“Great by Choice,” a book that examines why some companies thrive during chaotic times while others do not, has become a staple for business leaders across the country as they look for ways to boost profits.
Jim Collins’s book also has become the guide for Kevin M. Maxwell, chief executive of the Prince George’s County school system, as he moves to turn around Maryland’s second-largest district. Maxwell has made “Great by Choice” required reading for his senior staff. Small groups have met to dissect chapters and discuss ways to apply the principles to schools.
“Great by Choice” also has quietly become the school district’s latest motto, popping up on its Web site and letterhead and becoming a major part of the lexicon of the county’s top educators.
Maxwell said he was drawn to Collins’s approach to helping businesses make money and will use it for the school system, which is “in the business to get results.”
“We are going to make a choice that we are going to be great,” Maxwell said. “We are going to improve our circumstances.”
The district signed a five-year agreement with Collins to use the book title as its official motto. Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said the agreement came at no cost to the county.
Maxwell said Collins illustrates the benefits of mapping out a strategy and following it, and of meeting goals, not overextending yourself and acknowledging that “you can’t solve every problem today.”
He said he hopes teachers, parents and other community members will be intrigued by the motto, read the book and embrace the idea so that “together we can make great things happen.”
Maxwell said employees of a company experiencing upheaval often think the situation will not improve, believing the company “can’t do better” and resigning themselves to thinking “we are who we are.”
Despite the constant turnover in leadership and a ranking that places the county among the lowest-performing school districts in the state, Maxwell said he found teachers and administrators who embraced him when he was hired a year ago as part of a change in governance structure.
“I think people have a lot of energy and hope, and we want to channel that into positive work,” he said. “We have to take the hope that we feel in the organization and broader community and channel that moving forward.”
During the past year, Maxwell has expanded numerous existing programs, including online credit recovery, International Baccalaureate and arts and foreign language. But he has made few drastic moves.
“It is not my sense that the whole curricula framework of Prince George’s is awful,” he said. “It needs to be refined. We don’t have to blow it up and start over again.”
The motto is part of a larger school system effort to rebrand the district and develop a community outreach campaign, especially among parents who send their children to public schools and those who have chosen private and parochial schools.
School systems across the country, including the District, have implemented aggressive marketing campaigns, hoping to sell the virtues of their schools as they compete with private and charter schools for students.
“There is a broader effort that this is building up to,” said Board of Education member Daniel Kaufman, an executive vice president of a District-based communications firm. “We’re trying to pull all the pieces together, to create a branding platform, to really communicate what we are about.”
Kaufman pointed to the school system’s strategic plan, which has placed a major focus on literacy, and the recent hire of Keesha Bullock, a marketing specialist who joined the administration last week as the school system’s director of communication.
The district’s motto and its continuing effort to change the way it is perceived comes as the county government prepares to launch a new brand and marketing campaign of its own.
Barry Hudson, a spokesman for the county government, said the efforts go beyond changing a slogan.
“With branding, it’s about who you are and what you can achieve,” Hudson said.
Although the two entities have not collaborated on their campaigns, Hudson said the goal is the same: “To tell the story of the county.”
Kaufman said there are good things happening in county schools but that the district has struggled to spread the word about those achievements.
“There is not a unified message that everyone can talk about when parents want to know why I should send my child to the schools or why I should keep my child there,” he said. “We have to get the message out about what makes us great, why we are special. We have to get beyond the perceptions of the past. . . . Perception has not caught up with reality.”