At Chicago elementary school, staff, moms, kids step in when CPS can’t keep school clean
After weeks of problems at Eberhart Elementary on the Southwest Side, CPS finally sent a substitute custodian — after Sun-Times reporters asked about the filth.
For weeks, you couldn’t even find toilet paper or soap in the filthy bathrooms at Eberhart Elementary School on the Southwest Side.
The school’s hallways hadn’t been mopped. Nobody was taking out the garbage from the lunchroom shared by most of the 1,100 kids who, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, had returned to in-classroom learning at Eberhart.
One morning, kindergartners entered a classroom littered with animal droppings.
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But the bathrooms were the worst. It got so bad that some kids started crying when they had to go in there. Some tried — a few younger ones in vain — to hold it all day to avoid them.
“I don’t want to get sick because the school is not getting cleaned,” 8-year-old Xochitl Frausto Morales, a third grader at Eberhart, complained to the Local School Council at a meeting this past week about the absence of custodians to keep the school clean. “I know it is not clean because I found a living cockroach on the toilet seat in the Eberhart bathroom.”
Nneka Gunn, the principal, told the council she called the Chicago Public Schools’ hotline that was set up to report cleanliness problems with CPS’ privatized custodial work.
Gunn says she and other staff members also sent emails to her boss, the school system’s facilities chief and Pedro Martinez, the new CPS CEO, with photos of dirty floors, cobwebby windows and overflowing garbage cans.
“I know I’ve reached out to everyone I was supposed to,” Gunn told the council. “People are not as concerned as we feel like they should be.”
Aramark, the company that took over cleaning Eberhart Oct. 1, had sent only one custodian during the day to clean the three-story school, which spans a city block. The janitorial behemoth is supposed to send substitutes when regular custodians are out — at Eberhart, two were on planned medical leave. But that didn’t happen.
So Eberhart’s staff donned rubber gloves, bought mops and tackled the 164,000-square-foot school at 3400 W. 65th Place in Marquette Park themselves.
“It’s amazing actually, to see my assistant principal with a mop and a bucket going into the boys’ bathroom to clean up,” classroom aide Cindy O’Donnell says. “Everybody’s pitching in.”
Bathrooms were being wiped down by kindergarten teacher aides and an assistant principal, classrooms mopped by teachers. Security guards vacuumed hallways and helped administrators carry out garbage. Teachers have been buying soap for bathrooms where the dispensers were long empty. The principal grabbed a broom and a mop. The dean of discipline brought in his leaf blower to clear littered stairwells.
“I have my daughter helping me clean in the mornings of what’s left behind from the day before,” said Cynthia Centeno, a kindergarten aide and mother of a sixth grader, who’s stayed late the past few weeks to clean. “I’ve seen cockroaches in the classrooms — something I have never seen before. It’s heartbreaking to come to school, thinking of what I’m going to have to clean instead of what I’m going to do for these kids.”
Since parents from the heavily Latino neighborhood learned early this past week of the extent of the filth at their children’s school, some have offered to help clean up, some to contact CPS and city officials.
“I can also help volunteer to clean,” Jessica Carrera says in Spanish.
Carrera, a snack vendor who sells elotes outside Eberhart, says her kindergartner has missed recess because his teacher was still cleaning.
“Other schools are clean. Our school is dirty,” Maria Davila, a mother of four, says through an interpreter. “I don’t know if they think less of us because we’re Hispanic.”
“Eberhart is a community that, we’re going to step in, we’re going to make things happen, we’re going to pull it together, we’re gonna work,” says Darlene Randall, a career services counselor there. “But it doesn’t make it right.”
Eberhart has had to resort to DIY cleaning even though CPS is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on private custodial services over the next three years under a new facility management system. That’s on top of $920 million CPS paid for outsourced cleaning the past eight years.
Concerns about cleaning in some schools date at least to 2014, when CPS turned over management of custodial work to Aramark and a second company, Sodexo.
Following complaints and Chicago Sun-Times reports that documented failures to keep schools clean — especially in buildings educating Black and Latino children — and cheating on cleanliness inspections, CPS has made changes several times.
