Your first impression of a school is important

They tell much about what a school values

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

What do you see when you first walk into a school?  Every week I visit several schools in this or other states. The differences are dramatic.  First impressions are important, whether for individual or an institution, I think what a school chooses to display in its “front hall” or entry area tells you a lot about what the school values most.

Some schools, whether elementary, middle or high school, focus on pictures of young people who are excellent athletes. I’ve walked into a number of schools that feature pictures of young people who have been named “all conference” or “all state,” or have helped the school win an athletic championship.

Some schools have pictures that display a broader range of accomplishment.  In these schools, a visitor encounters young people who have won art, agriculture,  dance, drama, math, music, history, science, spelling or special education competitions, as well as those who are outstanding athletes.  The teachers/coaches who worked with these teams often are included.

Some places have “student of the month” awards for various accomplishments.  Some will honor “most improved” students.

To be fair, sometimes students who excel in academics also are outstanding in academics or some form of artistic expression.

Sometimes schools have pictures of students who are carrying out some form of community service. I’ve seen young people helping  to clean up a forest, working with senior citizens, tutoring younger students or creating booklets and oral histories of their community.

Some schools display trophies or other forms of recognition that students have won. Once again, the range of recognition varies. Sometimes the trophies are only from athletics, and sometimes there is a broader array presented.

Some schools also have pictures of family and community members who have provided outstanding service to the school.  You sometimes find pictures of outstanding graduates. I’ve seen pictures of former legislators, pro football or hockey players, governors and a Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

A growing number of schools highlight the two and four-year colleges that their graduates are attending. These schools also note which students have graduated from these programs to help promote and encourage the value of ongoing learning.

The wisest schools honor a wide range of accomplishment.  They recognize and convey the value of arts, academics, athletics and service. They honor families and other community members who have made important contributions to the school and its students.

And they include the teachers/coaches who have helped young people achieve, often more than the young people thought possible.

First impressions often are lasting impressions. Since schools aim to help young people develop an array of talents and knowledge, shouldn’t they make this clear as people first walk into their building?

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College

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