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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Building a Brand

Building on the Burchell Brand

Quick, without looking, name as many brands on your person as you can. Shirt? Phone? Shoes? Jacket? Chances are, you rattled off several name brands like North Face, Apple, Nike, and Levi's. Each company you named has succeeded in building a strong, recognizable and memorable brand that distinguished their products and influenced your purchases. Innovative educators learn and borrow what works from other fields, and marketing has much to teach us about the power of a brand.

Two years ago consultants from CORE, David Hedges and Barry Marks, led our staff through an exercise examining our "brand." We watched this TED talk from filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on the power of brands, and did a deep dive into how staff, students, parents and the community view Burchell, positive and negative. At first it may seem like an odd activity. Don't all public schools provide the same basic services? Isn't the point of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for schools be standardized and uniform? Why would our school need to identify our "brand"?

Times are changing in education, including expectations for what public schools should provide. There is a growing demand for choice, options, specialization and alternatives in education. While this causes quite a bit of consternation and fear in some sectors, our district has embraced the concept of choice and provides a wide range of options. A recent article in the Anchorage Daily News highlights these efforts very well:
Mat-Su's public-education approach: 'Basically you can go to any school you choose'
As "one size fits all" schooling gives way to specialization, more than ever schools must have a strong and well defined identity.

What is the Burchell High School brand? It has been interesting to explore this question by asking parents, students, staff and alumni, and listening closely to common threads. Burchell is a school of choice, an alternative school serving at-risk youth and providing a unique public school experience. Our challenge has been to grow and adapt our brand and services to meet changing regulations and community needs, while maintaining the "soul" and original mission of the school.  A few core values define BHS and set us apart: flexibility, creativity, respect, relationships and resilience.

Flexibility and options for learning have always been a part of the BHS brand.  Peter Burchell started the school out of a portable classroom behind Wasilla High with a vision for providing an alternative for students for whom traditional school just did not work.  Over the past 25 years, the school has continually grown, changed, and adapted, while maintaining the mission of providing an alternative for out-of-the-box students who don’t fit in the system or experience road blocks and life challenges derailing their education. In essence, we've been building on that brand ever since.

Today we provide a wide range of options and choice including regular and online classes, 24/7 access to the curriculum, classes from 8 am until 5 pm, a daycare for young parents, multiple opportunities for credit recovery, and an advisor for every student. We do this in a respectful, creative, diverse and family-oriented environment. We adapt constantly to meet the needs of our students, and our model fits our school population well. Branding is built on the environment and perceptions of the customer. Successful students feel safe and cared for here, connect with the school, and enjoy learning. They overcome adversity to make education fit within their lives. This is the heart of our brand.

Forced to present our brand on an elevator ride with a stranger, I would simply state the "three R's of Burchell":  Relationships, Respect, Resilience. These core values are the fiber of our school, key to educating and graduating students, and preparing them to be successful citizens.

"They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel." This quote from Carl Buechner speaks to the importance of personal connections. For us, educating a student begins with building positive, supportive, professional relationships. Building relationships and developing mutual respect go hand-in-hand, setting the stage for positive and creative teaching and learning to happen in a safe environment. Another saying attributed to author John Maxwell goes, "children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care". At-risk students need adults who model positive, professional and supportive relationships. They need teachers who care about them enough to help them overcome obstacles and stay focused on their education and goals. By building relationships with students, we engage them in school and lead them to the joy of learning and the pride of graduating. Positive, respectful relationships are central to our brand of school and the foundation for student success.

Why is resilience a core value of Burchell High School? Knowing that sometimes just coming to school shows how resilient our students are, and knowing the major obstacles like teenage pregnancy, homelessness, poverty, and abuse that they overcome, I was thrilled to watch Angela Duckworth's TED talk on how "grit," or resilience, is more important to success than intelligence. It speaks to the heart of our school, and helping young adults overcome adversity to reach their goals. If you haven't seen it, follow this link: Grit TED talk  Many of our students have faced difficult circumstances in life causing them to drop out or fall far behind in school. Usually, these factors are outside the school and often largely out of their control. Students cannot break through obstacles and find success in school if they are not gritty, willing to bounce back, and fight to overcome the odds. That is resilience. Supporting and fostering resilience is a keystone of our school and thus central to our brand.

Although we'd like our core values, reflected in practice, to define our brand, it is often programs that shape  image and perception. Implementing and growing our robotics program at BHS has notably impacted our brand in recent years, adding an academic dimension to public perception. The Advance Path Academy, a professional and structured online school within a school, has infused rigor and high expectations into our blended learning model.  In traditional schools, sports programs go a long way toward defining and impacting a school's brand. Three years ago, we told students and parents in their interviews that we do not have sports. We've "re-branded" now, saying "we are an alternative school with alternative sports" including archery, dance, Native Youth Olympics (NYO), boxing and jiu-jitsu, and outdoor recreation. These programs highlight the diversity and creativity of our school and student body, an example conscious branding helping us grow a positive public image.

All schools have an identity and public perception, or a "brand." Are you conscious of it? In control of it and actively shaping it? Building and cultivating your brand may directly impact the health and future growth and success of the school. What's your school's brand?