‘Above and beyond in every way’: Palatine school custodian wins national honor

  Teachers and students cheer on Lincoln Elementary School custodian Mario Diaz Albarran as he received a Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award from the U.S. Department of Education during a ceremony Monday morning in Palatine. Paul Valade/
  Lincoln Elementary School custodian Mario Diaz Albarran, center, is escorted by Interim Principal Michael Coleman as he enters the gym Monday to a host of cheering teachers and students. Albarran was surprised Monday with a Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award from the U.S. Department of Education. Paul Valade/
  U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announces via a Zoom call that Lincoln Elementary School custodian Mario Albarran received a national Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award. Albarran, second from left, listens to Cardona on a large screen in the gym with his family. Paul Valade/

Mario Diaz Albarran’s goal as head custodian at Lincoln Elementary School in Palatine is to serve the kids and make a difference in their lives.

After Monday’s assembly in the school gym, he should have no doubt about whether he’s accomplishing that aim.

As dozens of students roared their approval and chanted his name, Diaz Albarran received the U.S. Department of Education’s Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award in a surprise ceremony attended by his family, the state’s top education official and, virtually, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The yearly honor recognizes a classified school employee — a category that includes workers in transportation, food and nutrition services and skilled trades — for promoting quality education, fostering safe and positive learning environments, and ensuring student success.

Diaz Albarran, who has six children with his wife, Melissa, said his job is personal for him.

“I have kids of my own that go to school. I want to make sure I take care of this school like if my kids were in here themselves,” he said.

The award was kept secret until the last minute, and Diaz Albarran admitted he was taken by surprise when he walked into the assembly Monday.

“I'm very thankful to God that I get to work with kids,” he said.

The 32-year-old Lake Zurich resident has worked in Palatine Township Elementary School District 15 for five years. He attended District 15 schools while growing up in Palatine and developed special relationships with his teachers that he has tried to emulate in serving as a mentor for Lincoln students.

“Mario’s childhood experiences have helped him connect with students, serve as a role model, and embody our shared belief that all students can achieve anything they set their minds to,” District 15 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said.

Diaz Albarran has an especially strong connection to the students in Lincoln Elementary’s STAR program for students with social, emotional, and/or behavioral learning needs. The program rewards students’ positive behavior by allowing them to spend time helping Diaz Albarran.

During cafeteria cleanup, he will impart helpful advice.

“Mr. Diaz is important to us because he teaches kids like me how to stay out of trouble and do our best,” said a sixth grade student.

Outside of school, Diaz Albarran is a youth counselor at his church. His two worlds collided one time when he and a group from the church hosted an outdoor movie night with popcorn for students who live in an apartment community in Palatine.

“Mario is just an amazing individual in every capacity,” Interim Lincoln Principal Michael Coleman said.

If anyone is struggling or needs a helping hand, Diaz Albarran is the first one to reach out and make sure that the kids are supported, Coleman added.

“Mario brings his entire heart to his work every single day he comes in here,” he said. “He cares about our kids. He goes above and beyond in every way that you can possibly imagine.”

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