Imagine that you are driving or walking up to a school you frequent. It may be the school your children or grandchildren attend, one you work in, or one in your neighbourhood. Close your eyes and visualize the school. What signs do you see as you pull up in your car or walk up to the school on foot? Do a mental walk around the exterior of the school building. What signs are evident – in the parking lot, posted on the exterior of the school, on entrance ways? What are the messages that you are immediately presented with? Now mentally enter the front entrance of the school. What are the messages you are greeted with inside the school – in the foyer, the front office, the hallways?
A climate of regulation
Since the signage at schools is typically very uniform, I am certain you will have visualized signs surrounding the school such as, “Park only in designated areas,” “Staff parking only,” or “Not a student drop-off or pick-up zone.” As you walked around the exterior of the school, you will have been informed of all the things that are not allowed on school grounds: “Smoking prohibited,” “No dogs allowed on school grounds,” and perhaps, “No bicycles,” “No skateboards,” and “No rollerblades” as well. As you walked into the school entrance, you will have been asked to “Remove all wet or muddy footwear” and told that “All visitors must report to the school office.” Upon moving further into the school, you may have met with messages that said, “No food or drink in the auditorium,” “Staff only,” or, “This door must remained locked at all times.”
In the name of efficiency, safety and liability, educators post signs like these all over their schools and school grounds. Inadvertently, they create a climate for parents and for family and community members that positions them as trespassers, as unwanted guests, as intruders. They send a message that the school is only a place to be when they have an official role to play, when they have been invited, when they remain in designated spaces, and when they follow the rules the school has set out for them. Parents, family and community members experience the school through a climate of regulation: one of control and of rules and directives.
A climate of invitation
Let’s now c ontrast this experience of entering a school landscape with the experience of going to visit someone’s home. This time, imagine you are walking up to or entering the home of friends, neighbours, or family members. What do you visualize as you drive up to their house or walk up their sidewalk? What signs might they have posted or what messages might be evident in their yard, on their porch, or on their front door? As you walk inside, what further messages greet you?
Some of the first things you may have noticed when you made your imaginary visit to friends or family were the plants or flowers in their yard or the objects on their lawn or front step. Perhaps they had a welcome mat at their threshold, a wreath or decorative item on their door, a light turned on, or perhaps a seasonal display to greet you. As you stepped inside, did you find a chair or a bench to sit down in, a place to remove your shoes or to linger? Did you see family photos, artwork, or signs like “Families are forever” or “Together is a beautiful place to be?”
When people establish and decorate their homes, they typically do it with the intention of creating a feeling of welcome for the visitors who come to see them. They want their guests to feel an immediate extension of their hospitality, their friendship, their warmth and caring. They purposefully and consciously create a climate of invitation.
Creating a safe school climate
It is not difficult to understand why a climate of regulation is so pervasive in schools. When hundreds of people enter and exit a building on a daily basis, educators are concerned with maintaining the orderly flow of traffic and the school’s cleanliness. More importantly, they are concerned with school safety: ensuring that the individuals who are entering the school have a legitimate reason for being in the school or on the school grounds and ensuring that individuals who have an intention to harm, whether through gangs, drugs, violence, theft, abduction, or any other form of threat to person or property, are kept outside the school landscape. Besides posting regulatory signs such as those stating that all visitors must report to the office, school personnel may enhance their safety measures through such practices as hiring security guards, mounting security cameras, enacting sign-in and sign-out procedures, or locking their school doors after classes are underway. As school safety and security measures increase, schools become places that are less accessible to parents and community members, less inviting and welcoming.
We must ask ourselves what is lost in schools when educators trade off a welcoming climate to get what they believe will be a safer or more regulated school. As Delgado-Gaitan states, “. . . the major reasons that parents do not participate in schools are primarily structural: Schools either include or exclude parents.” When my eldest son, Cohen, was in Kindergarten, the Kindergarten dismissal hours were earlier than those of the rest of the school. To prevent any noise or disruption in school corridors for other classes still in session, we parents were told that we were to stand outside the school each day when we arrived to pick up our children, until the teacher’s assistant came to let us in. I remember feeling like I had been slapped when I heard this announcement. I felt untrusted and disrespected; I felt a deep sense of alienation from the school. This early experience as a parent on a school landscape shaped all of my experiences to follow. Throughout my three boys’ schooling, in three different Canadian provinces and in both elementary and secondary schools, I continued to feel uneasy in their schools and tentative about my presence there. I did not linger when I dropped my children off or picked them up, nor did I enter the school landscape without an invitation. As Delgado-Gaitan indicates, I felt largely excluded.
We must ask ourselves what is lost when educators trade off a welcoming climate to get what they believe will be a safer or more regulated school.
