In the days before COVID-19, I visited hundreds of schools every year.

Some schools were built during the 1930’s, and have been extensively remodeled to accommodate today’s technology requirements.

Some are modern structures that have excellent signage so that visitors know exactly where to park, and exactly where they need to go to sign in and await their tour of the campus.

Others have a sprawling campus that consists of 4 or 5 buildings, and the admissions department isn’t necessarily in the same building as where the main administrative office is located.  If it is in the same building, then there may be a separate entrance for visitors coming to take an admissions tour, visitors coming to the development office, or visitors coming to meet with the head of school to discuss a discipline issue.

Lots of doors, to be sure.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine at the time asked schools what they thought was the most important thing for parents of prospective students to know about their school when they were coming for a tour.  Most schools answered things like student/teacher ratio, a record of excellent academic achievement, or the school’s safe and caring community for each students entrusted to them.

Yes, those are important, and today, your school’s Web site should be telling that story.  But…

If this is the first time a parent is physically visiting the school, they have to be able to find where they need to go to get in.

I’ve visited schools where I’ve walked around the outside of the building several times to find where the main entrance door is.  School leaders were accommodating with directions to get there, but Google Maps and other apps can do that now.  Most schools have buzzers that will let visitors announce their arrival to personnel in the main office.

However, there are places where all the doors are locked, not marked as an entrance, and have no buzzers to alert the office.  In more than one school I’ve visited, I was told that the practice was intentional, since it provided security during the school day.

Unfortunately, it may provide a frustrating experience for parents who want to be a part of your school’s community.  I’ve also been challenged on that answer, where the school said that the school isn’t a community of parents, since, after all, the purpose of the school is the education of the children.

That may be true, but if the parents are paying tuition to send their children to your school, parents are a very important part of your school’s community.  They are your customers.  So are donors.  So are businesses who provide support.

The entrance to the school should be inviting, since, in the mind of today’s parents, it’s all about having a positive emotional experience.  While the first impression of your school is formed via your school’s Web site, the first in-person experience must also be a positive one.  Some landscaping, impressive signage, and safe steps or ramps create a positive experience of feeling welcomed.  The feeling must continue when the parent enters the building.

If there are students in the area, do they greet the visitor, or do they act as if the visitor is a ghost passing among them?

If the parent has to wait, are there chairs provided for them in a comfortable environment, or do they only have room to stand, sometimes as other visitors or students enter, and then must move to make way for a person in the office to exit and run an errand?

I’ve entered schools that have a sign on the door requiring visitors to stop at the main office – but then provide absolutely no direction as to where the main office is located.  It’s expected that teachers will have children read directions on a test before they begin the assessment of their learning, but when directions aren’t provided to parents of prospective students visiting the school, think of the disconnect such a practice conveys to parents or other visitors.  Some school leaders have said that’s because their buildings were designed in the 1930’s, and there’s really no money in the budget to make the renovations necessary to create that type of experience today.

Unfortunately, while parents want a positive and welcoming experience, they also want to know that their kids are safe.  If you’ve been looking for a “case” regarding ways to attract development dollars or a special project which your school’s stakeholders will support, a school’s continued security improvement would be at the top of the list.

It’s been said that you don’t get a second chance to make a good impression.  It’s also true that you don’t get a second chance to continue to make a good impression.  If your Web site creates a good impression to bring parents of prospective children to the door, they need to know where that door is, and, once they enter, they must “feel” a sense of belonging, rather than being “in the way.”  If they are made to feel that they are just another visitor, they may make it a point to find another door…one that’s marked, “Exit.”

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2013-2024