Every day around 2 p.m., Karen Zummo begins her rounds as a custodian at Weightman Middle School.
She picks up papers and pens with a grabber, and then glides through the room with a vacuum to get the smaller scraps. She dumps wastebaskets, wipes down walls, does paint touch-ups and completes other chores to return the school to the neat appearance it had when the school day began.
Zummo is part of a team of custodians at the middle school in Wesley Chapel who handles typical cleaning chores, and also do set up and breakdown work for meetings, dinners and other special events. They also serve as the painting crew, when a fresh coat of paint is in order.
It’s all part of the routine for Zummo, recently named the School-Related Employee of the Year for Pasco County Schools.
The honor is gratifying, but its significance goes beyond her personal satisfaction, Zummo said.
“A custodian has never won it,” Zummo said of the award. “It’s always a very visible person — an office worker or a teacher’s aide.”
She believes that’s because people tend to underestimate the value of custodians.
“The stereotype is that we’re uneducated, invisible people,” Zummo said.
The truth is that custodians make a significant contribution on a school campus. “It’s more important than anybody gives us credit for,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to get everything clean. By being clean, you’re promoting the health of everybody.”
A messy environment has a subconscious effect on people, Zummo said. She cited a training session she attended where the trainer deliberately made the room messy before the workshop began.
“There were a few papers on the floor,” Zummo said. “I came in and saw it and I thought, ‘Whoa, somebody’s going to get in trouble for this.’”
But the trainer was making a point. He asked the custodians, “What do you think of the room?” Zummo told him that “somebody missed something.”
“How does that make you feel?” he asked. “I don’t like it,” Zummo responded.
Research has shown that students who take a test in a clean environment perform better than those who take a test in a messy room, the trainer explained.
“Nobody realizes this,” Zummo said.
While some staff members appreciate the work that custodians do, others are oblivious, Zummo said. She recalled a time when she went in to clean a classroom and two teachers were discussing personal issues.
Zummo cleared her throat to let them know she was there. They kept talking.
Then she began bumping into desks, on purpose. The teachers kept discussing personal matters.
As a last resort, Zummo revved up her cleaning pace.
“I did a quickie and I got out of there,” the custodian said.
While she understands the importance of the routine parts of her job, Zummo enjoys going beyond that.
Sometimes, she goes beyond the basics by paying attention to small details. If she sees on a whiteboard that a teacher is planning to do a lab, for instance, she’ll ask the teacher if she’d like an extra trash can that day.
Zummo is active in the union. She also pays close attention to safety issues. When she noticed that the carpet in the media center posed a tripping hazard, she reported it and it was replaced. When she saw the need for ladders in every building, they were supplied.
Custodians see everything and can offer helpful suggestions, Zummo said.
When she noticed that new teachers were struggling, for instance, she asked administration if they could work with veteran teachers to learn some tricks of the trade. She also suggested that Wesley Chapel High School students be recruited to pair them with Weightman students who needed tutoring help.
Administrators saw value in both of Zummo’s ideas and implemented them.
The custodian also has worked with students who were assigned to work detail or were earning community service hours. Sometimes their help can lead to more work, but Zummo still likes to work with these students.
She recalls one instance when she was working with four students at the same time and one of them was particularly difficult. But he ended up making the biggest turnaround.
“His whole demeanor in class changed,” she said, noting he even started getting on other kids when they were making a mess on campus.
That’s just one example.
Mimi Cass Clark, a retired mathematics teacher who has known Zummo for years, noted Zummo’s ability to work with students has made an impression.
“Her calm and steady influence has worked wonders on many students, from my observation,” Clark wrote in a letter recommending Zummo for the district award.
“A lot of these kids, they just want somebody to listen,” said Zummo, who has lots of experience listening to kids.
She and her husband Joe have raised 14 boys and one girl. They also have been foster parents, opening their home to 231 teenagers and three younger children over eight years.
While having a busy home life, Zummo has remained dedicated to her job, according to letters written on her behalf.
“Karen’s work ethic is a model for those around her,” wrote Cassandra Pedersen, who met Zummo when she joined Weightman’s staff as a science teacher in 2007.
“When Karen Zummo identifies a problem, she kicks into full Karen mode and searches for a solution. This often results in her bringing creative answers to those who need them,” Pedersen said. “The resolutions benefit the entire school, district and community.
“How often do you meet someone who you can truly say is an asset to everyone?”
Zummo, who has always considered herself to be a “behind-the-scenes” person, is pleased by the district’s recognition of not only herself, but by extension, of other custodians.
“It puts us in a good light for a change,” Zummo said.
Published Feb. 26, 2014.
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