During the initial days of my first principalship, when school started I was surprised by the chaos that transpired as kids gathered outside our building waiting to enter. My predecessor had identified three arriving groups of students: (1) those who walked to school (the walkers), (2) those who arrived by school or daycare buses (the bus riders), and (3) those whose parents drove their children to school and dropped them off (the parent drop-offs).
I hadn’t anticipated the unorderly way each group would arrive. I realized very quickly that it was my responsibility to restructure the process with a focus on the little things that make a big difference. I couldn’t delegate that responsibility. My influence, as the principal, was necessary to bring stakeholders together, organize, and communicate expectations. The outcomes, good or bad, ultimately reflected upon my capacity to lead.
Determine what’s not working and why
First, I analyzed the amount of time necessary for the process of arriving to take place smoothly and safely. Our school officially started at 9:00 a.m., but I noticed that some walkers were arriving on the playground, the designated gathering place on nice-weather days, as early as 8:00 a.m. This resulted in a history of skirmishes between unsupervised kids that created a culture of unrest and anger that sometimes carried into the classrooms. The parents of those students apparently hadn’t been informed to keep their children at home until a designated time.
Second, traffic flow in and out of the school, which was located on a busy street, became chaotic. Add in some rain or snow, and it became a dangerous situation with an accident waiting to happen.
Third, I realized that it took a minimum of 10 minutes for our buses (school-owned buses as well as daycare buses and vans) to arrive, unload, and move on. With parent drop-offs happening simultaneously, the congestion often created a traffic jam. As a result, some students were late to classes through no fault of their own.
Fourth, no adult supervision had been assigned in strategic locations to account for student supervision, management, safety, and direction.
So, how did we improve this process of gathering students each day—which occurs in schools everywhere? And what were the little things that led to big differences?
Every school is situated in a geographically unique setting, but these considerations can help:
- Confirm a timeline of when students can enter designated gathering places (playground, inside multipurpose rooms, classrooms, etc.)—usually 15 to 20 minutes before start time—and communicate that to your students’ parents and other stakeholders. Post that timeline or schedule in a prominent place on the school’s website, entry into the school office, the outside school marquee—anywhere it can be seen and noticed.
- Create a map showing designated drop-off areas with traffic flow. Ask for input and advice from the school’s transportation supervisor and the local police/traffic authorities. Post explanatory signs in drop-off areas. The map should be part of student, parent, and staff newsletters and handbooks. Review your map at every parent gathering.
- Seek assistance from police and traffic patrollers to help direct the flow of traffic in and out of your school.
- For walkers, create a school safety patrol (selected from your oldest students and adult volunteers) and post those individuals at busy intersections and other elevated-risk locations that the walkers use. Encourage parents to designate an adult to walk with and supervise groups of neighborhood students to and from school each day.
- Develop a schedule of adult supervision at the entry location(s) of walkers, bus riders, and parent drop-offs. Adhere to agreements that may be established in employee contracts. A negotiated agreement might specify how many minutes a teacher/staff member can be assigned a duty. Teach your expectations for adult supervision, and do not accept mediocrity.
- Coordinate a strict arrival time with your bus drivers. They can coordinate and align themselves utilizing mobile communications and connect with the adults (including you) who are supervising the process at the school.
- Develop plans for all types of weather and other factors that might impact the in-and-out traffic flow and the safety of students and adults.
- Strategically assign adults to supervise locations where students depart buses and parents stop their cars to drop off their children. An adult who can be coached to greet children, parents, and bus drivers with a smile and warm welcome will help set the tone for the entire day.
- Students need to be taught how to come together in an orderly manner and line up for entry into the building at a designated time, commonly signaled by a bell or whistle. Classroom teachers should meet their students at the door.
- A wise principal is visible in all strategic locations, greeting people, communicating expectations, assisting, supervising, and constantly evaluating the morning gathering process for continuous improvement. Make sure you spend equitable amounts of time at each location, and provide constructive feedback.
You cannot underestimate the importance of paying attention to little details unique to your setting, especially those that impact student safety, communication of expectations with adults, staff supervision, and neighborhood stakeholders.
When you achieve success, attention to little details should be replicated to enhance a smooth, effective dismissal process, keeping many of the same considerations established for the morning procedures in mind. Your attention to and command of the multifaceted factors impacting students’ school entry and exit each day will be appreciated and praised by parents.