When he graduated Troy State University, Edward Smith III headed to the country of Panama with his wife, Carla, who was enlisted in the United States Army. He landed a job that many would envy, serving as the Assistant Director of Outdoor Recreation for the 24th Services Squadron. He spent his days planning excursions, like horseback riding and scuba diving, pool parties, and base-wide events and tennis for Air Force personnel, families and visitors. He also oversaw the rental operation that serviced all military branches stationed in Panama.
“When people came to Panama, I was on the introduction committee,” he said. “My job was to show visitors and new families the recreational opportunities available and how they could make the most of the time there. Back in those days, technology was limited so people weren’t as easily able to search for those resources. It really helped the soldiers to know their families were taken care of.”
While it sounds glamorous, Smith says it was a lot more difficult than it sounds. But the position did give him several practical skills that paved the way for his future career in custodial services. He learned a lot about purchasing, customer service and managing inventory, supplies and building a team.
Understanding the Powerful Impact of Frontline Workers
When the base drew down, the Smiths returned to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and Edward took a position with Kroger managing a large grocery store, which showed him the importance of appearance in a retail environment. It also provided great experience in the areas of cross contamination, training and customer service.
“When you’re a customer in a store, the people you see the most have the biggest impact on your experience,” he said. “The people at the checkout, the baggers—they all play a significant role in how you see that environment. There’s not going to be much difference in the cost of a can of beans between stores, so it really all boils down to the customer service experience.”
When a management position opened with Sodexho at the Huntsville City School District, he interviewed and was hired. In his first few months on the job, he began applying some of the knowledge he’d acquired in his previous positions and implemented a small training program to help educate cleaning staff on the importance of customer service and techniques that improved cleaning consistency.
A Big Move Fuels Personal and Professional Growth
Just nine short months later, a position opened in Chagrin Falls, and Edward moved his family with then one daughter Janae, 636 miles north to a suburb just outside of Cleveland. He was promoted to Director of Operations for the Kenston Local School District.
“My wife and I were born and raised in the South, so moving to northern Ohio was definitely a change for us,” he said, laughing. “Before we arrived, I told my wife I was going to clear the snow in our driveway. That only lasted through the first snow storm.”
But Smith welcomed the change, realizing that only by being pushed out of his comfort zone would he continue to learn and grow. He credits a few key individuals, including Frank Novotny, his lead maintenance worker, who helped him get up to speed on things related to Cleveland, the weather and parts of the custodial, maintenance, grounds, security, and recreation programs.
“When I got to my office, I didn’t know what those things were on the truck that stick up when it’s snowing,” he said. “I called them crab eyes. I had no idea that they were used to help drivers remove snow in the dark.”
He wasted little time implementing new programs and processes to improve the operations at Chagrin City School District, and credits the Superintendent at the time, Dr. Lee, for always supporting his ideas and initiatives. Improving the custodian’s access to quality training was one of the many key focuses for him, along with updating their MSDS program, creating a safety team, Integrated Pest Control and establishing accountability measures for production and behavior.
“From an early point in my career, I realized that custodial workers will be more likely to stay with the proper training,” he said. “Too often, workers aren’t given insight and education on how their work impacts the larger environment. It’s important to let them know that their jobs are important. And we need to go beyond just telling them that their jobs are important, we need to show them.” He also believes leaders must continue investing in training, equipment, personal enhancement and changing the perceived culture from servitude to customer service.
Sweet Home Alabama
When a position opened back up at the Huntsville City School District, the Smiths returned home to Alabama. Edward was initially hired as the Director of Custodial Services and has since been promoted to the Facilities Coordinator. He’s responsible for overseeing approximately 210 employees across 38 schools, and handling everything related to custodial services, facility use pest control, waste and the school’s print shop.
Not surprisingly, training was a key focus for Smith when he returned to the school district, along with standardizing some of the department’s other processes and operations.
