As school districts and building administrators work to improve academic achievement, they hire excellent teachers, choose curricula best suited to meet standards and provide appropriate services for each student.

The physical and emotional condition of a school building, however, are two issues often overlooked in the pursuit of educational success. A principal may consistently order sufficient supplies, books and materials, as well as classroom equipment and furnishings, effectively handle student behavior issues, and represent the school very well to the public. But equally important to keeping a school running day to day is providing a sturdy and safe structure and an emotionally stable environment. They are foundational keys to student success.

Physical Plant Management

Maintaining the school building itself requires a substantial amount of effort and attention. It is ultimately the responsibility of the school leader, or principal, to make sure the building is well-maintained, safe and suitable for educating students.

When budgeting for each year’s needs — to the extent building maintenance is the burden of the principal (and not the district) — a wise leader will take careful inventory of elements requiring attention and plan accordingly. As the financial situation for many districts is very tight and highly scrutinized, building leaders have the burden of not only keeping the building safe and clean, but also of keeping careful records of these expenses, as questions may arise about spending money on things only indirectly affecting the education of students.

Safe and Secure Facilities

When staff and students know that the principal is on top of school building maintenance, they feel secure — free to teach and learn. The school community is reassured that children are learning in a clean and well-maintained environment, with few reservations about their safety.

Planning for and responding to the unexpected, however, is also the responsibility of school administrators. In the event of a school break-in or shooting, natural disaster, violent or unsettling global or local event, or in-school trauma, everyone inside the school building is looking for answers and leadership. This response involves two elements.

Immediate action – The principal of a school must be prepared to take immediate action to keep students and staff safe, whether the incident happens inside the school walls or in the immediate neighborhood. Preparations should include forming a crisis team, including all stakeholders in the building.

This team designs clear and specific plans, to be distributed to the entire building, including support staff. It must be shared with visitors and guests, substitute teachers, and those who work at times when students are not in the building. The plans should be practiced, and all school community members should be able to explain what they would do in the event of a crisis.

Emotional support – Even with a clear and effective action plan, principals must acknowledge the emotional stress created during and after every type of traumatic incident. During a catastrophe is not the time to decide how you are going to inform the school of the disaster or how you will respond to questions from staff, students, community members or the media.

Qualified staff members must be prepared, with a well-coordinated plan, to respond to student fear and uncertainty. If the leaders of the school do not work as a unified, well-prepared team, students and staff will have no one to look to for comfort or answers.

Even consistent planning or preventive maintenance cannot protect a school from emergencies or random system malfunctions. In addition, school leaders are occasionally called from the building. In both of these cases, it is the responsibility of the principal to have a team and plans in place to respond quickly, efficiently and compassionately.

The Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Eastern Michigan University will prepare experienced educators to become qualified school principals. In this all-online program, students learn what it takes to manage school operations and resources, maintain a clean and safe school, and lead their team of teachers to improve learning and prepare the next generation of leaders. According to 21st Century School Fund, “Effective facilities management can contribute to the success of every student in every school in the United States.”

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program.


U.S. Department of Education: About ED

Educational Leadership: Special Topic/School Crisis Response: Expecting the Unexpected

Education World: Principals Identify Top Ten Leadership Traits

BEST Collaborative: Recommended Policies for Public School Facilities