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Does Your School’s Brand Need to Claim “Academic Excellence”?

Posted by on May 13th, 2024
Posted in Blog, Independent Schools    Tags: , , , , ,

A young Black man smiles while sitting at a school desk.

My thinking is evolving on the need for your school’s brand to make a claim for excellence. 

When independent schools first began to embrace the idea of building a strategic brand, it was because they saw an opportunity to stand out in a sea of sameness. Families enrolled children based on geographic proximity, family traditions, or shorthand rankings of a school’s position in a region’s reputational pecking order. 

Strong academics, invested teachers, and personalized learning were — and still are — all table stakes, as in, the required bare minimum of an independent school. Elevating a bigger idea behind a school’s purpose — why it needed to exist in this landscape — became a savvy way for a school to find distinction and stand out.

At Mission Minded, we were loath to counsel clients that their brand’s focus should prioritize jargony ideas about rigor and excellence, which were at best bland platitudes and at worst buffeted high-pressure environments where students burned out. Instead, we spotlighted ways to focus on culture, values, experience, and the impact those yielded.

But somewhere along the way, independent schools lost the buy-in of some of your most important audience members: parents. Today, many need to see, understand, and be reassured of what “academic excellence” means for your school. As a result, your school’s brand may need to revisit and define academic excellence (actually, redefine it) much more explicitly.

Innovative, or the New Baseline?

What’s driving our reconsideration of academic excellence and its relationship to your school’s brand?

We’ve watched as countless schools embraced and adopted transformational teaching and learning approaches like social-emotional learning, wellness education, inclusion and belonging, student-led exploration with project-based learning, and curricula that developed students’ ability to see themselves as capable positive changemakers. We saw the sector reconsider the idea that a 4-year college was the only worthy trajectory for graduates. Hurrah! The very model of school has changed based on the visionary and brave thinking of school leaders and educators.

Schools’ brands increasingly elevated these trends and concepts. Inside the building, many teachers and administrators believed they sufficiently differentiated their school as unique. What they couldn’t see was that almost every school was integrating the same ideas. Empathy, wellness, balance, changemakers… they’ve become the new table stakes — especially in more progressive schools, but even in more traditional institutions.

Hold that thought and let me switch to another facet of thinking about your school’s academic excellence.

The Reassurance Parents Need

The world your school is preparing your students to live in, work in, and contribute to, is not the same world from which you came. 

When I say that, I suspect your first thoughts go to recent events like the global pandemic, the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, increasingly polarized political divides, and of course, the blast-off of AI.

But really, those events are the tip of the iceberg in the way the world has changed. The simple truth is that our economy and culture have shifted. Your parent community may be stuck in the past — where academic excellence equaled test scores and college lists, which translated into getting hired by the best corporations, law firms, medical practices, etc. They climbed the ladder to success, and they believe that’s what’s needed for their children, too.

Schools need to prepare students for the realities of what their future holds — not how we operated in the past. This likely isn’t news to any of you working in schools every day. 

The constituent group we DON’T tend to see living and breathing this conversation are the parents whose support you need so your school can truly innovate to meet this moment

What we see time and time again in our work with schools across the country is that educators aim to innovate their brands, culture, and curricula to reflect the world today’s students live in. And parents who are clinging to outdated notions of academic excellence resist change.

Concurrently, those parents consume a tidal wave of negative clickbait about young people’s obsession with social media combined with lingering fallout from pandemic restrictions. Learning loss, mental health concerns, and social disconnection have led some students to struggle to launch to independence.

Thus, many parents jump to a conclusion: Schools aren’t doing job No. 1, which is preparing students for their future. And they think that’s because schools have abandoned the notion of academic excellence. They don’t recognize your excellence because it’s not the version they received and feel validated by.

There’s your brand’s opportunity: To bridge this misunderstanding and redefine the idea about what academic excellence requires for today’s students in today’s world.

One More Pressure: Falling Admission Pools

So, at this moment, many of you are facing a cohort of parents whose personal reference point for academic excellence is a lecture-drill-and-test environment. And at the same time, population changes mean fewer school-age children.

Those parents are asking questions. Is your school worth it? Can I trust you to ensure my student will be successful?  What’s the value of what you’re offering?

What they’re looking for is for you to show them why and how you are academically excellent and how that differentiates you.

What’s YOUR Excellence?

At Mission Minded we have discouraged building a brand solely on the notion of academic excellence because it’s unspecific, undifferentiated jargon.

But today, to answer the questions we know parents and caregivers are asking, you’ll need to bring them along on a journey of understanding. Some questions you’ll want to explore together:

  • What are our world’s most pressing challenges and opportunities?
  • What does academic excellence require today to meet those challenges and opportunities?
  • How does your school deliver — or could it deliver — on that?
  • What parts of your values and culture uplift that?
  • How do students experience that?
  • What do other schools claim and do?

Check out this post from our archive, The IMPERATIVE Case for “Future-Proof” Parent Education, for more ideas about how to engage your parent community in the conversation.
If it’s time to refine your school’s brand strategy to recalibrate what truly sets you apart, or to embark on a strategic plan that rallies your community around a new vision for your excellence — let’s talk! Mission Minded stands ready to be your collaborative partner in bold thinking that moves your school from expected to extraordinary.

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Director of Education Strategy Romayne Levee leads our education practice, working with independent schools and educational organizations to raise their profiles with strategies that benefit school leaders and their communities immeasurably. She has developed dynamic strategic plans and brand strategies for Mission Minded clients from coast to coast, including San Francisco Day School, Friends School of Baltimore, and Marlborough School (LA). Romayne is the founding Board Chair of Vistamar School, an independent high school in LA, and currently serves on the Board of Lewis & Clark College.

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