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

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

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.
About Julia McWilliams
Julia A. McWilliams is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Education and Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Julia’s research interests include urban education reform, racial inequality, and immigration. Her dissertation examines how school closure as reform shapes governance and organizational structures in urban public schools facing the threat of closure. She is currently a lecturer in the School of Education at Temple University and the Urban Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as an ESL teacher in Philadelphia’s Migrant Education Program. In addition to work on school reform in Philadelphia, she has conducted ethnographic research on the educational experiences of recently resettled refugee populations from Burma and Bhutan. Prior to beginning graduate school, Julia received a B.A. in political economy from Princeton University and an MS.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania and spent several years teaching in a small college in Vientiane, Laos.

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