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CMS Custodians Finalists In National Competition

These CMS employees make sure their schools are ready when students arrive; encourage and admonish them as needed; are on the scene during emergencies and help coordinate after-school events. And no, they’re not teachers but the schools’ janitors who are in the running for a national award.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Sharon Elementary School custodian Bobby Miller cleans hallways with mobile scrubber. He is a finalist for Cintas Corporations's janitor of the year award.

Pinewood Elementary School janitor Barbara Watson and Sharon Elementary School custodian, as he likes to be called, Bobby Miller are among the 10 finalists for Cintas Corporation’s national Janitor of the Year Award. About 350 school custodians around the country were nominated for the award.

Watson has worked at Pinewood for six years. She gets to work between 4 a.m. and 4:30 a.m.

“The first thing I do is turn off the alarm and turn on the lights, get my equipment from the closet and I start with the office, media room and then I hit the halls and bathrooms,” Watson said. “I have to get to the floors by at least 5:30 so they are dry by the time the staff gets in.”

Watson became the school’s janitor after her job of 27 years with the Lance snack food company was phased out. It’s hard keeping up with Watson as she energetically zips from washing windows and mirrors in bathrooms to swiftly sweeping the cafeteria floor between each lunch period.

“I want to be proud of my school, I really do and I try to keep things as if I was at home,” she said.

But her real joy comes from the students, who gather around her for their daily hugs. She stops to laugh and talk with a group of special needs children and knows them all by name.

“Baby Jean, that’s my baby there,” she said while hugging the small girl.

Third-grader Olivia Robinson forgets about her lunch and follows Watson around like her shadow, frequently giving her tight hugs.

“She cares about me and helps me when I’m sad,” Robinson said. “When I was scared to pull my teeth out, she helped me.”

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Students at Pinewood Elementary often stop to chat with janitor Barbara Watson. She's a finalist for Cintas Corporation's janitor of the year award.

Watson frequently comforts and corrects students on their behavior, sometimes with a tap on the shoulder, sometimes with just a look. Today, it’s a little of both with a little guy, sitting by himself and crying profusely because he didn’t do his class work. Watson quickly gets a napkin to wipe his eyes and asked, “You got to do your work at lunch time? Come on, clear your eyes, it’s gonna be OK. It’s not the end of the world, OK, now eat your lunch."

“She pours love into whatever she does,” said Pinewood Principal Natashia Pegram. “She’s a hard worker, always goes above what we need and she knows the staff and students so well that she’ll do what we need before we ask. She’s irreplaceable.”

Watson credits her grandmother for her strong work ethic.

She says if you can’t do a job good, don’t do it at all because you gonna muck it up. If I ever do a job, I give it everything I got, 110 percent,” Watson said.

At nearby Sharon Elementary School, Bobby Miller sings Motown tunes while working. Miller has been at Sharon Elementary for 14 years. Before that he was a cook and manager at a local restaurant. His days start at 6 a.m., usually behind the wheel of a large, zamboni-looking floor scrubber.

After taking care of the hallways, Miller set up the cafeteria for the breakfast crowd. The students high-five him when they arrived, one asked for help with a broken backpack strap and they all seemed to enjoy getting teased by Miller

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Sharon Elementary's custodian Bobby Miller jokes with third-grader Nyla Watson during lunch.

“So I get to cut your hair,” he teases one student. “It’s real long. I think I can cut it,” he said with a big laugh.

The students like the attention and described him as “awesome” and “funny.”

“I just love working with the kids,” Miller said. “Some of them remind me of myself when I was little and I like to help them out when I can. Some get lost especially when in kindergarten and just getting here, so I help them get back to class.

After breakfast is over, teacher Dawn Drouin asked Miller to help set up an adjoining room for a program. He quickly stacked tables on a cart and pushed a piano to a side corner while joking with Drouin.

"He’s always in a good mood and keeps us upbeat,” Drouin said. “He’s wonderful. I can say Bobby, I need my key I can’t get in my room, Bobby I need my desk fixed, probably things he’s not supposed to be doing so we really depend on him a lot.”

School principal Catherine Phelan nominated Miller for the award. She said he’s everybody’s go-to guy and a great role model for students.

“They see him in the building when he’s doing different assignments and tasks in the classroom, maybe assembling something, cleaning something, so they see that when there’s a big task, he’s doing it cheerfully with the same attitude that he would something else he’d want to do, so everything is done with a smile and that’s good for the children to see,” Phelan said.

Phelan says Miller often works long hours without being asked, such as staying late when a water main broke in the community. He wanted to flush all the toilets after it was fixed and make sure there was no flooding in the building.

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Custodian Barbara Watson (left) shares a hug with third-grader Olivia Robinson at Pinewood Elementary School.

Miller and Watson said the nominations make them feel appreciated by their coworkers and the students. The winner of the national janitor of the year award gets $2,500 in cash and their school gets $2,500 in supplies. Miller would like to use the winnings to go to Florida for the first time. Watson has not decided. The public gets to decide the winner by voting on Cintas’ Website until May 1.