What is lost when parents, family and community members feel excluded from our schools? There is an extensive and conclusive body of literature in the field that demonstrates the impact parent engagement has on student achievement and on other educational outcomes such as attendance, behaviour, on-time course completion and graduation rates, and an increased likelihood of movement into postsecondary education. In 2002, Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp analyzed 80 studies of parent engagement, preschool through high school. They found that “when schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.” Since parent engagement makes a difference to educational outcomes for students, I believe maintaining a climate of regulation in our schools, at the cost of the exclusion of many parents and community members, is too big a price to pay.
A safe AND welcoming school climate
So, a critical question to ask is: how do educators establish a climate that makes schools both safe and welcoming? Princess Alexandra Community School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, gives us a way of thinking about this question. Princess Alexandra is located in the Riversdale neighbourhood in the city’s core, a neighbourhood in which the complexities and multi-faceted nature of poverty play themselves out. Combined with the adjoining neighbourhood of Pleasant Hill, Riversdale has the highest crime rates in the city. Regardless of these statistics, the staff at Princess Alexandra decided to take down all of the regulatory and unwelcoming signs – including signs asking visitors entering the building to report to the office – in order to create an inviting climate and to engage parents and family members in their children’s schooling. Instead, they taught everyone within their school to be “greeters.” They introduced and discussed the concept at a school assembly and they continue to practice and reinforce it.
Any time I enter Princess Alexandra, I am warmly greeted, and often multiple times. The greetings may come from a passing student, from a teacher or staff member, or perhaps a parent or community member who happens to be there when I enter. From the people who know me, I hear such greetings as, “Welcome! It’s good to see you.” From those who do not know me, I may hear, “Hello, my name is ____. How can I help you?” After I’ve introduced myself and/or shared my reason for being there, I am asked if I need help finding my way or if I would like a cup of coffee. Within a moment of entering the building, I am noticed, greeted, assisted, and welcomed. It always feels so good to be there!
Consider receiving this greeting, though, if I am an individual who does not have a legitimate purpose for being at Princess Alexandra. Imagine my feeling when I enter the building and someone immediately notices my presence, stops to speak directly to me, and asks me if I need help. What do I say? What do I do then? While in most instances, the greeting extended at Princess Alexandra is intended to be a form of welcoming, it also serves as a form of “natural surveillance.” The “greeters” at Princess Alexandra are highly visible because they make direct contact with those who visit their school. Through their casual greetings, it is apparent to visitors that individuals at Princess are observing their environment and awake to the people and activities around them. For someone ill-intentioned, this signals an increased risk of being caught and acts as a deterrent, both to remaining in the school and to perpetrating the intended act.
The result of Princess Alexandra’s efforts to welcome and engage parents, family, and community members is that there are a larger number of people within the school and on the school grounds, and traveling back and forth to the school, who know and care about the students, and who are able to watch out for and protect them. While parent engagement is typically conceptualized as a strategy to enhance the learning outcomes of students, it is simultaneously a “people-oriented crime prevention strategy.” Parents and family members have first-hand knowledge of the communities in which they live and of who belongs in their communities. Just as with community-based crime prevention and crime interruption programs such as Citizen Patrols, Community Watch, and Community Mobilization Movements, it is the web of relationships among people and their connectedness to one another and to the school community that will keep our children safe in schools. “A trusted neighbour is one of the most effective crime prevention tools ever created” – at home and at school.
By replacing climates of regulation in our schools with climates of invitation, thus creating more space and possibility for parents and family members to be present on school landscapes, we achieve two significant outcomes. We create opportunities for parents to be included in the teaching and learning of their children, enriching opportunities to enhance student outcomes in academic and in social/behavioural ways. We also create webs of connection and relationship in our schools that provide a people-oriented approach to safety, placing the leadership and ownership for the well-being of students in a greater number of caring hands.
First published in Education Canada, June 2013
EN BREF – Pourquoi, sous prétexte de sécurité, les écoles deviennent-elles des lieux inhospitaliers aux parents, aux familles et aux membres de la collectivité? Pourquoi ont-elles tendance à leur fermer la porte ou à les réglementer? Pourquoi les éducateurs croient-ils devoir sacrifier un environnement accueillant au profit de la sécurité? Cet article examine et compare la notion d’un climat réglementé à l’école à celle d’un climat invitant. Les lecteurs sont amenés à prendre conscience de la façon dont un climat invitant à l’école peut stimuler la participation des parents, des membres de la famille et des membres de la collectivité, tout en accroissant la sécurité des enfants et des adolescents à l’école.
 A. T. Henderson and K. L. Mapp, A New Wave of Evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement (for the National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools, Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2002). http://www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf
 J. Cooper, “Concentration of Poverty in Riversdale,” JordanCooper.com: A weblog about urbanism, technology, & culture (October 4, 2010). http://www.jordoncooper.com/2010/10/concentration-of-poverty-in-riversdale
 British Columbia Criminal Justice Reform, Community Crime Prevention Guide (undated). http://www.criminaljusticereform.gov.bc.ca/en/what_you_can_do/crime_prevention/index.html
 Saskatoon Police Service website, “Community Watch” (2013). http://police.saskatoon.sk.ca/index.php?loc=programs/community_watch.php