Making an Entrance

Think of a place where you feel welcome as soon as you arrive. For some people, that place might be home; for others, someplace where they eat, play, work, or shop; for others, a favorite vacation spot. When you think of places that feel welcoming to you, does your school come to mind? If not, or if this is an area where you think your school could improve, some simple changes can help.

Although many factors help create a welcoming school environment, one natural place to start is with the entrance to the school building. Beginnings matter a great deal, and this is where the school day begins. Let’s look at some strategies you can use to welcome students, staff, and visitors from the moment they arrive.

Take a cue from the classroom

Schools can find many ways to adapt effective classroom practices so that students feel welcome from the moment they arrive at school. For instance, at Dame School in Concord, New Hampshire, adults stationed in the hallways act as greeters each morning as children arrive, just as teachers greet students when they enter their classrooms. And at Sarasota Suncoast Academy in Sarasota, Florida, the principal and office staffers start the day outside in the drop-off area, greeting students one-by-one and checking in with parents briefly at their car doors.

Change the look—and feel

Simple changes to the entrance and hallways can make a big difference in setting a positive tone for students. Try one of these ideas:

  • Write a welcoming message on a chart displayed near the main entrance. (Try sharing this responsibility with other staff members—students will enjoy hearing from all of you!)
  • Display student work visibly and proudly, and commit to changing displays regularly so that all children get time in the spotlight.
  • Use photographs of students and staff in displays to help everyone in the school get to know each other

Make the workplace more inviting

A welcoming entrance helps the adults who work in a school get off to a good start, too. Arriving at a workplace where attention is paid to details such as cleanliness, decluttering, and keeping hallway displays up-to-date sends the message that leaders—and the whole school community—care about the environment and those who spend time there.

You might even start outside, in the parking lot, since that’s the place where most adults begin their days. Adults need to feel safe at school, just as students do, so it’s important to make sure that pathways to and from parking areas to the building are clear and well-lit. And what do the parking arrangements at your school convey about who’s important (or not)? At my school when we looked at this issue, we decided to do away with assigned parking spaces for everyone but visitors.

As adults move from the parking lot into the building, welcome them inside in ways that help them feel significant. One powerful way I’ve seen schools do this is by displaying staff hopes and dreams for the school year near the front door. This way of highlighting adult learning goals also conveys to students that your whole school is a learning community.

Welcome guests

Finally, try to see the entrance to your school from one more perspective: that of a guest. Who might visit on a typical day? Once you start thinking, you may come up with a pretty wide-ranging list: parents and other members of students’ families; volunteers; district administrators; reporters; delivery people—just to name a few! Changes made with staff and students in mind may benefit these occasional guests, but if they’re unfamiliar with your building, they may need some additional help.

Through my work as a Responsive Classroom consulting administrator, I’ve visited lots of schools, so I have firsthand experience with how it feels to be a guest. I know how off-putting it can feel to arrive and find that there’s no parking for visitors—or that the entrance to the building is not clearly marked.

I also know what a difference a warm greeting and a friendly smile can make to help a new arrival feel welcome. An uncluttered main office, a waiting area with adult-sized furniture, and signage that helps me find my way through the building makes a big difference, too.

Get started

A building’s entryways offer school leaders opportunities to make concrete and significant changes rather quickly. You may need to enlist some pairs of “fresh eyes” to help you see what to do. To get a visitor’s perspective, have a friend who’s not involved with the school do a walkthrough and tell you what he or she saw. Involve staff, students, and parents by telling them you’re interested in making the school’s entrance more welcoming, and you want their suggestions. Choose one or two things to try right away, and then convene a group to continue the process. You’re likely to start noticing the positive effects right away!

Karen Casto recently became director of professional services for Northeast Foundation for Children, developer of the Responsive Classroom approach. Before that, she was a Responsive Classroom consulting administrator and principal of Penn Valley Elementary School. She is also co-author of In Our School.

Tags: Arrival time, Building Schoolwide Community