One of the oddest schools where I worked was at a K-5 elementary school with about 550 students in Huntsville, Alabama. The principal stayed in her office or walked around with a yappy, auburn-haired, four-legged dog in her arms, while she yelled at older kids marring the hall walls with their sneakers.
About 10 years ago, a counselor called me and asked if I would help fourth and fifth graders do an in-school citizenship project dealing with their restrooms. I jumped at the chance to be a part of the school/PTA effort and drove six hours to the building. Soon I was face to face with a snapping terrier-type dog and a soon-to-retire woman, who seemingly had stopped “loving children” long ago.
In fact, this principal had faced an issue of water on the floors in the fourth/fifth-grade johns, and she solved that problem by taking away the soap and towels and shutting off the faucets.
Unbelievable, isn’t it? She assigned teachers to stand outside the bathroom doors and squirt hand gel on the 50 or so students as they came out of the restrooms marked Boys or Girls. In turn, sometimes the instructors assigned students.
The custodian spent most of his time buffing the main hall floor and not enough effort becoming a partner with the upper elementary students.
The school art club had agreed to paint murals, while the PTA was painting halls and the bathrooms. Meetings were held with the principal, custodian, district supervisor, teachers, students, and selected parents.
The school was in the middle of a school accreditation process, the principal was always hesitant to implement any changes, and the district was caught up in board and superintendent issues. Sounds familiar.
I visited several times, took before and after pictures, worked with many students and teachers, especially the counselor, and then wrote a Restroom Improvement Report with three pages of text and another page of nine recommendations.
These included a fifth grade “legacy” bathroom mural, which would have been more effective than a plaque or bench in the front of the school. I suggested an “extraordinary” cleaning by the District, a media center display with photos and materials, a tie in with health curriculum objectives, and a thorough review of the after-school use of restrooms during the “extended day” and the regular 8-to-3 p.m. school day. I also included a page of references, referrals, and phone contacts.
Can any parent or a small committee of parents and guardians use an existing PTA or school-council structure and add a sub-committee on restrooms? Yes, if you are in the arena for a longer haul than one potluck fundraising dinner.
Did we get what was needed in the old school? No, we got an old, nearly retired principal. Yet you must play the cards you are dealt, know when to hold ’em and when to fold that hand, and never walk away.
My one-inch thick notebook hopefully will be updated when I call the school to see whether soap, towels and water are in the fourth and fifth grade restrooms a decade later. I’ll let you know.