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School Leaders Urged to Brand the Distinctive Story Behind Their Districts

Amanda Corridan leading her group to develop a communication plan

Negative news. Diversity, equity and inclusion. Bond measures. Budget constraints. Chances are good most school system leaders have had to deal with at least one of these issues already during this school year. 

The story was the same for a group of administrators from the 2018 cohort of AASA’s Urban Superintendent Academy. Renae Bryant, Valencia Mayfield and Jennifer Root presented their findings to a crowded room Thursday at AASA’s National Conference on Education.

Root, an assistant superintendent with the Anaheim Union High School District in California, said the task was easier in 2007 when she was a principal and needed to counteract the conversations at the fence during student pickup. Those days are long gone.

“Schools are not branding ourselves,” she said. “We’re letting other folks tell our story for us.” 

For her and her colleagues, that had to change. As part of their work, they researched best practices in marketing and read communication plans where they found the following components: 

  • Audience
  • Purpose 
  • Format or type of message 
  • Frequency

“In education, it is important that we are more intentional about our practices in communicating,” said Mayfield, an assistant superintendent with ABC Unified School District in California. “We must be more intentional about it … so they (stakeholders) really understand your single story.”

The group settled on an approach that focused on telling the single story−one key thing that stakeholders should know. The veteran administrators said the work was significant for them all.

“We have a lot of declining enrollment in our districts, so branding and telling our narrative is a matter of survival for us,” said Bryant, director of English learner and multilingual services in the 31,000-student Anaheim high school district.

Defining that single story helped each of the districts shape its narrative. ABC’s story is based on the concept it is one of the top school districts in California. Anaheim sought to differentiate how its opportunities allow for unique student experiences in a branding effort that used the hashtag  #UnlimitedYou.

The trio even gave audience members a chance to learn the process by working in small groups on sheets of chart paper tacked around the room. The Colton Joint Unified School District in California used the exercise to expand its dual immersion program.

“I know this is the conversation we are having in our district and this will help me,” said Amanda Corridan, a Colton Joint Unified administrator. “I think we can take our work to the next level.” 

That’s really the point for the presenters−giving others the confidence to do the work when they return home. Bryant said she and her colleagues are proof positive that the practice actually works. 

“Although it was a little project that we did for the superintendent’s academy, we’ve all seen great results so far,” she said, smiling.

(Lesley Bruinton is president-elect for the National School Public Relations Association and a contributor with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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