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What Brand Is Your School?

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On the first day of school every September students want to wear the right brand of sneakers, jeans, and accessories. Cigarettes come in brands too. So does soda. Who would have thought that schools come in brands also?

Catherine DiMartino, a close colleague at Hofstra University recently coauthored an academic study for the journal Urban Education. It was called "School Brand Management: The Policies, Practices, and Perceptions of Branding and Marketing in New York City's Public High Schools." It is an excellent academic article, but as I read it I started to laugh hysterically at the idea that the way so-called educational "reformers" propose to improve urban (a euphemism for inner-city schools with student populations that are overwhelming minority and poor) education is to have better school branding so low performing schools can compete for better students and basically ignore the rest.

What DiMartino and her co-author Sarah Butler Jessen uncover is the way high schools in New York City, especially new small schools, create a brand name that they market to attract the type of students and families they want to attend and discourage the students and families they do not want.

According to DiMartino and Jessen, "Over the past 20 years, market-based choice initiatives have become a popular approach to education reform." The New York City Department of Education now operates more than 400 high school programs. Many communities no longer have a zoned or neighborhood high school. Instead there is a market place of competing schools that are all trying to attract better performing students so they can improve their own report card grades. Middle school students attend school fairs where even the worst performing schools have seductive names and elaborate and attractive advertising displays and distribute "swag" or goody bags. They then apply to as many as 13 high schools, many at a great distance from their homes. If they are "interested" in law at the age of 13, they can take a highly competitive exam and attend the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, the High School for American Studies at Lehman College, or one of four other high schools in the Bronx with Law in its name, or one of the nine non-law named Bronx high schools that offers a law program. There is similar market confusing in all the other boroughs as well.

Amongst New York City's highest ranking and most desired schools are the Bronx High School of Science, also known as Bronx Science, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and The Beacon School in Manhattan.

Now that we know how to fool parents and attract higher performing students, I am looking forward to a clever charter school entrepreneur opening Brooklyn Science, Bedford Stuyvesant High School, and The Beacon Light School. Charter entrepreneurs and so-called reformers could also start Harvord University Prep with a slight spelling alteration to avoid trademark infringement.

Students, as you return to school this September, remember that the most important brand in your wardrobe is the brand of your school. Welcome back!