Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Do You Brand That?

A couple of weeks ago, on a post I labeled The Great Experiment, I got this (anonymous) comment: 
There is another related quote in Sunday AA.Com from WISD superintendent Bill Miller. He talks about schools having to distinguish themselves and market their brand. This frightens me tremendously as I have already observed this going on both in a charter school and in AAPS high school. No one wants to be branded as "the school for average kids, the school for kids with social/learning problems, the school for kids whose parents don't care". Everyone wants to be the school/program/teacher for the advanced and there is a huge temptation to devote more and more resources to the students that can perform at the elite level. I hope that every parent that experiences this phenomenon speaks up and continues to speak up until the concerns are addressed (that may take a great deal of persistence).
I think this is a really interesting comment, given that the way our state statutes are written, your local public school is considered the default, and expected to serve everybody. How do you market that? It's much easier to market a specific idea.

For instance, I hate the Ann Arbor Public Schools "Excellence" campaign. A picture of a smiling teacher with smiling kids? How does that prove excellence? What are the chances my child would get that teacher anyway?
I like the Ypsilanti Public Schools "Strong from start to finish" campaign, because it communicates a specific idea. However, based on graduation rates, I think there are probably holes in that education, at least for some students.

In that sense, private schools have an easier time of it.

For instance, take Huron Valley Catholic. Their ad on a board on West Stadium drew my attention because (I can't remember the slogan right now) it uses the word "heart" and connects learning with warmth and emotion. I like that it immediately conveys a sense of the school. Their web site uses a different slogan, "Passion for learning, passion for Christ." That, too, conveys a sense of focus. Parents should know immediately if they would like to investigate further.

On the other hand, Huron Valley Catholic gets to choose who comes in their doors, and their admissions policy states,
1. Student must have a C+ or better (or equivalent) grade average in academic subjects during the past two years, with no failing grades (or equivalent), and an acceptable conduct/behavioral evaluation.
2. All new students entering grades 1 through 8 must take a math and reading test. Kindergarten students must take a readiness test as part of Kindergarten roundup. Students must score no more than one grade level lower than current grade. For example, a student in the 7th grade, 5th month of school should be able to perform at a minimum of 6th grade, 5th month level.
(Emphases added.)
Note, I am not calling out Huron Valley Catholic about their requirements regarding behavior and grade level achievement. Lots of private schools have the same kinds of requirements. I'm just pointing out that it makes it unlikely that they will be educating a lot of kids with trouble learning because of learning disabilities, or poor prior educational circumstances, or severe attention deficit problems.  I'm just pointing out that public schools don't get to pass on those kids.

And yet, a public school campaign that started "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..." would probably not work. (Apologies to the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus, but you get the point.)

Which leads me to this question: What, exactly, is the brand that public schools are trying to achieve? On the one hand, my experiences with Community High School lead me to believe that a lot of people want a school with a "brand." I personally don't need a brand, but I like the idea of having a choice of schools. In Ann Arbor, I would love to see an arts magnet, I would love to see an immersion language magnet, I would love to see a science magnet. On the other hand, the mandate of the public schools is to serve the public. And don't we hope that all public schools will be excellent?
Really, how do you brand that?


  1. I think public schools do market. Community markets itself in the area of "personal relationships" and claims to have the districts highest test scores because of it. Pioneer markets their award winning music, sports and theater programs. Skyline is a health and science magnet school. Huron produced 8 perfect scores on the ACT. This is not called marketing, but it has the same effect. Every business person knows that positive press is advertising.

  2. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a school to be all things to all students, but that's exactly what the public schools are supposed to do. Are they set up for failure?

    I teach at a private school similar to Huron Valley Catholic. We recognize that we simply do not have the resources to serve all students, so we specialize.

    If there is a market for a specific educational focus (struggling learners, math and science, the arts, etc), I believe that someone will rise up to meet the need.The boom of charter schools, many with a specific focus, seems to corroborate this thought.

    Why not let schools specialize and let parents choose the school that is the best fit for their student rather than force a school to try to meet the diverse needs of hundreds and even thousands of students?

  3. Anon, I agree with you that public schools do market. But do they market well? The marketing that I want tells me that my child will be cared for, and cared about, because all children are cared for and cared about; that my child will learn to read and write, because all children at that school learn to read and write. For instance, I don't see the Ann Arbor schools marketing the fact that every fifth grader gets to try an instrument--but they could.

    John, I think your question is a great one. Originally, it was the assumption that it was very clear what schools needed to be and do--but not only were the needs smaller (or rather, better defined)--the schools themselves were smaller. One-room schoolhouses are very different from huge high schools...
    If schools specialize, though, I worry that it is inevitable that some kids get left behind.