Written By: Hans Appel
Years ago, a high level administrator asked us: “what’s the point of middle school?” At the time, it felt like an insulting question to a group bound together with the crazy singular purpose of teaching young hormonal minds and hearts. But at the the core of the question was: WHO is Enterprise Middle School? And maybe more importantly: WHY EMS?
What is your school about? What makes your building unique? How do you convey that message to your various stakeholders? What perception do students, staff, and community have about your school?
Branding refers to a name, term, decision, symbol or other feature that distinguishes an organization or product from it’s rivals in the eyes of the customers.
We can all recognize uber popular brands like: Nike, Apple, or the LA Lakers. We’ve grown up on McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Disney. Through the years, our world has been turned upside down with brand giants like Google, Netflix, and Amazon.
In recent years, there’s been an exponentially stronger push in public education to effectively brand individual schools and/or districts. Perhaps, this branding need is in response to negative public perceptions about education. Or maybe it’s correlated to increased numbers of private, charter, and independent schools. It could be that in some areas, there is increased competition for enrollment. While all of these may be factors, I think it’s most important because branding our school allows others to see the magic that we see everyday...
Branding isn’t just about school choice, it’s a way of creating a community and shared belief system for your school culture.
There are schools doing incredible work with branding. Mandy Ellis, principal of Dunlap Grade School in Illinois has created a school wide movement centered around literacy. In her book “Lead with Literacy,” Mandy details the power of infusing and fostering a culture of reading into the fabric of her elementary school. She encourages educators to integrate literacy in aspects, locations, and messages of the school. Her book should be required reading for any Humanities teacher, administrator, or librarian. And at the heart of her work is branding her school with something that’s hard to argue with: Reading and Writing.
Slackwood elementary school in New Jersey believe “we’re all part of one golden heart.” Jay Billy, former Slackwood Principal and author of “Lead with Culture,” suggests that culture is what really matters. And Slackwood’s brand is evident to all visitors as illustrated by a recent post from Tara Martin (Administrator/Author) who says educators must “BE REAL” (#REALedu) and that Bily and Slackwood’s brand of putting culture front and center is as real as it gets. Check out her entire Slackwood experience at: "All the feels-Lead with Culture." But Bily and Martin both know that if our brand only “exists” when parents or other school officials are visiting our building….then it’s not a brand based in reality. Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, author, speaker and superintendent of Fall Creek School district in Wisconsin says "your brand is what people say about you, when you're not there."
After all, a school is only as good as the EXPERIENCE of it’s students.
Great leaders like Bily, Martin, and Sanfelippo recognize that creating a brand of culture-first takes time and a commitment towards leading with the heart. Branding often begins with a vision in mind.
Some schools have parlayed successful hashtag visions into unique school brands to create a shared vision for success. Beth Houf’s #fmsteach, Sean Gaillard’s #CelebrateMonday or Matt Bush’s #GFC have provided their schools with intentional avenues to recognize and celebrate awesomeness in their schools.
In other examples, entire districts are branding themselves. In Washington State, Selah school district cultivates lifelong learners through “the Viking Way.” They utilize specific social media, videos, and messaging to communicate who and what they are and WHY they do what they do. Key forward-minded educators like Susie Bennett and Marc Gallaway have helped lead "the Viking Way” into a community masterpiece.
When I first started becoming aware of the rise of branding in education, I actually thought we were already ahead of the curve. We were heavily involved in creating yearly themes centered around success on state testing: “Rock the Test”, “Construction of Knowledge”, and “Learning is a Marathon”. We made t-shirts, had door decorating contests, and made assessment important throughout the year. We actually had a lot of fun with it! [Although I still have nightmares of our PE teacher dressed up as marathon man.] We took something that was inherently stressful, boring, and overwhelming to students and staff and attempted to create whimsey. Our teachers were spending time, money, and energy to infuse positivity around high stakes assessments. And to a degree these manufactured efforts worked. Our test scores and community positivity toward the assessments increased. But these positive changes were temporary and it quickly became apparent that they weren’t based in anything real. And therein lies the biggest mistake schools often make. Education has historically focused on creating themes rather than brands.
A theme is a topic or subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts or an exhibition. Themes are short lived often designed by a handful of folks or committee for a specific purpose. Whereas a brand is built by everyone and grounded in the organizations “Why.” Indeed, branding helps garner community support.
School brands must go beyond mascots and logos and be rooted in authenticity.
Some educators from my school might argue that in addition to our yearly themes, we had a defacto brand. For years, we used a slogan called “it’s great to be a wildcat.” I think we believed that if we said our school slogan outloud then people might act it into existence. This along with our WOW PBIS program felt similar to a brand. Our school’s PBIS program was even so popular we had the opportunity to present at several conferences laying out the details for other educators. And while there are many elements of that program that were successful and still live on at EMS, it was never really a brand. Here’s the thing...if your gonna say that it’s “great” to be a wildcat...then it better actually be great! And the truth is, back then, it wasn’t really great for everyone. While we were a good school, many students, staff, and parents would eagerly acknowledge that we were coming up far short of great. When comparing theme and brand this chasm of Wish vs. Reality can haunt the authenticity of schools. Perhaps the ultimate test of a brand is what happens to it, when new regime takes over. With staff and leadership turnover, does the “brand” live on OR does it get cloudy with educator change? Our’s got cloudy and quickly devolved into nothing more than a thematic gimmick.
Our EMS principal, Jennifer Klauss really gets it; and equates branding to building a structure. She’ll say things like: “What are your stakes in the ground?” “What is your school built upon?”
At EMS, we’ve been working toward a brand for a couple years...we are slowly growing toward something special.
Our #WildcatNation brand is rooted in Character, Excellence, and Community. Three school wide questions drive who we strive to be everyday:
-Will you do the Right thing?
-Will you do your very Best?
-What will you do for Others Today?
Award Winning Cultures need to be branded for all stakeholders to appreciate sustained efforts towards excellence.
If we return to that slightly irrating question from before and make a slight alteration to it’s verbiage: What’s the point of YOUR school? How might you communicate that point? What steps will you take to evaluate your school’s brand?
About the Author
Hans Appel has been a school counselor in the Richland School District for the past 17 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He's passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness.
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.