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A Shiny New Box

The title of this post is not original. It comes from the brilliant mind of a former colleague and great friend, Orestes Yambouranis. He, from his veranda in Australia, and I have been speculating on the future of a school we both love and poured our hearts into: Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, known to all who revere it as "ACMA."

I am using ACMA as a case-in-point, a metaphor really, for any school concerned with sustaining its institutional culture, particularly when faced with significant change. The lessons it affords are broad and significant.

For approximately three decades, ACMA has been providing an authentic educational experience to some equally "authentic" students. Some might describe them as quirky or the proverbial square peg that doesn't comfortably nest in a round hole. Based on my experience serving this population of learners for thirteen years as the site principal, I would add the following. ACMA students are independent, noble, caring and empathetic. They embody curiosity and are the pure manifestation of creativity. They are courageous, out-spoken, yet amazingly humble. ACMA students are deeply motivated and wildly successful. The little school they attend has proven to be an amazing and successful experiment in public education, catering to the interests, needs and aspirations of a distinct population of students.

ACMA was housed in a 1949 vintage elementary school. While we were grateful to have a water-tight roof overhead, we were frustrated daily by the cramped, outdated quarters that were as far from a design in support of our unique program as one could imagine. What had been intended to house small children was now filled with hulking adolescents. Standard classrooms (whatever "standard" may mean) were repurposed into "studios" to support academic inquiry and artistic pursuits. It was odd. It was challenging.

It was home.

ACMA is a school that believes that if something can be imagined, it can be achieved - regardless of obstacles or challenges that may seem to erode the original intention. It is a school, as described by Mr. Yambouranis, as one founded in "hopefulness."

The school district has made a commitment to provide ACMA a legitimate home. This past weekend was the official groundbreaking ceremony for a new building. The seventy year old facility has been razed, making way for a 21st century structure to rise on the site of this rubble. In two years, following a stint in a temporary setting, ACMA will have a new home, a "shiny new box."

With that good news comes a key question. Will it be a site of continued "hopefulness?"

The culture of a school, the "it" that pervades throughout, is not defined by the box it is housed in. (See my March 4 and June 3, 2019 posts, This is "It," and Can You Sense It? respectively.) Districts and school communities within the region of the country I live in, making significant investments in their facilities, need to pay attention to this truth. Multi-million dollar investments can address safety concerns and issues of modern infrastructure. But, just as a new car won't make one a better driver, a new building that is filled with amazing new toys does not offer any guarantee of continued, or new-found, excellence. The "hopefulness", or the other shared values a community holds dear, will only survive the move, the change, through the deliberate, thoughtful and intentional interventions by the community itself.

Please don't misunderstand. I am thrilled, and the ACMA community should be ecstatically grateful, that the success of this school (and some rather obvious physical shortcomings) is being recognized through the construction of a legitimate structure to house its unique curriculum and to nurture its amazing occupants. However, to be successful in this delicate enterprise, a school community must first have clear consensus of exactly what it is that they value, and what they treasure: a robust inventory of elusive and hard to define nonnegotiables. This inventory serves as the "It" of the organization; the characteristics that make it both successful and unique. Identify "It." Carefully wrap "It." Safeguard and protect "It" during the transition. And then, with great care and affection, place "It" in the very center of the new reality.

"It" is the essence of what makes a school unique, successful, revered and worth protecting; not the box "It" is housed within.

A "shiny new box", just like its tarnished predecessor, is just a box. It will remain merely a box until, and when, "It" is thoughtfully imbedded into the new home. The question my Australian friend poses is the correct one. "When they gather again in their shiny new box, will they transport the soul of the 'old' school back in with them?"

A school's soul is worth tending.

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