Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

School districts are paying to burnish their brands to counter images and compete with charters

Re-branding efforts in Norristown, Upper Darby, Coatesville and elsewhere are partly due to increased competition for students — and the dollars attached to them — with heavily advertised cyber- and brick-and-mortar charter schools, as well as private and parochial schools.

Robert (B.J.) Schmalbach, high school librarian and 95' alumni  shows off Norristown banner in the library at Norristown Area High School.
Robert (B.J.) Schmalbach, high school librarian and 95' alumni shows off Norristown banner in the library at Norristown Area High School.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

The Norristown Area School District hasn’t been in the news much in the last few years, and what little coverage it did get tended to focus on fights with the state over lack of funding, or how it coped with high poverty rates in the Montgomery County river town that gives it its name.

So when Christopher Dormer took over last August as superintendent, one of his first priorities was a sweeping district-wide effort to rebuild the brand of the Norristown district’s schools.

In just seven months, the school district, which includes Norristown and East and West Norriton, has have unveiled a new logo (a distinctive block “N”) and begun working on a redrawn eagle mascot, hired a communications specialist, and launched new accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — all toward a goal of bringing back a positive vibe.

“If you’re not going to sit there and tell your story, you leave it to other people to tell your story,” said Dormer, who dreams of seeing kids and their parents out on the town sporting the new “N” on logo hats or shirts. “These old narratives became the story.”

Norristown has joined a growing number of Philadelphia-area public school districts where superintendents now talk of “building their brand” in the same enthusiastic tones as cola executives or internet start-ups — and often are willing to invest energy and tax dollars in PR firms or designers to make it happen.

Rebranding efforts in Norristown, Upper Darby, Coatesville, and elsewhere are partly due to increased competition for students — and the dollars attached to them — with heavily advertised cyber- and brick-and-mortar charter schools, as well as private and parochial schools. But school leaders also insist it’s an effort to counteract negative news headlines in an era of tight budgets and culture wars in the classroom.

“It’s a competitive world out there, so consequently they have to spend resources to say what they’re doing well,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “If not, the only time they’ll be in the news are when sports teams are doing well — or something bad happens.”

In the Upper Darby School District, officials say the $70,000 authorized in December to hire Magnum Marketing is creating a campaign to not only highlight what’s positive about the district’s diversity or academic achievements but also drive community support for its plan to build a new middle school and refurbish existing schools.

Daniel McGarry, superintendent of the roughly 12,000-student Delaware County district, said the rebranding “is about changing the image of how people perceive Upper Darby and make these areas points of pride.” He noted that an image overhaul would also help Upper Darby attract top teachers in a competitive marketplace.

The branding drive has included a big push on social media — with 1,000 additional “likes” for the district’s Facebook page, which featured a viral post of an immigrant student seeing snow for the first time –— and a plan to designate “student ambassadors” to spread positive messages in the community. The district even boasts a new tagline: “Opportunity, unity, excellence.”

In Norristown, high school librarian B.J. Schmalbach, a 1995 graduate of the high school, was tapped to research the history of the district, which started in 1836 and merged with East Norriton and West Norriton in 1966. The goal, he said, was to infuse tradition into the new logo and colors. Today, the district has 7,100 students in 12 schools.

“I think identity is important,” said Schmalbach, noting that the blue and white color scheme dates to 1892 and that the new block “N” also draws from school teams of the past. He said when you tell kids about the district’s history and alums like former San Francisco 49ers standout Steve Bono, “they think they’re part of something important and long-lived.”

“Here’s something that resonates with every generation that went to Norristown High School. In some cases, we have some students that are fourth-generation,” said Dormer. “We want them to identity with their grandparents, their great-grandparents.”

The Norristown rebranding is mostly an in-house, lower-budget effort — working with district employees or existing vendors. New athletic uniforms will have to be phased in because of cost. Instead of dollars, many of the projects focus on enthusiasm and participation — such as a student contest to pick a new eagle mascot, followed by a big launch party.

The key, Dormer said, is better communication. “We were a closed door for a long time,” he said, citing recent years when the district put no effort into publicity and was, in his words, “muffled and muted.”

Of course, better messaging only works when you have something to sell.

Norristown is pushing a sweeping new-technology agenda that aims to provide 1,200 new devices in the schools every year for five years, while working with the Sprint Foundation for 800 new WiFi hot spots across the district. That’s in addition to a major new early literacy initiative and a fine-tuned emphasis on 21st-century job skills.

“We need to be better communicating with the community,” said Norristown Area school board president Shae Ashe, who sees synergy between the technology upgrade and the rebranding. “We had an outdated website that was not user-friendly. We didn’t have communication channels to reach parents and community.”

The growth of charter schools that compete for students and often advertise heavily on radio or social media has clearly been a prod for school districts to think about their brand in ways they didn’t before. Norristown currently pays almost $3 million of its $38 million budget for about 500 district kids to attend charters, and Dormer said he’d love to woo some of them back. “I believe that many leave due to perception,” he said.

In the Coatesville Area School District, which hopped on the rebranding bandwagon in 2017, the loss of 800 students to competing charter schools in just three years was a spur for its campaign that included hiring a new communications firm and sending out glossy mailers.

Rob Fisher, who became Coatesville Area school board president after the rebranding was underway, conceded that so far the effort has done little to stop the charter-school exodus that costs the Chester County district $40 million a year.

“It’s a shame,” he said, “but we’ll keep working at it.”