Grade Your Schools

In an age of accountability, school report cards, proficiency tests and national standards, is there any time left in a principal’s day to worry about the school’s appearance? Today, the emphasis is on instructional leadership, curriculum development and student achievement, not traditional management skills. The emphasis on instruction is appropriate, but principals must also pay attention to the school’s image in the community.

In a search of the literature, a principal’s responsibility for maintaining the buildings and grounds was not to be found. In interviews with 10 principals, not one principal listed the school’s appearance as a top priority. In fact, the principals did not have a single goal addressing this issue in their goal statements. As one principal said,“My superintendent is only interested in the bottom line — higher test scores. I do not have the time to worry about the looks of my building. My custodian handles those issues.” Another principal worried about sending the wrong message to the faculty and community:“I do not have enough resources for some basic instructional materials. How will my staff react if I spend precious resources on beautification projects? I will lose credibility with them.” A first-year principal questioned the efficacy of his principal preparation program as he recalled his academic experiences. “The entire program was focused on the principal as instructional leader. I do not remember a single instructor discussing the importance of building maintenance or the need to worry about the community’s ‘first impressions’ of the school. This issue has not been on my radar screen.”

Principals are survivors who place their emphasis on the issues that are important to the district and to their professional growth. Unfortunately, such attitudes towards the buildings and grounds could come back to haunt many school administrators and, ultimately, their districts. With an aging population and tighter government budgets, the public’s first impressions of a community’s schools might very well spell the difference between success and failure at the next election when the district asks the community for more money. People will have questions. If we no longer have children in the schools, how will we judge the effectiveness of the schools? How will we judge the quality of the schools? If we never enter the schools, will we judge the quality of the instructional program by our impressions of the school from the highway? If the school buildings are seen as a liability to our property values, will we support the schools? If a principal cannot maintain the buildings and grounds of a school, why should we trust that the instructional program is any better? Before principals dismiss the legitimacy of these questions, they should seriously consider the implications of neglecting the school buildings.

In 30 years of public education, I learned the importance of school maintenance from community members. In my first year as a principal, the parent of a prospective student asked to see a restroom during our tour of the building. She commented, “The first thing I do when I visit a school is to check out the nearest restroom. Invariably, the school’s educational program is in about the same condition as the bathroom.” As a superintendent, I was reminded of the importance of the district’s buildings at my first meeting with a local service group. An elderly gentleman made the following observation. “I graduated from the high school 50 years ago, and I still love to drive by the school. In fact, I always take visitors by the schools because they are so beautiful.” He also reminded me of my responsibility as the new superintendent to maintain these beautiful buildings. I got the message, and, hopefully, principals will too. First impressions are important, and proper maintenance of the buildings and grounds must be a priority for educational leaders.

The following recommendations are presented as talking points or suggestions for principals to consider as they prepare for the next school year.

1. Ask another administrator or a friend to drive by your school occasionally and give you his/her first impressions of the building and grounds. In a principal’s busy life, it is often easy to lose focus on one or more of the many administrative functions of the position. We all need friendly reminders to refocus our priorities during a hectic school year. A local real estate agent might give you a “curb appeal” report. As superintendent, I walked by each building in the district every week to check the curb appeal. The principals came to expect the little notes and friendly reminders; I even a pulled weed or two. As one principal jokingly said, “We knew you visited last night when we saw a pile of weeds on the sidewalk. Very subtle!” Even if a head custodian has primary responsibility for building maintenance, a weekly check by the principal can reinforce the importance of the custodian’s position and the crucial role custodians play in the school’s success. It is also important to review the custodian’s job description, particularly the sections on functions, typical tasks and minimum qualifications. The principal’s efforts to maintain the appearance of the building will be thwarted if the custodial staff is not qualified for the responsibility.

2. Involve the students in maintaining a building’s appeal. For example, some high schools sponsor an annual Spring Clean-Up Day or a Curb Appeal Day before opening day. Principals might consider adapting a program similar to the highly successful “Adopt a Highway” program by working with the school’s student organizations and asking them to adopt the school for a month. Planting flowers, purchasing a bench and donating a tree could all be worthwhile projects for student groups. In one school, the student government honors a former teacher each year by planting a tree in the school’s “Honor Grove.” School beautification should not be a principal’s responsibility alone. Use a whole-school approach to integrate environmental education into a school beautification project. As an example of how this works in one community, children and parents planted hundreds of bushes around their schools. Barren areas were transformed into pleasant working environments, as well as an attraction for birds.

