{Re} Branding a School

{Re} Branding a School

I learned a lot about branding by watching hipster parents line up for limited spots at a local charter school.  The school was branded so well, in fact, that families literally lined up to get their kids a shot at admission. The branding was so good, the buzz about it so strong, that applicants dismissed the fact that the school was filled with first time teachers, had a new principal, lacked outdoor space for children to play, and boasted somewhat ambiguous pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. But they branded well. Sure enough, that branding brought committed families, real momentum, and (eventually) strong academic results.

This will not be the whining diatribe of a public school principal leading an under-resourced school.  This is not about pitting splashy charter models versus neighborhood schools.  Instead, this is a distillation of my ideas, capturing what I believe school leaders can do to improve community perception and attract the community.  After all, this is the part of the mission I am now leading.

Serious efforts to {re}brand a school should strive for the following:

Know what sets your school apart. It’s important for schools to know what they are good at. All schools, whether existing or new, have strengths that they can highlight for prospective and current families. At our site, we have experienced teachers (averaging 15 years at this site) who are here because they love the kids and feel connected to the community. We succinctly capture this strength through the phrase “extended family.” Another characteristic that sets our learning community apart, is the diversity of our staff and students. It’s extraordinary. And we believe that this ecosystem is ideal for preparing children to thrive in a diverse society. Finally, we offer “extras” that develop the whole child. Music, theater, art and a commitment to wellness augment our academic program in a way that develops well balanced, healthy kids!

The mission/ vision must be clear, concise, and compelling. A mission statement communicates why you exist. A vision statement communicates where you are going. Both are important, but I have emphasized developing a shared vision statement.  I want our staff, parents and students to think forward towards who we can become together. But it has to be clear. It has to be concise. And it must be compelling.  

In the first few days of my tenure as the instructional leader of my school, I asked around about the mission statement. The reactions I observed were confounding.  Most asserted that it was printed in the handbook. Few could recall phrases from the school mission. Nobody thought it shaped their behavior. And while the mission statement articulated worthy goals that children would benefit from, it wasn’t used as a tool for school transformation. A clear, concise and compelling mission/ vision statement should be just that- a tool for realizing school transformation.

Identify core values. It’s one thing to announce where you are headed with students. It’s a whole other thing to announce how you will get there. Students and families deserve to know what your priorities are, as a school. It’s important to ‘hone in’ on the pedagogical approaches and evidence based practices that will move your site towards a culture of achievement that works for the success of all students on campus.

Vision and values are expressed multiple ways, and in multiple spaces. It’s not enough to print the vision in a handbook.  It’s not enough to announce the revised vision in a staff meeting. The vision must be pronounced, over and over as a guiding light, a battle cry and a welcoming charge. It belongs in meetings with parents, on the front of the school, atop meeting agendas, and plastered all over the website. It’s the one thing everyone must know about our school.

Know that color and pizzaz does matter. We are visual beings. A fresh coat of paint can do wonders. Just ask my wife. Our dining room, with the help of some paint plus minor shifts in decor, feels like a whole new room. It’s rare when a school leader gets to open a site from ‘scratch.’ It’s also rare to get budget allocations that allow for major construction/ facelifts. Nevertheless, there are ways which we can refresh our schools, our logos, and our color schemes in ways that don’t ‘break the bank.’ When paired with real observable change, these efforts are always impactful.

Employ multimedia. We have lots of tools at our disposal. Consider making a brochure, a short movie. Think about blank walls that could be communicating messages. T-shirts with compelling messages communicate a lot. Traditional approaches to communication with parents, like newsletters, “Coffee with the Principal” and blacktop assemblies still possess fidelity. Think ‘outside the box.’ Figure out the most effective modes of communication, per subgroup. Open up new lines of communication. Develop a social media strategy. Stay with a consistent message. Tweet, post, and paint away!

Leverage principles of economics and motivation. Something about the human psyche, responds to the concept that resources are finite. When the store is closing, our shopping decisions become concise. When parents countdown from three, their children move to compliance. When the gas light in the car turns on, we veer off to the gas station.  

I believe this principle applies to school choice. Schools flourish where families feel fortunate to be a part of a particular learning community.  Finite space is one variable that reinforces the truth that children are fortunate to be at a particular site. Parents experience this in waiting lists, lotteries, and requirements of parent involvement. Where quality teaching and learning exists behind the barriers to enrollment, demand actually increases.  

At my site, we plan to crystalize demand by communicating how many spots we have remaining at each grade, scheduling tours for families, and making the “School Choice” process more pronounced.

Make every interaction matter. Branding happens with every interaction we have. When we smile at parents coming in the school gates, develop interventions that increase learning for kids, or sign off for UPS packages with kindness, we are branding the school. For all who are paying attention, every day, we are answering people’s most pressing question, “Does this school care about me and my kids?” 

Rely on word-of-mouth. The most impactful action we can take to brand a school is to create raving fans. Individuals who are impressed cannot help but share with the people they love.  

Highlight your “wins.” Everyone loves a winner.  Everyone wants to know “Are we are winning?”  When I coached college basketball, the answer was far clearer.  When leading a school community, it is important to know there are multiple scoreboards. As the leader, I take seriously the role of telling our story and announcing our wins! In truth, our teachers and students are winning all the time. They are making impressive academic gains that matter so much but just might show up on the norm referenced state-administered tests. They are making social-emotional gains that will lead them to improving the lives of others. They are demonstrating habits of mind and grit that will propel them to future successes we cannot even see yet. These successes matter. All parents wish for them. And it’s up to us to share them.