Branding in the age of school choice

I hate that word. Branding is a buzzword that PR and marketing folks love to toss around and one that I try to avoid because, well, it's a buzzword.

I hate that word. Branding is a buzzword that PR and marketing folks love to toss around and one that I try to avoid because, well, it's a buzzword. It's worse than "21st Century Skills." However, I was at a school committee meeting last night and we started talking about marketing our school system. The district itself has made incredible strides in the last few years and our standardized test scores have gone through the roof. Despite its location in an economically-depressed area, students are really excelling.

There's the rub, though. When you think of GM, you think trucks and bankruptcy. When you think of AIG, you think corruption and bonuses. When you think of Coke, you think tasty beverages and rusty nails. That's branding, like the word or not. For too many years, when people in central Massachusetts thought of this district, they thought of tanking test scores and school choice. Not much of a brand for a school district.

School choice allows students to choose to attend public schools in another school district if they don't believe that their needs can be well-served in their home district. When they leave, the home district loses state funding and the receiving district receives additional funds for each student that "choices out". Although students have largely stopped choicing out as the perception of the schools in our community changes, we still aren't attracting students from other districts (or getting back enough of the students who have left).

Essentially, our brand has been restored within our little town, but remains tarnished in the surrounding communities where the substantial improvements aren't as readily visible. Locals now think of hard-working teachers, solid technology, and strong test scores, but our real challenge is to get that message out. We have the capacity in our schools to take on more students effectively and need to restore the funding lost from years of kids choicing out. So how do we rebrand our district?

Our best bet is to start with our website. As one school committee member pointed out last night, the first place people look when they are deciding on where to send their kids for school is the Web. Our current site is perfectly functional, but hardly compelling. It was designed with function in mind, but can be a real source of positive PR.

We'll be adding video, virtual tours of our newest schools, snapshots of student activities and sports, and drawing people in to get additional information. We're considering adding a Twitter feed and blogs to make the site more dynamic and personal. Parents don't just need contact information. They need to see students happy and engaged in learning. No self-respecting business would have a strictly informational website. There's no reason any self-respecting school district should either.

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