3. With shrinking budgets and increased demands to support the instructional process, reach out to community groups for assistance in maintaining the building and grounds. A local landscaping company might be willing to redesign your entranceway for some free publicity. A garden club could meet at the school’s library in exchange for some support with a flower-planting project. This would be a wonderful opportunity to create a partnership between a student organization and an outside community group. Exchanging services with the local government is a great way to show the community that the public entities are working together for the benefit of the entire community. In one community, the school board had staff help with snow removal during critical times, while the city watered the flowers in front of the schools during the summer.

4. In addition to the casual “first impressions” expectation, carry out a detailed audit of the building and grounds at least once a year. This audit should serve as a guide for the budgeting process not only for the school but also for parent organizations. The audit could also be useful as a tool to assess the overall school safety program. External hazards, faulty equipment and critical maintenance needs could all be identified during such an audit. With the realities of limited funds, a multi-year plan should be established to outline maintenance and beautification needs, while at the same time, creating a timeline for the improvements. Such a plan should also keep the projects focused on a central theme, thus avoiding a hodgepodge approach to the building’s landscape. Some schools have created a Landscape Guiding Committee composed of parents, staff, interested community members and students. The ultimate aim of all these efforts is to encourage the whole community to act jointly to maintain the community’s biggest investment and to create an attractive, nurturing environment for the children.

5. In the budgeting process, establish guidelines for the allocation of district and building funds. Clearly, instructional support programs should receive the bulk of the monies. Even so, a percentage should be directed to the buildings and grounds. Without some type of formula, there will be great pressure to reallocate maintenance monies to support special academic programs or the school’s general instructional needs. Eventually, the “first impressions” of the school might be the least of a principal’s problems. Deferred maintenance can ultimately lead to major structural defects and costly construction projects that can take away scarce resources from the instructional program. Maintenance of the building and grounds must be one of the ongoing concerns of a principal. The old adage “Pay me now or pay me later” applies to this situation.

6. Rethink the use of school grounds as places for outdoor learning and environmental education. School grounds may contain useful instructional habitats, such woodlands and meadows. They may also have gardens from which herbs, flowers and vegetables could be harvested. School grounds are potential educational spaces where concepts taught within the school building can come alive to students and could include outdoor learning spaces adaptable to many types of activities. These may include various seating areas, amphitheaters, steps, planters or benches.

Research shows that students better absorb and retain math, science, language arts and other skills when they incorporate the immediate environment and make use of all five senses. The monies spent on the grounds could be justified not only on the basis of beautification, but also on the benefits to the children’s educational program. A research project in England, headed by Wendy Titman, explored the hidden curriculum of school grounds and concluded that school grounds have become increasingly important to children in modern society. The study found that children’s attitudes and behavior are influenced to a considerable extent by the design and management of the school grounds. The research is available at

7. When attempting to redesign a school site, take inventory of available community and human resources. Volunteer labor and donated materials can play an important role in a project’s success. Involving students in assessments of existing school grounds is an excellent way to solicit feedback. While advanced planning is crucial to the success of such a project, a redesign of school grounds will require ample time. A period of five years is not unusual. With the commitment of school staff, plans will be changed and adapted as needed. Remember that unlike a school facility that is completed on a specific date, school grounds take years to develop and grow. Trees, grass, gardens and fields will need constant care and attention.

If possible, retain the services of a landscape architect who can provide valuable guidance regarding site improvement and integrating environmental concerns, and who can help the district avoid costly mistakes. Many architectural and engineering firms provide landscape architectural and environmental planning services in-house. Local college and university landscape architecture departments may also be helpful, as well as local government agencies, such as the Cooperative Extension and Soil Conservation Service. A university or government agency might provide the services at little or no cost.

8. Many schools have Websites that serve as excellent information tools. Does your Website have a facilities section? Is there any mention of the buildings and grounds? Are there any pictures? Do you provide “first impressions” of your school? Increasingly, parents who are relocating are using these Websites in their search for a new school. A review of other school Websites might serve as an excellent way to reevaluate your own site.

Today’s demands on principals are significant. Principals must continue to reassess their priorities as new challenges and opportunities are presented each and every year. However, they must put the “first impressions” of their schools on the radar screen. In the long run, the issue is too important to ignore or to relegate to the back burner. As you review these recommendations, keep in mind the following statement by a retiring principal. “I always felt that the general appearance of our school’s campus influenced the community’s impressions of the school and had an effect on the entire community. There was a pride in the school that went well beyond our excellent academic program. I could not quantify the importance of the school’s appearance as I could our test scores, but there was no question of its importance to our reputation.”

Timothy J. Ilg, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of Dayton, can be reached at 937/229-3736.