North Frederick Elementary School is one of the older facilities within the district Photos courtesy of: Kyle Raines, Frederick county Public Schools


Relevant and engaging professional development is one way FCPS ensures it retains the best custodial staff possible. Also important, however, is identifying and promoting new talent and emerging leaders.

“We have people who age out in retirement every year, so the challenge is to have a queue of aspiring lead custodians ready to go,” Carnahan says. “Turnover happens and we need to be prepared for it.”

Five years ago, Carnahan revamped the district’s quarterly meetings of all lead custodians and school principals. These meetings cover technical, supervisory and leadership topics. Now, anyone who aspires to be a lead is also invited — as are assistant principals — and current leads are invited to create training sessions to share their knowledge. This was another simple change that has made a big difference in the interest and engagement levels of future custodial leaders.

To date, two former and very successful lead custodians have applied and were selected to become custodial specialists working directly under Carnahan. They now help foster peak performance among their former peers.

“Allen Hudson and Vicki Norris conduct quality-assurance, custodial inspections that verify that individual custodial teams are satisfying the administrative and practical processes necessary to ensure safe and healthy schools,” says Wilkinson. “They provide the equipment, supplies and training necessary for the custodial teams to perform their prescribed duties.”

Hudson and Norris are also directly involved in perhaps one of the most impactful changes Carnahan has made in the department. With a goal to develop new talent, Carnahan has converted a special-projects initiative into a formal substitute custodian program.

At one time, FCPS had special-project custodians who would be called on to help the district’s custodial specialists on specific skilled tasks, such as maintaining wood gym floors. Rather than training each school’s custodial team on these services, the designated crew would help the specialists complete the tasks throughout the district.

Over time, however, it became clear these higher-compensated employees were rarely needed to assist the specialists. Instead, they were more often being asked to serve as stand-ins for absent custodians.

After recognizing the situation, Carnahan suggested scrapping the special-projects program and diverting those funds into a substitute custodian program. While subbing programs aren’t unique, FCPS’s is rare in its dedication to transitioning its subs into full-time employees.

Candidates are interviewed and screened before entering the system, and then trained by an experienced custodian for a week before being put into rotation. Once they begin substituting, they are used frequently so they can develop relationships with school leaders.

Customer-satisfaction surveys are sent to custodial leads for evaluation after each assignment. Any deficiencies are noted and used to guide coaching for the substitute to continually improve his or her performance.

“Hudson and Norris administer the substitute custodian program by receiving, prioritizing and assigning subs on a daily basis where the need is greatest,” says Wilkinson. “In some cases, they will also help in coordinating responses to facility emergencies by rallying staff and resources.”

This program is a pathway to employment that is union approved and highly successful, Wilkinson adds. Five years in, the substitute custodian program has a 75 percent placement rate.

“The substitutes that remain in the program are very reliable and productive,” he says. “They’re highly sought after by schools when site-based staff needs to fill a full-time, benefited vacancy. The program allows the sub to evaluate the school and the school to evaluate them, so everyone is on the same page when an offer is made.”

From professional development that makes custodians feel valued and heard, to sub and leadership programs that help new and emerging talent, FCPS is taking an innovative and proactive approach to talent acquisition and retention. Although they’ve already made impressive strides, Wilkinson and Carnahan say they aren’t prepared to rest on their laurels.

“We’re constantly striving to create an optimal environment,” Carnahan says. “That isn’t a goal where if you do certain things you’ll arrive there and be there forever. It’s an elusive goal. We’re always striving for it. The proficiency of our staff is always evolving and their capacity grows exponentially over time.” 

BECKY MOLLENKAMP is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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