Carnivals to Theme Parks!

By Jack Birmingham, IPLI Mentor & Assistant Superintendent at Union Township School Corporation

During the 1970s, as the summer days rolled around, there was a special feeling of fun and excitement, which came as an annual rite of passage to a kid from Northeast Ohio.  Long before smart phones, Netflix and even Atari, I was always doing something outdoors, from frequenting our city swimming pool to playing little league.  Growing up in a steel worker’s family, I was one who found great enjoyment in the little things and anytime there was a trip to the local church festival or county fair on the agenda, I was ready and willing! There was nothing better than getting the wristbands or hand stamps to ‘ride all day’ on the Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris Wheel or Dodge ‘em Cars!  I am not sure what it was that caused such a great feeling for me as a kid, but maybe it was the fact that these places gave me thrills, excitement and smiles! While these “day trips” were some of the highlights of my adolescent summers, they paled in comparison when we first experienced “the land of the mouse” affectionately known as Walt Disney World!  Now THIS was the trip!

It was the trip that we all looked forward to.  Well, maybe getting there was not the best of experiences, as a 22-hour road trip in a Ford Country Squire wasn’t exactly arriving in first class! But Disney World, like many other theme parks across our land has become a sought after destination for families to spend precious time. These are not the carnivals that come zooming into your local neighborhood, construct a world of fun that feature bright colored flashing lights and rides that cover up the pavement where basketball and foursquare was played during recess of a church school!

The “theme” parks as they are known have become the places that fathers and mothers set aside money in order to give their children a once in a lifetime experience.  They are the places that my mom and dad would bring the 8mm video camera and record every memory that was made! Then, five months later, they would fire up the projector and show these bizarre, colored, silent movies of my family strolling the grounds of the Magic Kingdom to our entire extended family during a holiday visit!

During my career in education I have come to the realization that as a building leader, I desire to have my school be a place that our families and students look forward to being a part of! How do we get our schools to have a climate and culture where parents make it a point to attend and tell their families about the experiences when they get together at Christmas time (leaving out the 8mm family movies of course)?  Principals need to strive to make their schools resemble these theme parks that stand the test of time and have wonderful appeal, as opposed to the temporary festivals that have short-lived glitz and glamour that only entice visitors because of its sudden appearance on the landscape!

Principals can begin building that “theme park” by focusing on three important aspects of relationship building. TRUST, RESPECT and FUN! If they can develop these with their students, staffs and stakeholders, they will see a renewed spirit of collaboration and life in their buildings. Where is your climate/culture in your school? Do you feel that your school entices families to pick up and move, so that they can attend your school, or pay tuition for? Do your parents share positive stories of their experiences about your school? Are your students coming into your building excited to be a part of a fun, respectful environment? When we try to create a great experience through trust, respect and fun, your school WILL be transforming from a carnival to a theme park, and the learning experiences will be unforgettable without the long lines!!!!!