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Can You Sense It?

Walk into any retail mall in the country that has a Cinnabon store and you will know, immediately, of its presence. That tell-tale aroma permeates every crevice of that vast space, instantly communicating via our sense of smell that a delicious treat is just around the corner. And, if your senses are not acute enough to understand the store's purpose, you might ask an employee, "So, what do you do?" Their incredulous response might be something like: "We're the sweetest brand on earth. We stimulate your senses so you arrive at our counter expecting a delectable treat that will overwhelm your taste buds and have you longing for more." (If that's not the company line, their elevator speech, it should be.) The point of this example is that you don't need to be a genius or have a roadmap to appreciate the purpose of this enterprise. You understand it immediately.

The same might be true of a large retail department store, whose employees could suggest that their purpose is to "provide contemporary fashion and household convenience at reasonable prices." The big box electronics store will provide a similar experience. You enter the door, look around, and immediately understand that it exists to tempt its patrons with state of the art electronics and entertainment devices. The associate might suggest "we bring the future into your living room." Travel down the corridor and test this assumption. Do not most retail establishments make their function and purpose immediately obvious? The same is true of virtually every other enterprise. The local dentist does not confuse us with a mannequin display in the lobby. Rather, a genuine and accurate reflection of the services one might expect is conveyed and is readily apparent. The initial interaction we experience with any manner of commercial entities relies on a deliberately communicated transparency of purpose and intent.

What about schools? It's easy to identify a school by the size of the structure with a fleet of yellow buses parked out front. But, what do we really know about the unique characteristics of a school as we enter the corridor? While it should be obvious, it frequently is not.

Enter a school, any school, and you will be informed by your own personal experience as a former "consumer" of a very similar space. We are easily influenced by our general experiences. We appreciate that schools exist to facilitate learning, to forward an understanding of facts and contexts and, ideally, to prepare its young occupants for successful futures.

So what!

These generalities fail to tell the story. What about this school? What makes it stand out? Who are its occupants and what do they value? How do they approach their mandate and how successful are they in realizing their goals? What is it that uniquely sets this school apart from all the other large buildings with a fleet of yellow limousines at the ready?

These are legitimate questions; ones that address and suggest the very climate and organizational priorities of each unique campus. All of these questions deserve a focused examination by all of the relevant stakeholders, affording conclusions that will yield a community-wide consensus that reveals "this is who we are." The resulting "elevator speech" should be accurate and compelling, one that could be easily delivered (allowing for some variance of the vocabulary used by the range of ages inside) by virtually anyone within the vast expanse of this thing called "school."

Dynamic school communities don't just happen. They are the result of a deliberate process of ongoing reflection and articulation of what matters, what the community values. Addressing these questions and defining the cultural values of a school community is a prerequisite for any meaningful efforts at school improvement and enhanced experiences for the students it serves. If a school community cannot define who they are, they cannot expect to move forward with any degree of confidence that the path they're taking is appropriate and consistent with what they value. Quoting Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you're going. you'll end up someplace else."

Cinnabon, by its own deliberate definition ("the sweetest brand on earth") is not just a bakery. It's unique. It stands apart. So should every school across this nation. We are Lincoln Middle School. But, who are we, really? Where are we going? What is our elevator speech?

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