Buying a School Sign

There are lots of choices to make when you choose a school sign. Here's what you need to know.

by Ellen Ishkanian


No matter how many notes Principal Kathy Maserve sent home with students at the Pine Valley Elementary School at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, she knew there were parents who would never get her messages.

She even instituted a special message day, stuffing backpacks with newsletters only on Tuesdays, hoping parents would become accustomed to expecting a note from the principal on that day. Still, her phone would ring with frustrated parents who missed event after event.

“The notices never made it out of the backpacks,’’ Maserve says. So she went to her school’s PTO and asked members for advice on how to improve communication.

The answers were unanimous. The school needed a sign to display messages to parents and the community. After contacting Distinctive Signs in Louisville, Kentucky, and several months of maneuvering through Air Force zoning regulations, the PTO erected a school sign with a changeable message as a gift in honor of Pine Valley’s 40th anniversary.

Kathy Maserve’s phone still hasn’t stopped ringing. “But I haven’t gotten one call from a parent complaining about missing an event. I just hear about how great the sign’s been,’’ she says.

School signs placed so they can be read by passing motorists as well as parents dropping off and picking up their children can be an indispensable communication tool, keeping the entire community in the school loop.

But there’s a lot more to school signs than simply deciding you need one.

There is size and style to consider. How big should the letters be? How much should you spend? Should it be manually changeable or electronic? Is it sturdy and safe from vandals? Local zoning regulations may play a part, and neighbors’ concerns may need to be considered.

Selecting a Site

As Chris Rowling found out, the process of choosing a sign can seem daunting, but it’s certainly not impossible. Rowling, president of the Grafton Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Club in Grafton, Illinois, knew a school sign was the answer to failed communication in her community. But with her school sitting by a river on a designated Scenic Byway, Rowling had a lot of zoning restrictions to consider.

She contacted Mike Townsend, a senior sign consultant at the J.M. Stewart Sign Corporation in Sarasota, Florida. Townsend, who has sold hundreds of signs to schools across the country in his 10 years in the business, helped her find a sign that fit her school’s needs and conformed to local zoning.

According to Townsend, most schools in the United States are exempt from local zoning restrictions, meaning they can purchase a sign without getting approval from a local or county board.

“Once in a while you find a school that must conform, and when that occurs we uncover all the necessary restrictions in the initial survey process,’’ Townsend says. Stewart Signs and Distinctive Signs provide customers with information on height, lighting, size, position, and location to help complete the paperwork often necessary to receive local zoning approval.

The Grafton City Council had control over how close to the road the sign could be located, as well as restrictions on lighting. So Townsend and his team designed a sign with fluorescent lighting that conformed to regulations. It is 4 feet by 6 feet, placed far enough from the byway to meet standards, and has letters big enough to be read by people driving by in a car, something he and others in the business say is an important consideration. By putting school announcements on a sign that’s easy to read from the road, the whole community can stay involved in the schools.

For example, grandparents passing the new sign at Grafton will soon find out about a book sale to raise funds for the PTC. They may never have known out about the sale if they had to rely on their grandchildren or children telling them. Now they’ll see the sign, and they may just be interested in stopping by and buying a couple of books.

Once she began the paperwork, Rowling says the entire zoning approval process took just five weeks, an advantage of living in a small town “where everyone knows everyone.”

Keeping It Clean—and Safe

Rowling received a video from Stewart Signs showing her and her club how the sign would be made and how it would look in front of the school. Their concerns about vandalism and damage to the sign were alleviated once they found out that it would be covered in the same type of glass used around hockey rinks and that any spray paint could be wiped away with an approved solvent and a cloth.

Like most schools, Grafton’s sign shows the school’s mascot—a red hawk—across the top and is done in the school colors, red and white. “It looks really sharp,” Rowling says.

Grafton’s sign was delivered about five weeks after the order was placed, which is within the time frame quoted by other companies.

