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Before Broadcasting Your School's Brand, Do This

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Broadcasting the strengths of a school or district is the messaging plan to follow when defining, designing, and branding are accomplished. Before that, you are simply sending out sporadic, disconnected information. Sometimes we send a little of it and sometimes, an onslaught of it. The latter usually occurs in the annual cycle of school life around the beginning of the school year and budget voting.Often schools and districts begin broadcasting holding the belief they know their values and the identity is clear. Even if the process of identifying the values and identity have taken place in the past, it is important to revisit the process from time to time.

Communities belong to their schools and schools belong to their communities. Because belonging is an important human need, it is important to pay attention to how that plays out in school communities. Karyn Hall, in her article in Psychology Today wrote,

Having a sense of belonging is a common experience. Belonging means acceptance as a member or a part. Such a simple word for a huge concept. A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter.  Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life...

School Reputations Are Not Enough

Combining the advantage of that need to belong and the opportunity schools have to bring people together is powerful. Belonging implies being seen and welcomed into a group where you are meaningful. Schools cannot assume that residency within some artificially drawn boundary lines results in a feeling of belonging. Educators know that for some children even attending school doesn't result in a feeling of belonging. When we belong to something we proudly associate our name with it. We do that by surname or sweatshirts or pins, pledges and prayers. Why? Because the belonging reflects who we are, the place where our value is honored and our values shared. In most schools, precious little time is spent thinking about this.  Schools often rest on reputations made years before by a person, persons or an event and allow that identity to passively define who they are today.

School Identity - What Do People Think?

Neighborhoods sometimes label the school. For example, if a school is in a neighborhood that has high cost housing, the school may have a reputation for the best teachers and the highest achievement. Or a school has sports teams that regularly win sectionals or before and after school programs to accommodate the lives of working parents. And the irony is none of these economic or historic reputations may be true in this moment. 

How does the community learn what the school is about? Parents and children are more critical to a broadcast system than school leaders but they can't get the message right without welcome by us. Is it the way parents are included in planning and new idea generation? Is it the respect with which parents and students are treated by leaders, faculty, and staff? Is it through the efforts put forth to help every student succeed? Is it through sports? Is it the way parents and the community are invited to activities?  Or is it more subtle? Is it a hello in the parking lot or an acknowledgement at church or in the grocery store?

Like Madison Avenue and the advertising firms that now dot the world, this is not a one man or woman undertaking. This, like most else in this century, takes collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.  An opportunity for the adults to partake in the very skills called for in working with the students. 

Communities believe in their school's brand whether it is a good one or not. In suburban communities, that brand or reputation is often what attracts people to move into the district. It is that brand often that causes communities to vote for a budget or not. It is that brand that causes students to come to school with pride or not. Schools need their communities and communities need their schools.  

There is work to be done before jumping into the broadcasting step, telling the story of why you think your school and district is successful. Bring groups of students, parents, faculty, staff, and members of the school community together to uncover beliefs about what is good, listen to the stories they are telling and hearing, ask what brings them pride or embarrassment, discover what they believe the district's core values are and how they are demonstrated. We get busy putting out our messages and sometimes know little about the baskets into which those messages go. If there are ways that the good work of the school can be better presented, ideas for changes must be included. 

School Identity Can Become a Choice and an Action

Whether the community comes together through its religious organizations, its commercial center, its public spaces, or its entertainment outlets, schools are there. They are both defined by and help define their community. It is the reciprocal bond of belonging. One way to see this is the strength of resistance that arises when attempts are made to combine districts. While there are financial advantages to most proposed consolidations and mergers, this does not eliminate the resistance. In their 2014 article, 'Why Schools Resist Consolidating' Barrett and Greene wrote:

In Iowa, when district consolidation leads to the closing of schools, "there's been a struggle," says Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, "with our rural communities wanting to keep the pulse of the town alive."

They went on to report:

Consider high school sports teams. In many parts of the country, the high school football team and its rivalry with the next town over are very much at the heart of the town's sense of self. If that sounds silly to urban dwellers, then they've never gone to public school in a sports-crazy community where the highlight of the year is the homecoming game against the neighboring town.

Urban, suburban or rural, the reputation of the district, its brand, is central to the community's identity. States have as many different school brands as they do schools. Mascots tell a lot about the school's historical values so don't ignore them.  Like automobiles, or products, schools differ from each other, even though they are all schools. Their identities separate them. There are differences between Toyota and Buick sedans, for example, but they are both automobiles. How those two companies design, produce, sell, and service their cars are where the differences can be found. And unlike automobiles, schools are in the business of dealing with young humans, not products. Yet, there is something to be learned from entities that produce products. Branding.

Advertising professionals are trained in how to define and promote companies. Educational leaders are not. But it is now an important part of the leader's role to define and promote the schools and district. An accurate brand, one that reflects the school and districts values, efforts, and successes, is one that everyone knows. It fosters engagement and support. It enlivens and engages. It understands that belonging involves choice and becomes an action. 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by DariuszSandowski courtesy of Pixabay

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