The latest step is a creation of facilities chief Clarence Carson, who announced last year the school system would take back control of its buildings by hiring more CPS managers to oversee the vendors and promising to dump Aramark and Sodexo.
The plan called for school engineers and facilities services to be overseen by CPS with the help of Jones Lang LaSalle in the Chicago company’s first K-12 schools facilities deal, at a cost of $375 million over three years.
The transition was planned for July — before kids returned in late August. But there was a three-month delay, and $74 million more went to Aramark and Sodexo for an extension Carson promised would help CPS be ready by October.
Then, Carson changed plans, expanding Aramark’s role rather than hire a new company. It went from cleaning some CPS schools to all 636 of them — taking over those previously handled by Sodexo, including Eberhart — as of Oct. 1, under a three-year, $369 million contract.
But it was soon clear there were problems at schools across the city. By mid-October, CPS was offering overtime of as much as 2.5 times normal pay to engineers to open schools so custodial crews could catch up.
Officials have declined to say how many schools needed the extra services or who was covering the cost.
Bill Utter, a spokesman for Sodexo, says it warned CPS against making changes after kids returned to schools but says, “CPS insisted upon an Oct. 1 changeover. At the end of our contract, there were predicted gaps in coverage because we were losing employees, and the incoming company was not able to hire in time.”
Aramark representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.
CPS has declined to make Carson or his supervisor, Lindy McGuire, the interim chief operating officer, available for interviews.
At a Chicago Board of Education meeting this past week, Carson blamed staffing shortages. He said CPS staffed 2,500 custodians in the spring “because we knew we needed more staff to meet the challenges, especially for COVID-19.” But he added, “Right now, we don’t have all that staff to fill those assignments.”
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus says CPS is short 300 janitors.
CPS finally did something about the problems at Eberhart in recent days — after Sun-Times reporters asked about conditions there. A substitute custodian has now been assigned to replace one of the two on leave.
Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says principals have contacted him, one in tears, about conditions at their schools.
He told the Board of Ed they “said, ‘When my students walk through this school, and they see the conditions of the facility and the filth, that there’s only one thing that they can take out of that, and it’s that no one loves us here.’ And so these principals say, ‘Damn it, I love you,’ by cleaning the trash themselves. They say, ‘Damn it, I love you,’ by mopping the bathrooms themselves. They say, ‘Damn it, I love you,’ by sweeping floors.”
Under Aramark’s contract, Eberhart should have seven custodians — Fergus says six are assigned. They’re among about 900 employed by CPS but managed by Aramark. Other schools have custodians hired by Aramark subcontractors.
Each custodian is assigned to a section of the school, Eberhart’s principal Gunn told her LSC, and if someone was absent and not replaced, “That section just did not get done.”
Since school began, two of Eberhart’s daytime custodians — overseen until Sept. 30 by Sodexo — were absent after surgery.
“Neither position was covered with a temporary custodian,” Gunn told the LSC, saying that was “one of the reasons our school fell into such a poor condition right after school started.”
Fergus says covering for absences is tougher “during this national labor shortage.”
By Sept. 25, a week before the transition to Aramark, Gunn emailed Carson and other officials: “The building has not been consistently cleaned since school started. ... My students walk into a dirty building day after day. Dirty classrooms, dirty hallways (literally not mopped in a month), dirty stairwells and bathrooms that smell like urine.
“We are begging for your help.”
Marisa Alarcon, an Eberhart mom, says her third grader saw roaches on her desk. Her son’s teacher also has seen roaches and mouse droppings in their classroom, where kindergartners eat.
Jiggling her newborn baby outside the school, Alarcon offered to join the cleaning volunteers: “Anything for my kids.”
Iris Acuna says her 5-year-old daughter is afraid to use the bathroom at school because of the filth.
“It’s important during the pandemic to keep the school clean,” Alcuna says through an interpreter. “Parents have been working too hard and too long to keep kids healthy at home.”
Xochitl, the third grader, sees her teachers and other staffers mopping and scrubbing and says, “I think the company should stop getting the money from Eberhart if they’re not cleaning Eberhart.”