How School “Brand” Determines Student Outcomes

Guest post by Baruti K. Kafele, an award-winning educator, internationally renowned speaker, and best-selling author, who will lead two sessions at Ignite ’15, February 19–21.

The brand of any school tells a story. It reveals to everyone—students, staff, parents, and the community—who you are as a school. Your school’s brand can be defined intentionally, or it can evolve organically; but a brand that evolves organically may not be the one you most desire. Your school’s brand matters—it determines student outcomes.

Here’s a brief illustration that I share in discussions with educators about school brand: There’s a popular Southern-based restaurant chain, and whenever I enter these restaurants, a very unique experience consistently occurs. Someone behind the counter yells out, “Welcome to [our restaurant]!” The consistency of their greeting speaks volumes about their brand.

Clearly, this restaurant’s branding strategy is to acknowledge all of their customers and make them feel welcome. This helps to form a significant portion of the restaurant chain’s identity and its intention to ensure that all of their customers throughout the country feel welcome. This is not happening in isolated cases; it happens at every restaurant throughout the entire chain. Because the welcome is a part of the company’s brand, customers anticipate the greeting. Brand evokes anticipation.

Regarding schools, the same principle applies: Certain expectations accompany your brand. If your school’s brand is one of excellence, then everyone associated with your school expects excellence. If, on the other hand, disorder, bullying, and fighting comprise your school’s brand, people anticipate those qualities will persist until drastic changes are made.

As a School, Who Are You?
What is your brand, and is it known and shared by all school faculty, staff, and students? Does it drive the direction, focus, behaviors, and intentions of your school? Your brand is vital to the overall success of your school—particularly if your school has a large at-risk student population—because school brand can allow you to clearly see where a student population stands relative to what you are about as a school.

At minimum, a school’s brand is comprised of your school’s:

  • Core beliefs
  • Core values
  • Core guiding principles
  • Mission
  • Purpose
  • Vision

Let’s look at each separately.

Your School’s Core Beliefs
As principal, have you led a schoolwide conversation regarding what you collectively believe works best for your students as it relates to teaching and learning? Have you engaged your entire staff in this conversation? Have you reached consensus regarding your core beliefs as they relate to your school brand?

As a principal, I was a firm proponent of student-centered classroom learning environments. But in each school I led, there was an overwhelming emphasis on teacher-driven classrooms where lectures prevailed. I had ongoing discussions throughout the year with my staff to change our schoolwide beliefs to support student-centered learning. Those beliefs didn’t change because the staff was complying with what I believed; instead, over time, leading the discussion on student-centered learning became my staff’s core belief.

Your School’s Core Values
Who are you as a school as it relates to the spectrum and diversity of students? Expectations for self-motivated, accomplished students in your school likely are quite high. But what about the students who lack motivation and are at risk of failing? What are your school’s expectations—your core values—for them?

My staff was clear that I had high expectations for the most at-risk students in the building. I refused to treat them any differently from the most highly motivated students. As my staff saw this was my core value, it also became their core value.

Your School’s Guiding Principles
What are your school’s core guiding principles relative to your staff’s overall educational practices? What are the essential nonnegotiables that have to occur in order for everything else to work?

Throughout my principalship, my staff understood that my morning message was absolutely critical. It was highly motivating and empowering for my students, set the tone for the day, and laid a foundation for learning. I refused to commence a school day without it. My staff became accustomed to the message and came to see the value in it. They, therefore, ensured that students listened; then they followed up with their own reinforcement of that message. This was a nonnegotiable guiding principle that supported our work.

Your School’s Mission
The school’s mission defines who they—the students and staff—are, what they are about, and what direction they’re going in. When I visit a school and hear the entire student body and staff recite the school’s mission simultaneously, either in a morning convocation or being led over the public address system during the morning announcements, I rapidly conclude that the students and staff are clear about who they are as a school. Schools without a mission, on the other hand, lack definition, foundation, and direction. It is, therefore, imperative that your mission be an inherent component of your school.

At my last school, our mission was, “To ensure that every student strives to achieve excellence”—short but powerful! It told the entire school community that we were about nothing less than excellence. We recited our mission statement every morning before school, staff meetings, assemblies, PTA meetings, and any other time we came together.

Your School’s Purpose
Your school doors open every day in order to educate children. Beyond educating them however, what is your school’s purpose? Your school’s purpose is your “why.” Why do you do the work you do? Does your staff share your belief in your school’s purpose? Teachers may (or may not) have defined their own individual purposes for the work they do, but that just isn’t good enough or broad enough. Much more important is the school’s purpose. In other words, beyond providing a world-class education, what sets your school apart from all of the other schools in the world?

For example, over the years, support for the empowerment of African American and Latino males became an important aspect of our purpose—our “why.” We wanted to defy the odds and demonstrate to the world that urban African American and Latino males could soar at the highest levels.

Your School’s Vision
As I said with the school’s mission, when I visit a school and hear the entire student body and staff recite the school’s vision, I conclude I am in a school where the students and staff are clear about the end result, where they are going as a school—their vision. The school’s vision defines where their school is expected to eventually be as a result of the work done on a daily basis. It enables everyone in the building to envision the intended outcomes. Vision-less schools do not, and cannot, see the end of the road because it has not been defined. Their existence is, therefore, day-to-day at best. It is imperative that vision be an inherent component of the school. The probability for success increases exponentially when an entire school community is on the same page relative to “where we are going as a result of the work we do.”

At my last school, the vision was “Newark Tech will become a national model of urban educational excellence.” The entire school recited that vision statement during the morning announcements and/or convocations. We also stated it anytime the school, parents, or community came together. Like the mission, the vision was of paramount importance to us. It told us all where we would go if we continued to ride the current we created.

School brand is an area that deserves far more attention than it receives, starting with the building principal. There are various components of a school that might comprise a school’s brand, but at a minimum, your school’s core beliefs, values, guiding principles, purpose, mission, and vision are absolutely essential. When the principal and staff intentionally give definition to the aforementioned elements, the probability for a developing a deliberate and desirable brand conducive to high academic performance increases.

Baruti Kafele was selected as the district and county teacher of the year in New Jersey. As a principal, he led the transformation of four different New Jersey urban public schools, including Newark Tech, which was recognized three times by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s best high schools. He is also the author of six books, including his newest title, Closing the Attitude Gap. Meet Baruti when he leads two sessions at Ignite ’15: “Creating a School Climate and Culture that Yields High Academic performance” and “School Leadership Practices for Transforming the Attitudes of At-Risk Student Populations.” Learn more about Ignite ’15 registration here.

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