I spend a lot of time talking to my graduate students in education administration about school climate – specifically, what makes a school feel comfortable and welcoming to both students and their families. We talk about open doors, displays of kids’ work, simple courtesy, and yes, even signage.
So I went to pick up the preschooler the other day at the elementary school that has a dozen or so signs reserving all the prime parking spaces for the principal and everyone else with an official title. Physically it is a beautiful brand new school, but it is Exhibit A when it comes to what to avoid if you want a school that’s inviting.
Only one of the several doors in the main entrance is unlocked, and since it’s not marked, your first annoyance is having to try several doors before finding the right one. (This is a ridiculous policy that many schools have adopted. Please tell me how only having one door unlocked makes kids safer.) The signs on the doors say, “Visitors must report to the main office,” not “Guests should please sign in at the main office.”
The glass walls of the main office are smoked, so you only make out dim figures within. The overhead lights are off, and the only light is a lamp on the secretary’s desk. The office has all the charm of the viewing room at your local funeral home and all the warmth of the waiting room when your Lexus is being serviced. All sounds are muffled, and if you didn’t know it, you’d never guess that on the other side of the smoked glass are hundreds of little kids. But inside the glass there is no sound, no light, no kids’ art, no kids period.
So I look for the book to sign in, and the secretary directs me to a huge screen on the counter. “Just touch the screen and follow the directions,” she says. I’m about to say, “Are you kidding me? Could you think of one more way to show you don’t want to know the families in this school?” But instead I turn to the screen and try to navigate my way through myriad questions. When I am finally finished, the secretary instructs me to line up in front of the camera. Obediently I line up and touch the screen. The camera flashes. “You can take it again if you don’t like the picture,” the secretary says. I check to see if she is joking. She is not.
I can’t resist asking, “How much does this system cost?” She smiles like it’s not the first time someone has asked this question. “Nothing yet,” she says. “It’s a trial period.”
The machine spits out a nametag with my picture on it. “Now you can go to the preschool office and sign in, “ the secretary says. As I leave the office, I look back. There are four moms waiting to go through the same procedure. Their arms are loaded with what looks like stuff for a class party.
I’ve been to the school several times. I’ve never seen the principal. I’ve never seen the assistant principal. The halls are silent, the classroom doors are closed, and there are no children’s papers or artwork in the halls. It is clean, efficient, and joyless.
The preschooler will go to kindergarten at a different elementary school.