Branding Against Closure: Neighborhood Schools and the Management of Risky Futures

Julia A McWilliams, University of Pennsylvania


Philadelphia is one of many distressed American urban school districts, from Chicago to New Orleans, that has embraced market-based responses like school closures to tackle entrenched problems of funding and academic performance. While urban districts have increasingly appropriated closures-as-policy, little scholarship interrogates the sweeping social and organizational changes in governance and praxis that schools make when faced its explicit ultimatum: compete or close. Applying a framework developed in the anthropologies of branding and value, this dissertation explores school leaders’ fraught responses to imminent closure as they attempted to make their “value” legible in an expanding marketplace of school choice. Through a three-year ethnographic case study of an ethnically diverse neighborhood school slated for closure, I examine how the school’s strategies to remain open hinged on the selective enrollment and retention of students deemed “valuable” to their imagined brand. As these practices indexed raced notions of “value”, I analyze how school branding processes deepen racialized disparities in educational provision. Methods include over 200 semi-structured interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, participant observation in classrooms, district offices and meetings, and document analysis. As closures continue to threaten urban public schools across the United States, this study uniquely captures the dilemmas that surface in educational practice and philosophy when schools prioritize the business of survival over the business of educating. Further, I contribute to emergent literatures in educational commodification and marketization by explaining how school branding, prompted by closure threats and competition for school survival, extend inequities in opportunity structures for vulnerable youth.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

McWilliams, Julia A, "Branding Against Closure: Neighborhood Schools and the Management of Risky Futures" (2017). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10255485.