Check Out the Public Face of Your School

The Dim Bulb

The Occasional Musings of an Educator

by Michael Keany

The brain is capable of performing 10 quadrillion (that’s 10 to the 16th) “calculations,” or synaptic events, per second using only about 15 watts of power. At this rate, a computer as powerful as the human brain would require 1 gigawatt of power. Maybe a dim bulb isn't really as dim as it seems.

The photo at the left is the Livermore Centennial bulb, the world's longest burning electric bulb. 

Number 1

February 25, 2011


Any business would know that the public face it presents to the world at large is extremely important.  Millions are spent on branding.  More millions are spent on protecting that brand.  Sub-industries spout up to train employees who are on the front line how to deal with customers and potential customers.  Public relations, not to mention advertising, consumes a big fraction of budgets.  


How about schools?  Not so much!


For some reason, money spent on the public face of a school district is viewed as wasteful.  The quarterly newsletter for the community is farmed out to a part-timer or a regional service.  The issue usually contains photos of many kids, all happy achievers, usually standing with their principal who is presenting an award.  Graphs and charts are presented at budget time to educate the taxpayer.  Some of the better publications contain a letter from the Superintendent which asks the community resident to consider an issue facing the district or education at large.  Web sites vary greatly in quality and usefulness.  A few are quite professional and designed with ease of use and access to information as prime considerations. Many are not.


First line employees, such as secretaries, custodians, aides, and other support staff receive little or no formal training in how to deal with the public.  Most are friendly; some perceive a contact with the public as a nuisance and an annoyance.  The quality of the resulting contact is more a factor of the employee's personality than any planned and coordinated approach.


I think it is very important for school leaders to check out the public face of their school periodically.  Try this.  Invent a problem.  Pretend, for example, to be a new parent in the community who has a special needs child.  Go to the district's website.  Is it easy to find out who to contact?  Does the web site seem friendly and inviting or cool and uninviting?  Make a phone call.  Is the first greeting warm?  First impressions are so very important.  Can that first person help you or are you shuffled from office to office?  Does the person on the other end of the line make you feel as though your problem is her/his problem?  


The next time you go into your building take note of the official greeter.  Although it may be a security person, is the visitor greeted with respect or suspect?  I travel to many schools in my work.  One of the more challenging schools I visit has a security presence in the main hallway but the first person I meet is a kindly grandmotherly type who remembers my name although I only come to the school about once a month.  We chat, I sign in, she asks if I need directions, and she tells me to have a good day.  In another less challenging school I visit, a rather beefy security guard greets me with two words, "Your license!"  


Pretend you are a perturbed citizen and make a similar call.  Perhaps the invented problem is that students are leaving trash on your lawn as they go to or from school.  Does the secretary in your office help to diffuse the problem with calming supportive language? Or, heaven forbid, make matters worse by seeming officious and unsympathetic?  Remember, first impressions are very important in our society.  


It is worth the time to see how your public face really looks.  Do you just need a dab of make-up or are we looking at plastic surgery?


Michael Keany is a retired principal, now working as an educational consultant.  He is the former Director of the Long Island School Leadership Center, moderator of its LISTSERV and co-founder (with William Brennan) of School Leadership 2.0.  Write Mike at .

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Comment by Blanca Duarte Martini on March 13, 2011 at 10:53pm

Mike, Thank you for your post. It made me think about the people in the school community for whom a PR presence is important. 

A district website, its newsletters, photos and phone messages are all pieces that help a community form an opinion about a school. They become the district's personality; many times the only communication that some members of the community are exposed to. The way a school is viewed is important to many people in the community, but none more so than the people in the school who help make things happen. Showcasing events that help instill school pride is important, but showcasing what happens inside the school on a regular basis is important too. A school day is made of many special moments not just one or two of them every couple of weeks or months…

I've spoken to teachers and students, who've said to me, "Please, don't look at our website. I'm never on there" or the complaint is that an event they thought should have been included, was overlooked. School buildings take pride in their own school too. Giving one school more "face time" than another can be construed negatively, even if not intentional.

Finally, one way to grow your PR without having to spend a lot of money is to enlist the help of students. Whether it's to collect footage or write articles, the opportunity helps instill civic responsibility. Let's give our kids opportunities to create authentic projects they can learn from and increase school spirit at the same time.


Comment by Lenny DiBiase on February 27, 2011 at 2:42pm
In a previous lifetime I ran fast food restaurants.  We hired "Secret Shoppers"  to visit our stores and rate our performance.  Maybe some of us from School 2.0 could group together and do something similar.  We would need to agree upon objective/subjective criteria, decide on how to visit each school, and compile data.  I think we would quickly develop some best practices and learn from each other.
Comment by Ed Kemnitzer on February 26, 2011 at 12:29pm
Great article! I agree with Carmen that this article touched on so many points. When schools are inviting places on the phone, at the entrance, and create conversation in publications (both in print and online), positive cultures develop and school walls begin "to talk."  This often translates into communities of parents trusting us as leaders, educators, and role models for their children.
Comment by Kathleen Shanahan on February 25, 2011 at 8:00pm

I thought one of your better points was the investment business makes on presenting its public face.  We, a people industry, need to use our people to make our connection to the "market".  However, we also need to look at the fact that our public relations are suffering because we do not invest in public relationships - the newsletter, the webpage, the occasional award picture.  If we are asked to think more in a "business model" perhaps our view of PR needs to be upgraded as well.


Comment by Arnold Dodge on February 25, 2011 at 5:10pm

Great points, Mike.    When I was a school administrator I always asked out custodial crew to do an extra special clean up on the night of community activities - especially Board meetings.  For some folks, these nights are the only glimpse they have of the schools - so let's make it one they will remember favorably. 



Comment by Carmen Campos Ed.D. on February 25, 2011 at 3:43pm

I agree with so much of what you wrote.  I am reminded of a blog I ran across by a principal of a school.  I wondered , "How does he have the time?".  There is his face, his thoughts, his concerns, and best yet an openness that is too often forgotten because all in the school system as it stands now, is too fearful and perhaps too overwhelming with a day's work. I agree with you that the first people that one sees when entering a school might leave a lasting impression but leadership is very powerful. When superintendents and the others lead with blogs and such, that's like opening the front doors with a smile!  

Blogging is risky, right?  But I think the message is "let's have a conversation".  

Love the blog, Mike - the picture, the thoughts, and the willingness to change things around.  

BTW, that principal's blog is


Comment by David Wicks on February 25, 2011 at 2:40pm

This is a great point...especially since, at least in my building, so many of the "first line" lives in the community.  They represent us 24 hours a day.  Perhaps a bit of prfessional developement here would cut back on the need for district office and PR firms to "get the word out".


Thanks Mike.





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