“Before we updated our training program, new hires would talk through a booklet with their supervisor,” he said. “There are inconsistencies with this approach, because different supervisors will say different things, and they may not cover all the information. It also doesn’t accommodate different learning styles, so we wanted to make sure we had training that would help everyone perform their jobs better.”
Using the existing training booklet as a framework, Edward brought the training program into a real-life setting, creating a mock bathroom, closet, classroom and locker room. Before new employees even start work, they learn exactly how to perform the required responsibilities.
But it’s not just a space for training new employees. Smith uses the space to conduct regular in-services and programs so existing custodians can stay up to date on the latest technology and processes. Smith is finding that other departments are also using the training classroom as well.
Other changes he implemented was changing the use of the Area Supervisors under his supervision. The district utilized three Area Supervisors to manage the schools based on geographic location; however, Edward changed the paradigm to focus on school functionality and not geographic location. So, he set up his Area Supervisors in distinct roles best suited for the type of support schools required. For example, he has one Area Supervisor over all Elementary Schools and one Area Supervisor over all P-8s, Middle and High Schools. The 3rd Area Supervisor was changed into a full-time trainer and additional duties that support all schools along with the two Area Supervisors. This streamlined approach has made the custodial team more flexible, tactical, and more services oriented based on requirements and an ever-changing landscape.
“Training is so important. Our custodians have a lot of options when it comes to jobs in the Huntsville area, so we need to teach them why their job is important,” he said. “Every cleaner needs to understand that how they clean impacts not only the health of the kids in our schools, but also how well those kids are able to learn.”
Beyond entry-level custodial workers, Smith is also adamant about providing training and ongoing educational opportunities to his mid-level managers. Schools are so dynamic in the new requirements of working weekends, servicing programs, adhering to different school requirements; therefore, employees need to have the best start possible. Thirty-six of his team members recently participated in and completed IEHA’s Frontline Program.
“We need a strong team at every level,” said Smith. “Putting our managers through the Frontline program is just another way to expose them to all the important information and resources this industry has to offer.” Schools are more than just areas to clean. There is a lot of communication, follow-up, planning, and leadership qualities that must be displayed. Smith stated, “we consistently have programs, events, and public displays in our buildings
All of the head custodians at Huntsville City Schools also belong to IEHA.
Edward doesn’t just talk the talk either—he leads by example. He earned his Master REH designation in 2014.
Putting Kids First by Putting Custodial Workers First
With more than 40 buildings to clean, Smith is quick to recognize that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the hard work of his team. He takes great pride in the work of his staff and regularly looks to show them off at any opportunity. His support staff consists of Patty Smith, Area Supervisor (Elementary); Marlo Furrer, Area Supervisor (P-8, Middle, High); and Henry Avanrenren (Trainer/Pest Operation & Support Operations); Maude Ellison, Facility Use Coordinator and Scott Eason, Print Shop Supervisor. Charrisa Johnson, who is his Administrative Assistant, has also taken a large role on the department. She replaces Mrs. Ruthie Hambrick, who retired last year and was instrumental in supporting his “wild" ideas.
When visitors come to their offices, they are greeted by a PowerPoint that highlights the training module and work the custodial team is doing around the school district.
“People need to see that custodians are not just about mops and buckets,” he said. “We need to get away from that stigma - we need team members who are thinkers, planners, organizers - people who are service-oriented and empowered to put our kids first.”
Smith also credits a progressive administration and executive leadership of Dr. Jeffrey S. Wilson, Director, Operations and Jason Taylor, Chief Financial Officer, who encourage education and ideas and recognize initiative.
“There are opportunities available to any of our staff members, it’s just up to them how far they want to go,” said Smith. “And it’s such worthwhile work. When you know that what you’re doing benefits kids—the only people in these buildings who aren’t getting paid—you know you are doing something good.”
Currently, he makes his family and Huntsville City Schools his main career priorities. He has a family which consist of his wife, Carla; daughter, Janae; and sons, Edward IV and Clark.