptive problems. Gieseman said that she sees her job as not only preparing students for high school, but also for life.

“In many ways, I am like a second mom—not intimidating like the teacher,” she said.

Gieseman said that being a paraeducator is akin to devoting your life to helping students reach their full potential.

“We are all dedicated. We work too hard, for too little money, to be anything but dedicated,” Gieseman said.

Paraeducators know all the routines and curricula, and they run the class when the regular teacher is gone, she said. And when they are gone for a day, teachers are hard-pressed to handle all the demands of a classroom full of special education students. Gieseman said paraeducators are definitely a special breed.

“A paraeducator must be able to command as well as they take commands, lead as well as they take directions, and teach as well as they learn,” she said. “That is why a great paraeducator will make a great teacher, but a great teacher may not be a good paraeducator.”

Photo by Steven Lira

“I believe that all classified employees play a vital part in the student learning process. We are their friends, teachers and most of all, we provide a safe haven for them when they are not in the care of their parents.” -- Patty Regan, CSEA Chapter 499