We Have a Problem

Filthy bathrooms, dirty pictures, teachers fleeing in droves -- sounds like Apollo Middle School is adrift

The camera pans for about ten seconds across tiles all but hidden by coffee-color dirt, the amber residue of a mysterious fluid, and crumpled toilet paper. Sinks clogged with dark debris jut from the walls. Above them, dingy, half-corroded mirrors produce reflections resembling grainy Polaroids. There are no soap dispensers and no paper-towel holders. The bathroom stalls do not have doors, and the toilets are white, porcelain islands in a sea of dried-up brown liquid. Months-old used sanitary napkins poke over the edge of their designated receptacle. Outside the bathroom, debris clogs a water fountain, dirt left by rats clings to the walls, and a thick layer of dust coats bent air filters. The camera lingers on a fat cockroach browsing through the gunk.

These images -- with their eerie, fetid simplicity -- would be fitting opening shots for a low-budget 1950s horror flick about roaches taking over the world. Instead they appear in Maria Farrell's ten-minute home video documenting Apollo Middle School's custodial problems.

At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998
At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998

During Zekofsky's second year, as the Sosa/Parnham imbroglio raged, Farrell began her own battle against the school's visible filth. The bathrooms were so disgusting, Farrell says, that many kids refused to use them throughout the day.

Farrell, who lives in an immaculate house in Pembroke Pines, is a small woman with long chestnut hair, bangs, and a high voice. Outside the one-story home, her half-moon driveway is lined with orb-shape bushes. She is something of a Donna Reed for the 21st Century, brimming with intellectual curiosity, compassion, and common sense.

Though she makes it a point to stay neutral amid the hostility between teachers and Zekofsky, Farrell doesn't hesitate to pin the sanitation problems on the principal. The combination of low wages and poor leadership, she says, gave custodians little incentive to do their jobs.

Farrell says when she started campaigning for a cleaner school, she had thought she was tackling a fairly straightforward problem. But for months and months, Farrell lobbied for Zekofsky to force custodians to do their jobs. Farrell held countless meetings with Zekofsky and the school's assistant principals -- all of which she meticulously documented in a thick three-ring binder full of typed notes and e-mails. Farrell talked to district administrators, to school board members, and to the school's custodians. Nothing happened.

She even ripped from the wall and placed on Zekofsky's desk an overflowing receptacle for used sanitary napkins that she speculated had not been emptied in months. Everyone, including the principal, told Farrell they would do something, but their words rang empty.

Last spring Farrell listened to so many student complaints about the dirty school that Farrell organized a spring cleaning activity. About 10 percent of students and several faculty members and administrators (including Zekofsky and her husband) showed up on a Saturday to do an exhaustive cleanup of a school that seemed as though a broom or mop hadn't touched it in months.

However, when she saw a whole new layer of dirt build up after the spring cleaning, Farrell says she realized the principal still hadn't gotten the message. "The inspectors come out, show a violation. The principal signs off on it. They come again. The principal signs off on it," Farrell says, lamenting that there was no mechanism in place to make the principal actually do what inspectors prescribed.

Only recently, Farrell says, has the school's cleanliness improved -- but Farrell isn't stopping there. This past month, Farrell has turned up the heat in her quest to make Zekofsky do something about Apollo's lousy air quality. Last year, after hearing teachers' complaints of respiratory problems (coupled with her own daughter's stories of dry air causing her contact lenses to pop out in class), Farrell set up air monitors in several teachers' rooms to gauge carbon dioxide levels. Outside air generally has a rating of 200 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide; experts say inside air should never have more than 600 ppm. Farrell discovered that some rooms had ratings well above 2000 ppm; the teachers in those classrooms generally had above-average numbers of health-related absences.

Farrell has managed to convince school administrators to open the air conditioning vents more so new air comes in instead of recycling the air already in the school. That suggestion, however, did not help matters much.

On March 12 of this year, Farrell wrote a letter to Zekofsky, outlining the problem and presenting the data she gathered from her air monitors. "I am very concerned about the air quality at Apollo Middle School. It was brought to my attention last year and you and I have spoken about it several times," Farrell wrote. She included several pages of evidence that it is difficult for children to learn and teachers to lead classes when the air is so difficult to breathe.

To date, Farrell says, Zekofsky has not responded to her missive.

"I don't understand why my principal couldn't have taken care of this," Farrell laments. "I don't understand why something so serious as the health of our employees wasn't addressed."

The stale air provides a convenient metaphor for what many teachers saw as a suffocating professional atmosphere. After the end of the 1999-2000 school year last June, at least 35 employees bolted from Apollo. "A lot of people were physically and emotionally sick from her," one teacher says. "It's not like it's just you and five others. It's you and twenty others."

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