Rowling said her PTC paid $4,000 for its sign, which Stewart Signs says will last for generations. In fact, Tim Self, the company’s vice president of marketing, points out that when Hurricane Andrew destroyed numerous buildings in Homestead, Florida, in 1992, including the Air Force Base there, the only sign left standing was the Stewart sign at the Modello Baptist Church. “The Red Cross commandeered it to communicate with the public,’’ Self says.

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Distinctive Signs also puts lifetime guarantees on its signs, which sell for between $3,000 and $4,500 for the medium 5 feet by 8 feet size, according to company President John R. Martin. Distinctive Signs, which sells only manually changeable signs, manufactures its signs at its own plant.

The manually changeable sign messages are easy to change since the signs are usually about 3 feet off the ground. The protective cover is unlocked, pulled up, and then the letters can be reached without the need for a ladder or long stick.

According to Martin, most calls for sign information come from PTO leaders or school principals. Martin says his company (as does Stewart signs) works with the customer to find the style of sign that best suits the school building. In New England, for instance, a sign with a colonial or historic look might best fit the surroundings. In other places, a larger, more modern style may be more suitable.

Size Matters

The next question is size, and cost is not the most important factor when deciding how big the sign will be. The sign companies take into consideration how far the sign will be from the road and how fast traffic travels.

The general rule for letter size is 50 feet of visibility per inch, according to Townsend. So a sign with 4-inch letters can be read from 200 feet. Then add traffic speed to the equation. Townsend says if traffic travels at 40 miles per hour or more, an 8-inch letter may be the best bet to insure readability.

While Distinctive Signs specializes only in manually changeable signs, Stewart Signs has developed electronic sign with two lines of letters that can be changed using a computer keyboard at the office or at home. The message can also be changed by telephone command. These signs are more expensive than the others, with prices starting at about $15,000. “They are very user-friendly,” says Tim Self. “Everybody wants one, but not everyone can afford one.”

Change Is Good

The messages in these electronic signs are so easy to change that passersby can see a new message in the morning, another at lunch, and another at the end of the school day.

And if there’s one thing everyone in the sign business seems to agree on, it’s the need to keep your message fresh.

“If you don’t keep changing the message, then you train people to ignore the sign,” says Townsend. “The more often you change your message, the more important a tool your sign can become for you.’’

Messages can be simple announcements letting parents know the date for registration, when pictures will be taken, or an upcoming school play. They can be used to advertise fundraisers, PTO meetings, parent teacher conferences, or other programs where parental involvement is needed. Schools also use them to congratulate students of the month, wish a sports team good luck, cheer on students taking the SAT, or give a boost to a special teacher.

Some schools post quotations to inspire students or use the signs to teach kids—and the community—a “word of the day.”

Whatever the message, the most important thing is to be creative and keep people interested. After all, when you’ve spent countless hours and thousands of dollars purchasing a sign, you want it to make a difference.

A Good Sign

Principal Julius Horvath doesn’t refer to the Parkway Manor Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as “his” school. Instead, he stresses, it is “our” school.

And so, when the PTO asked him to investigate the feasibility of purchasing a sign to improve communication, he involved the entire community in the decision-making process.

“We covered all our bases. We didn’t want to offend anyone,” he said. “We took it very slowly and kept everyone–the superintendent, the school board, the parents, the community, and the neighbors–informed at each step.”

His strategy worked.

Eighteen months after that first phone conversation with the PTO president, the Parkway Manor Elementary School has a manually changeable sign purchased from the J.M. Stewart Sign Corporation. Horvath requested and received a zoning variance from the county allowing the sign to be placed closer to the street than otherwise allowed, and he compromised with neighbors by agreeing to turn the sign’s lights out by 9:30 every night.

And everyone’s happy.

“Within the first two weeks, you wouldn’t believe the number of calls I’ve gotten from people who just love the new sign,’’ Hovarth says.


# Stephanie 2010-01-22 15:50
it is a must read.......

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