School Advancement Through Visual Communication
In an era of choice, it is essential to understand that current and prospective parents and donors must feel inspired by the work we do in our schools. One study showed that, “where schools are concerned, [parents believe] that a visual impression can afford an accurate means of assessing the performance of the school. In other words, even if parents rely only on visual cues, they can still make a reliable assessment of the school’s educational quality” (Emily Van Dunk and Anneliese Dickman, School Choice and the Question of Accountability). If parents believe they can rely only on visual impressions to make enrollment decisions, it is vital to be thoughtful and proactive in your visual communication.
In admission, development, and marketing and communications, we often work with people who are encountering the school for the first time—people who notice things the rest of us don’t see anymore. At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, we convened a group of thoughtful professionals to act as the Committee of First Impressions to assess what a visitor to our school might experience. This group included leaders and representatives from various offices and stakeholders to ensure broad input and acceptance of the committee’s eventual recommendations, as well as members from our arts faculty who have expertise in visual design. We further benefitted from the input and advice from two parents who have backgrounds in interior design and architecture. They acted as advisors throughout this process as we examined everything from mundane details such as signage and parking, to larger questions such as, what stories are we telling through the student work on the walls?
When our committee met, we walked all the way out to the street to put ourselves in the shoes of a first-time visitor. We began to understand some of the major tensions and challenges in creating a thoughtfully designed space and are still working to address some of these issues.
Security v. Welcome: How do we balance a secure school with a welcoming school? Think about the barriers to entry such as security doors and signs that are there to protect students. In what ways can you prioritize security in such a way that still allows visitors to feel welcome?
Ownership: No single person or office is in charge of first impressions. At our school, this effort includes our offices of maintenance, facilities, security, marketing and communication, development and enrollment. Additionally, the faculty, the student body, and our parent association all leave their mark on the school. These various groups, each with disparate goals, have to work together to determine what to visually communicate, and then decide how all groups are going to work in concert to implement that vision.
Cost: As with all schools, we want to be fiscally conservative in our spending. Look at your school and determine what can be done for free or for very little money. Save the larger expenditures to discuss when you are setting the budget for the following year. We discovered that there were a lot of changes we could implement without spending much, and could then triage more expensive projects for future years as they aligned naturally with other strategic, schoolwide initiatives.
Time: We’re all very busy, and the communal areas of our school belong to everyone and to no one. There isn’t any person who makes maintaining communal spaces a priority in their work day. We must develop a community of caretakers in our schools. This culture shift stems from the shared vision of what we’d like to communicate and is then supported by clear protocols around maintaining spaces that allows or assigns time to faculty and administrators to carry out these tasks. How this manifests will depend on school culture, but it might mean a schedule for maintenance and upkeep of public spaces, or time set aside for these purposes in the master schedule as an additional “duty” that faculty and administrators take on.
Training and Communal Responsibility: Once the Committee of First Impressions has agreed upon the goals, standards, and protocols, everyone has an opportunity to help with implementation. Faculty and staff must work together to answer questions such as: Who posts work on bulletin boards, and what associated information must be included to make the student work come to life? How will they be maintained? Who is responsible to post and remove parent and student event flyers? How can we keep the hallways clear of student backpacks?
You will have to determine how best to address these challenges in a way that fits within your school culture. It is not possible to address every challenge at once, but it is wise to start with determining the messages you’d like to communicate. When you think about your own school community, what is your competitive advantage? It is important to recognize your distinctive features and the benefits of your program in order to clearly make the case to visitors. One school administrator in Philadelphia decided that the school needed to plant flowers out front to appeal to more middleand upper-middle-class parents. “He did not want flowers around the school merely because they created a more positive environment for the students; instead, flowers would make the school appealing to discriminating adults and, hence, better able to compete with private schools for such families” (Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities).
At our school, we wanted to do more to show off the education going on in our classrooms. One approach was to analyze the use of bulletin boards in the school. Over the summer we purchased more bulletin boards (all in the same size, style, and color), and moved several others from underused hallways to the main corridor. With faculty representatives and parent input, we developed guidelines for teachers to use when placing student work on bulletin boards. We wanted to communicate what the students were learning, the essential questions and enduring understandings of the lessons, and why this work was important. We’ve launched this initiative in a few classes this year with our early adopters, and have had amazing feedback. Students are proud to show off their work, and parents not only see their children’s work but have a context to understand it. Now, when we ask donors and prospective parents what they notice during their tours of the school, the number one comment we’ve received is about the student work on the walls and how it stands out from other schools they’ve visited.
Start by looking afresh at your facility and trying to discern the stories you are telling. What can visitors learn about the school’s values, educational philosophy, community, and culture when they walk into your space? When school leaders intentionally construct the physical space, they can positively impact enrollment, gifts to development, faculty and staff morale, and the overall culture of your institution.