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Innovation Necessity: Preparing Schools for Oncoming Competition

Van White is ready to fight for his schools.

The president of the Rochester City Board of Education in New York says that to stay competitive in the age of charters and vouchers, his district must innovate.

As he told WXXI news:

“The charter schools understand that there’s a market out there that wants something better for the children in the city of Rochester. We can’t just say we’re going to make things better. We have to, in order to compete, be the best at some things, such that parents don’t put the ‘for sale’ signs up when they lose confidence in our schools, such that parents don’t send for the yellow buses to take their kids to parochial schools and charter schools.”

Until recently, words like “market share” and “competition” were considered taboo in public education. Many school leaders still hesitate to look at education through a business lens. But, as a new administration takes over in Washington, talk about competition among the nation’s K12 schools is heating up.

To stay relevant, school leaders such as White and others are embedding traditional marketing and business principles, from customer service to brand awareness, into their day-to-day decision-making. It’s either that, or risk losing students and the funding that follows them, to other providers.

Looking for a few ways to ensure your schools stay competitive in the era of choice and competition? Here are three ways to solidify your school district’s brand in an increasingly crowded market.

1. Communication matters big time

Great communication requires the right mindset. Think of your students, parents, and community members as customers, and go from there.

The world’s most successful brands have come to grips with an important truism about the relationships that sustain them: Today’s customers demand transparency, honesty, and the chance to provide feedback. That’s why Amazon and Uber ask customers to rate their experience after every purchase.

This is an idea that school districts have only recently started to grasp.

At Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) in Indiana, Superintendent Dr. Wendy Robinson sees customer service as a core focus of her mission.

“If you don’t listen to, inform, engage, and understand your customers, you run the risk of becoming obsolete,” she says.

FWCS requires all public-service employees to attend customer service training. Educators have even launched an online system for collecting, responding to, and following up on community feedback.

2. Respect the power of partnership

Innovation and change can be overwhelming, but schools don’t have to go it alone.

Every day, districts across the country work with local businesses, non-profits, and universities to provide innovative learning and community services not traditionally associated with local schools.

When funding, resources, or expertise are in short supply, the right partnership can infuse new thinking and ideas into your schools.

In Rochester, White’s plan includes a partnership between the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo and one of the district’s elementary schools. While teachers will still be in charge of learning strategy, the day-to-day administrative and leadership responsibilities will fall to university experts.

The idea: to bring new approaches and leadership styles to a struggling school.

3. Rewrite the very definition of teaching

Alternative schools do a great job branding teaching and learning as innovative and forward-thinking. While the quality of learning that takes place in these schools is often no better or worse, the feeling of newness and opportunity so pervades the messaging that parents and students take notice, especially when they are unhappy or disengaged.

The presence of technology is not enough. Increasingly, school leaders and educators are rethinking how to make the classroom a place for students to explore, play, and lead their own learning.

Personalized lessons, social-emotional learning, and gamification are just a few of the many ways schools are innovating in the classroom. Here’s a few more.

What are your schools doing to stay competitive in the age of choice? Tell us in the comments.

And stay tuned! We’ll have a lot more on how to win education market share in a new series coming soon. Meantime, don’t miss Why your schools are losing market share.