Green Cleaning Spotlight: Sawyer Elementary Makes Big Changes Thanks to Strong Leadership

April 22, 2013

Thomas O’Connell brings green cleaning to Sawyer Elementary School, a public elementary school serving more than 2,000 students on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

In the bathroom at Sidney Sawyer Elementary School, chief engineer Thomas O’Connell offers a stomach-turning tale. A member of his custodial staff suffers from asthma, and when she mixed cleaning chemicals in the bathroom with hot water, the resulting fumes made her violently ill, to the point where she began vomiting and had to leave her task.

No one should have to work in a potentially harmful environment, nor should any child have to go to school where cleanliness comes at the price of student health. Creating a healthy, sustainable school is important to O’Connell, and he has taken the lead in a resounding way to bring green cleaning to Sawyer Elementary School, a public elementary school serving more than 2,000 students on Chicago’s Southwest Side. 

Creating change isn’t easy, especially when it comes to promoting green cleaning. Challenges include limited budget and resources, rallying support of the principal and the district, determining what would logistically be best for the school (square footage, time, etc.) and above all, changing the staff culture, especially when custodians are conditioned to associate the “bleach smell” with effective cleaning.

O’Connell's latest effort? He is phasing out the majority of the harsh chemical cleaners the school was using and replacing them with the Tersano Lotus Pro system, an apparatus that fits neatly inside a utility closet and electrically charges water molecules to create an effective chemical-free cleaner. This liquid ozone, once used, reverts to water and oxygen molecules, leaving only dirty water to be poured down the drain. Liquid ozone does not leave a residue on cleaned surfaces, making spaces safer for staff, students and custodians with skin sensitivities or allergies. With this new system, the custodian with asthma can work safely without worrying about her health.

With O’Connell leading the way, Sawyer became the first Chicago Public School to have this technology. The school has two machines with a third in the works so there will be one on each floor, in each utility closet. O’Connell estimates the first system will pay for itself within the first year of installation and the full transition will save the school up to $2,000 annually in chemical costs.

O’Connell and the success so far of this implementation is a prime example of the importance of strong leadership in the realm of green cleaning. In order to secure this new system, he had to work with tight resources and challenge  old ideas, encouraging his colleagues to buy in. He researched the system and keeping a file of literature, most notably a study of liquid ozone as a cleaning agent used at the University of Michigan. He worked with a local vendor to observe its efficacy in action and ensured he was making an informed purchase.

And on this and other measures, he has outlined the benefits of green cleaning to district leaders and school administrators, urging them to prioritize student health and sustainability, as well as support a measure that would save money in the long run. He also had to take initiative and encourage a buy-in among the custodial staff, several of whom were resistant to previous changes he had implemented, such as microfiber mops. Now, one custodial staff member goes out of her way to use new tools. Assigned to the third floor, she takes the elevator to the second floor so she can use the system, which she says works best on the surfaces she cleans.

There are many other options for implementing green cleaning in schools. View our Quick + Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools to learn more.

Interested in bringing green cleaning to your school? Please join us for our new, completely free webinar series on green cleaning in schools. Our first session will take place on Tuesday, May 7th, focusing on new technologies and procedures that allow for safe and effective cleaning with fewer chemical products.