Branding: What School Leaders Can Learn from Business

A thought provoking article featured in EdWeek touched upon an interesting idea: Why don’t schools brand themselves?  Tony Sinanis, the principal of Cantiague Elementary School on Long Island in New York, wrote the op-ed and talks about the impetus behind what caused him to explore this concept:

As the lead learner of Cantiague Elementary School, I wanted to influence the perception of our school by sharing the daily realities. I wanted to help brand Cantiague as the best elementary school on the planet! Why should we allow people to create their own perceptions, which could be rooted in misinformation, based on word of mouth or what is published in the local paper?

Branding, which typically associated with the business world, is exactly what our schools need today! There is so much bashing of public education in the media today and the landscape of public education is not a pretty one. As educators – whether a superintendent, classroom teacher, support specialist, or the Lead Learner of the building – we still control everything that happens in our schools. And since we control what happens in our schools (even with state/federal mandates and policies, the final execution is our call) we know there are awesome techniques/approaches/experiences unfolding in our schools so let’s capitalize on them and spread the word; let’s brand our schools; let’s fuel the perceptions; and let’s create our realities!

Although we have worked diligently as a staff to tell our story, it occurred to me early in the school year that a voice was missing from our story – the voice of our students. Yes, the children were at the center of our story – their learning, thinking, creating and collaborating was at the center of our story.

Sinanis decided that the best way to brand his school was to let his students’ voices be heard, quite literally. Sinanis uses social media and simple technology to push out his message; using nothing more than an iPad and basic directing skills to shoot the videos, he manages to capture his school’s story by using short 5 minute videos that are not only adorable, but informative as well:

This video and others like it are the product of Sinanis’ branding efforts – a simple video which is not only an effective communications tool, but which also engages parents and the community in new and exciting ways via social media. But what about the concern that these videos take up valuable classroom time for the students chosen to participate? Sinanis explains:

The week before a group from a particular class is scheduled to film their video, I touch base with the teacher and ask him/her to select seven students from their class to be featured in the video. During their lunch period on either Wednesday or Thursday, we get together and they decide what they want included in the video and we collaborate on the details of how we want the shoot to unfold. In the end, they have control over what is featured and their voice is telling our story. It generally takes about 20 to 30 minutes to discuss and shoot the video and they are back to class by the end of recess so they have not missed any valuable learning time.

All of this comes together to brand the school as a place of learning, community, and innovation. The tone of the principal and the obvious camaraderie he shows with his students sells him as a source of warmth and comfort for both the students he leads and the parents who fret about the quality of their children’s education. The video allows him to get past the noise of negative headlines and media coverage of education in order to put even the most nervous parent at ease. But I think that the best part about this video, and the real reason that this video works as a messaging device at all, is because it is completely, 100% authentic. Sure, the corny jokes might be written in by the principal, but when you see the principal and his kids smiling and joking together, you can tell they are not just having fun, but are learning something too.

Often, we hear frustration from parents and teachers who say: “We concentrate on the ‘bad’ so much, we don’t remember that there is a lot of good going on as well”. We couldn’t agree more. While we will always be truthful about the challenges facing Nevada’s education system, parents should be made to understand the incredible things that are happening every day in Nevada’s education landscape. Using simple tools like the ones being used at Cantiague Elementary offer a way for adventurous principals to reach out and talk with as many parents and community members as possible, while branding their schools as fun, innovative centers of learning. Adopting such transformational and inventive ideas could allow Nevada to become a national leader in innovative parent engagement.

And that would be one great brand to have.