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Children Are Not Cheeseburgers

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What's in a name? If it's a school, the name is often used to reflect society's aspirations - an inspirational hero, or an individual leader who rose up through the ranks by his, or sometimes her, bootstraps. Nowadays, if it's a school, the name might point to a sea change in what we have always thought public education was all about.

Among the 338 new public schools that have been created since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control in 2002, 131 include the word "Leadership" in their names in one way or another. Another 114 are called an "Academy," and 31 include "Prep" or preparatory in their names, monikers generally associated with private schools for the elite. These lofty, if generic, names are literally replacing those that were named for American social giants such as the African-American gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, or founding father, Thomas Jefferson– just two of the 112 schools that have been phased out since 2003.

The name changes are not insignificant. "Schools traditionally have been named to honor someone, like a civil rights leader,” said Sharene Azimi, 41, a vice president at Fenton Communications, a firm that specializes in public interest. Replacing them with names like West Prep Academy — one of three smaller schools that opened in what was M.S. 44 on West 77th Street in Manhattan– and Civic Leadership Academy –one of four high schools that opened in the Elmhurst Educational Complex, formerly known as Corona Park– may mean that "they want a name that will draw in a different audience."

A different audience? Public school parents used to just be called parents. Now, in the new marketplace of ideas, they're called the "audience." Similarly, public schools traditionally served the children who lived around them. But since school choice has taken off in the last decade, New York City public school kids no longer automatically attend public schools in their own neighborhood. Many charter schools and new, small public schools are now available by lottery to children from all over the city.

The names, then, try to reflect the brand the schools are trying to "sell" to attract a certain brand of parents. A school that promises academic achievement, success or some kind of future leadership position might be attractive to today's informed high-achieving parents. “The schools want the name to reflect the kind of student they are seeking,” said Azimi.

But, Azimi is quick to add, a school is obviously about much more than its name. “Certainly the brand of the school is much broader," she said. "It’s about creating an impression in the mind of your target audience. What association do you want them to have with your organization?" The name reflects who you are as a school, and how you interact with prospective parents, teachers, teachers unions and students.

Target audience, brand names, providing services? If the language sounds more like corporate speak, than school speak, that's not a mistake. "Names say what we value as a society," said Jay Greene, 43, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute and the co-author of the 2007 report, "What’s in a Name, The Decline in the Civic Mission of School Names."

Under Bloomberg, the new school administration values applying business principles to education - most notably in the way that students' standardized test scores are taken into account in teacher evaluations and school closings. It stands to reason then, that the new world of technocratic solutions to public education reform would favor schools with names like Quest to Learn over Bayard Rustin High — named for the civil and gay rights leader – a switch that is due to take place in September.

"In the corporate world, you hear a name that makes the company sound more tech savvy or more friendly and that became the latest naming trend," said Aaron Dignan, 30, a founding partner of Undercurrent, a digital strategy marketing firm. Dignan however, thinks that, in addition to marketing, something else is at work. In the past, he said, "we used names because we were looking for trust and reliability in things.

“An ad agency would be named after its CEO, like J. Walter Thompson, who is a real person the client could meet and trust,” said Dignan. “But over the past 30 or 40 years,” he said, ”trust in companies has eroded and the public began to wonder if there is something beyond trust that a name should reflect.

"With the schools, that’s just now catching on," said Dignan. "Having a school named for Kennedy is great, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about the school as a brand."

What does a branded school look like? Some try to resemble tony upper eastside private schools. For example, at Harlem Success Academy, a collection of charters in Harlem led by former City Council Chair, Eva Moskowitz, the students wear bright orange shirts, blue pants for the boys, plaid pinafores for the girls. Picking up on the school colors, the tidy uniforms and school website scream unity and order. They refer to their students, K through twelve, as scholars. And why not? It’s certainly something to aspire to.

Meanwhile across the Harlem River, Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability, expected to open on the site of Beach Channel High School in September 2010, is still a brand in progress. Howard Rosenberg, 55, a management consultant who is working with the school's founders explains that his clients wanted to name it The Artisan School. The school was approved, in spite of the name. The Department of Education was “into the theme of environmental sustainability," said Rosenberg. "They wanted to differentiate it from the previous failed school called Beach Channel." Hence, the mouthful of a name.

It helps that the school actually focuses its curriculum on environmental and other kinds of sustainability. "The most important thing," said Rosenberg, "is consistency between what the intent of the name is and what the school is about. Otherwise you have cognitive dissonance."

Dignan apparently reads the same marketing textbooks. "At the end of the day," he said, "the principles of branding are about consistency.

"It’s about creating a set of values, translating those values into an experience and making sure that experience is consistent across the board," said Dignan. "So it’s McDonald's all over again. We care about fast cheap meals for everyone, we are going to learn how to do that, we are going to make it incredibly consistent and we are going to do it in 22,000 restaurants.

"The same cheeseburger in every place. That’s branding. It’s trust."

Children obviously aren't cheeseburgers. But perhaps getting rid of the names of the schools that failed, and re-branding them with words that promise an academy of thinkers, writers and performers and a young women's leadership school isn't so bad, after all.

For good measure some of the new schools are named for prominent individuals like Manhattan's Frank McCourt High School which will open in September in memory of the Irish-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Stuyvesant High School teacher. Another inspirational name was given to Frances Perkins High School in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn. Opened in 2008, the school was named for civil and labor rights activist and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Labor Secretary, Perkins, who was the first woman to hold a U.S. cabinet position.

But for the most part, “You have a lot of these very aspirational names.” said Greene, the education reformer. “They say something about what the institution values.” And we can only hope, what the institution delivers.

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Susan Sawyers is the former director and curator of Los Angeles' Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, established to promote excellence in the arts and medical research. She is a mother and a reporter who lives in New York City.