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The Pandemic and the Pivot

Charlie Jahnigen

Sycamore Community Schools is a 5,600-student school district currently undergoing a nearly $130 million master plan that will see four new schools constructed or renovated by 2023. The design process was underway when COVID-19 hit—and threatened to derail our carefully constructed plans and community promises. Instead of falling victim to the pandemic, our team pivoted. Plans moved forward according to schedule and broke ground in spring 2021. Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, the project is still on time and on budget.

With our clients at the district, we were invited to share our perspectives and a few lessons learned at the 2021 EDspaces conference in Pittsburgh. Our presentation highlights how partnership, collaboration and community buy-in can not only be achieved but succeed in a new reality. Click here to download a copy of our presentation or read on to get the highlights.

 

In Brief: A History of the Need

The Sycamore Board of Education understood that to deliver current and future teaching/learning models, the district had to evaluate its facility needs on a more holistic level and identify the best long-term use of the community’s resources. Ultimately, the district identified a need for future-ready, modern learning spaces that would better serve students, families and the community, steward the community’s resources and continue the district’s tradition of academic excellence.

And so, in 2016, the Sycamore Board of Education initiated a master facility design planning process. The process began with an initial facilities assessment, followed by the creation of the master facility plan in 2017. In 2018, the Board of Education hired SHP to assist Sycamore Community Schoolls in developing a conceptual master plan that would be cost-effective and meet its long-term educational needs.

From the very beginning, community input was critical; after all, Community is right in the school district’s name. Our clients established up front that all community stakeholders—including businesses and residents who don’t send their kids to Sycamore Community Schools—were important voices in the conversation. We therefore engaged in educational visioning to evaluate the current shifts occurring in education, clarify what the future of education looked like for the district and what facilities would be needed to move the educational system forward.

This process of securing input from both the school community and the Sycamore Township community-at-large—along with detailed facilities assessments, land availability, busing and other district logistics, and more—led to three potential master plan concepts. Again, the community was engaged to weigh in on the concepts; in turn, community feedback directed the master facility plan steering committee and the Board of Education’s final recommendation.

After considering all the factors and multiple rounds of input from the community, the Sycamore Board of Education approved the $127.5 million plan and placed a bond issue on the November 2019 ballot. The initiative passed, with 61% of the community voting in favor of the measure. By early 2020, we had entered the design phase and by February 2021, we had hosted our first community design forum. We were making great progress… and then all hell broke loose.

 

The Pivot

From individuals to large corporations, everyone had to pivot some element of their lives once the pandemic took hold. We were forced to try new approaches and new ways of thinking in order to engage with our district and community stakeholders. Embracing a few “new school” business processes, tools and technology provided opportunities for content, connection and community engagement at every level. (We were able to implement some best practices that helped set a new precedent for how we will operate well into the future!) When combined with a few tried-and-true “old school” relationship-building and community relations tactics, these efforts allowed us to keep marching forward without missing a beat.

“New School” Business Processes: Online Surveys.

Our interior design group developed online surveys to support department design meetings. This ability for our team to capture and disseminate information using digital tools was key. It meant that there was less chance of human error, allowed for better input from the staff (which impacted our design), proved to be a strong way to communicate design intent, and—as an added benefit—meant we would have fewer change orders in the field. We plan to continue this practice on future projects as a way to get the most out of staff members’ time and experience!

“New School” Tools: Online Meetings.

We also decided to keep our community meetings in place… but with a twist. We obviously couldn’t hold them in person, so we leveraged Zoom video conferencing instead. We also switched to a lunch and learn format instead of hosting an after-work-hours meeting. When the district debuted the online lunch and learn in March 2021, we had 130 online attendees and over 1,000 YouTube views, far more than online or in-person attendance had been for previous community meetings. By conducting this session virtually, we were able to see who was attending and we were also able to capture feedback in real-time. This ability to be nimble enough to try new things will certainly continue in the future.

“New School” Technologies: Virtual Reality.

In our first lunch and learn, we provided an update on each building that included 3D walk-throughs, allowing first-time meeting participants to really see what the buildings would look like. We used more animation and images to help stakeholders not only visualize the facilities but also build energy and excitement around the project. These walk-throughs also communicated the design in a way unlike any other. Ultimately, this helped people understand the vision for the spaces and more importantly, know that their tax dollars were being spent wisely.

“Old School” Relationship-Building: Trust and Communication.

Much of the success of this project was due to the groundwork that was laid in 2017. We had already built trust and knew what communication styles worked best for both SHP and our Sycamore Community Schools clients. When the pandemic hit, we leaned in on our relationships, which made working and collaborating remotely much less painful.

From the beginning, we were unleashed by our clients to keep the design process moving forward while they were focused on bigger and more important operational issues for the district. For example, if we surveyed the music teachers about what they needed from their studio spaces, we kept decision-makers informed of the outcomes but were free to make adjustments to our design without “running it up the flagpole,” so to speak.

“Old School” Community Relations: Events, Contests, Communication and Surprise & Delights.

For major milestones, like the groundbreaking, Sycamore Community Schools hosted a by-invitation-only event with a very small and select group of invitees. The district made sure to follow all state and local regulations when engaging in these in-person events, but the added air of exclusivity turned invitees into community influencers—and that was crucial to maintaining positive word-of-mouth about construction progress.

The district also hosted a contest called, “Building our Future, Honoring our Past,” which was open to students in all grade levels. The winners were invited to attend and turn dirt at the groundbreaking ceremonies. The students came up with all kinds of really creative ways to honor the history of the district and these facilities, including songs, 3D models, a vinyl record and more.

Finally, Sycamore Community Schools relied on proactive communications to keep community stakeholders informed and invested in the construction process. For instance, the district sent newsletter mailings to keep homeowners apprised of site work and road closures that would impact their neighborhoods. When hot summer weather whipped up construction site dirt and dust, district officials arranged for free car washes for affected homeowners. And all residents in neighborhoods surrounding the new and renovated schools were offered free passes to school athletics and cultural events as a way to enjoy the programming the district has to offer. These small but simple “surprise & delights” may seem minor, but really helped community stakeholders to feel heard, informed, appreciated and engaged.

 

Lessons Learned

One key takeaway that our joint team learned was that you can reach and engage a lot more people when you always offer virtual attendance options for meetings. Yes, these were first implemented due to COVID restrictions, but we found that we could garner greater attendance at a live-streamed virtual meeting due to the fact that people didn’t have to drive to a school right after work. Instead, they could go home and join with an iPad from the comfort of their own couch. Taping the community update sessions and offering them online after the fact also allowed those who could not attend to still gain insights and project progress reports at their convenience.

Another lesson learned is that everything we create can be used as community relations content. For example, the 3D walk-throughs and real-time video tours have proven quite popular among stakeholders. The district has enjoyed great response rates, views and social media engagement on these updates because they make abstract design and construction concepts very tangible and real. Again, this sounds simple, but even the smallest design update can be shared online as a relationship-building tactic.

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