November/December 2015

Erin Brooks is assistant director for community engagement and outreach at High School District 214 and executive director of the District 214 Education Foundation.

In 1914, High School District 214 was established in Chicago’s northwest suburbs thanks to the vote of women. At that time, men’s and women’s ballots were kept separate, and although the men’s vote opposed a district’s creation, enough women favored establishment of a school system that the proposition passed.

Through the years, District 214 has grown from its controversial beginnings in the midst of the women’s suffrage movement to become Illinois’ second-largest high school system, annually preparing nearly 12,000 students for success after graduation.

The centennial year of 2014 provided a natural and celebratory opportunity to engage the community. Doing so creatively and effectively came with challenges.

The first was District 214’s size. Covering nearly 70 square miles and spanning eight communities, it comprises 10 unique schools and alternative programs.

Additionally, nearly 75 percent of resident taxpayers do not currently have a student in any school. A Fall 2013 phone survey showed more than 40 percent of them “didn’t know” if the district was doing a good job — presumably because they didn’t know much about the district and were unengaged. Good anniversary celebrations embrace all audiences, engage all stakeholders, and tell the schools’ story broadly.

District 214’s strategy, which started with a diverse leadership team and spanned a full academic year, drew an estimated 4,000 people, many with no current ties to schools, to centennial events; engaged the community in a district-wide food drive; and provided a solid foundation toward creation of an alumni relations program.

The celebration earned a Silver Trumpet Award from the Publicity Club of Chicago, a Golden Achievement Award from the National School Public Relations Association, and a Golden Achievement Award of Excellence — the highest award possible — from the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association (INSPRA).

In November, several members of District 214’s centennial team will present at the 2015 Joint Annual Conference, addressing planning for anniversary celebrations, lessons learned, ideas that did not work, and the tactics eventually used to unite a community. Here are some initial “tips from the trenches” from District 214.

Choose the right team

As with any initiative, choosing the right leaders for a large-scale anniversary celebration can be difficult, given the required time investment and staff’s already large workloads.

The committee sought to build a committee representing every classification of employee and every building, to ensure diversity of ideas and inclusion of all perspectives. This proved particularly beneficial when it came to ensuring buy-in from staff in all buildings.

Some team members were chosen because of what they did at the school level. For instance, planning included a service learning coordinator because of his proven ability to lead public service efforts that yield results. Others were chosen for a specific expertise, including a longtime employee and district graduate who could lend historical perspective others could not. We made a conscious effort to include staff members who also are alumni of the district, a representative from the finance department, and a board of education member.

Identify objectives

Intended outcomes will vary based on a number of factors, from anticipated size and scope of the celebration to the type of anniversary and the district itself. A 10th anniversary may be significant to some schools or programs; in other cases, a 100th may be the only time a celebration occurs. It is important to define objectives to determine what tactics you will use to get you there. A parade, for example, isn’t always the answer if the budget is small and the main objective is to engage current students.

Our team created a variety of objectives based on district history and future direction:

  • Engaging and re-engaging alumni toward development of a district-wide alumni presence;
  • Sharing the district’s story with new and broad audiences;
  • Engaging students and staff from all buildings; and
  • Positioning the district for the launch of an expanded education foundation that supports students and staff in every building.

Brainstorm opportunities

The District 214 centennial team began the planning process in the typical manner, with many pieces of blank paper taped to walls, open minds, and about an hour allotted for general brainstorming. The immediate goal was producing a summary idea document.

Before the meeting, however, the committee sought input from other districts through INSPRA. This proved integral to our success, with colleagues who had already celebrated anniversaries suggesting ways in which they had effectively marked the celebration — from time capsules and history books to interactive web presences and significant events. Our goal was not necessarily to do something unique, but rather ensure that what we did would meet our objectives. We determined a series of events throughout the year was preferable to a singular defining project, as it better allowed us to engage all audiences.

Develop a brand

Central to most public school systems tasked with planning observances is the theme of getting the word out broadly in a cost-effective way. The team designed a centennial-specific logo, printed in-house on large banners and displayed all year in each building. Centennial verbiage, in addition to appearing on the district website through a unique URL, was sent to schools for inclusion in programs of already existing arts and athletics events. Consequently, those visiting our schools for other reasons experienced our story and learned about our future direction.

The logo and key messaging also appeared on building marquees and in parent newsletters, to ensure broad exposure and consistency in the story that was being told.

Give back

Emerging early in the process was a team desire to, as part of the celebration, give back to the community.

While several options were discussed, including an elaborate day of service involving students from all buildings, the committee eventually settled on a district-wide community food drive for one key reason: The schools already did food drives on their own. Turning these individual projects into one cohesive undertaking proved a more efficient use of time and resources, and allowed us to make a collective community impact. In line with the centennial theme, the goal was to collect 100,000 food items over two weeks. Ultimately, we filled the shelves of local food pantries with more than 120,000 items.

This project simultaneously highlighted the schools’ focus on service learning.

Celebrate all aspects

While District 214 has a mission of preparing students for success in post-secondary education and in careers, there is not a singular approach to getting there.

It was important to the centennial team to celebrate three key aspects of life in our high schools: academics, arts (fine and performing), and athletics. Also important was celebrating the district’s history — including those who came before and made the district what it is today.

The process of identifying these components was not easy, with the academic celebration in particular proving challenging to define effectively. The committee eventually decided on a cohesive three-day “Centennial Celebration” weekend.

Those three days in February focused on

  • Academics: Former administrators and board of education members were invited to a special reception preceding a regular board meeting. The meeting included a photograph with the current board of education, a video created with old yearbook photos and messaging about academic excellence and growth; and a resolution marking the 100th anniversary;
  • Arts: Student artists took center stage the second evening, with a night of simultaneous and continual performances in various rooms of the main district building. Choir, band, orchestra, dance, show choir, debate and theater performers produced abbreviated shows, and 2D art was displayed throughout the building for visitors.
  • Athletics: The girls and boys varsity basketball teams faced off in a full day of competition. These back-to-back games drew significant crowds, and a video produced in partnership with the local Daily Herald newspaper was shown in advance of every game, celebrating standout sports moments over the last century, as well as distinguished alumni and coaches.

The weekend was scheduled based on one observation: All district schools were slated to play each other in basketball on one February weekend. The rest of the celebration developed around that schedule, though not without difficulty. That weekend was also the cheerleading championships, meaning some teams lacked cheerleaders. It also was an important day for band students, so some schools lacked pep bands. We learned quickly to control what we could and adapt where necessary.

Tell your story

One of the first brainstorming ideas came from an administrator who enthusiastically pitched a large-scale, walk-through historical display that told the district’s story from its start to where we are now — and where we’re going. The idea was big, and seemed tough to execute, requiring full buy-in from each school.

The administrator, part of the centennial team, took the lead, engaging a liaison from each building and coming up with parameters for each school to tell its story. The resulting exhibit filled a large room, with each school receiving six tables backed by art boards to fill with memorabilia, news stories, yearbooks, and photographs. Each building also created a video, displayed on tabletop monitors, to vividly illustrate their story.

The display, open throughout the three-day Centennial Celebration, was staffed continually by volunteers from each school who interacted with attendees.

Showcase students

All schools have talent within their walls, and an anniversary celebration is the ideal time to show it off. While the team’s initial plan had more ambitious opportunities to showcase students, timing and other factors shrank this strategy to a more manageable load.

Culinary students can be outstanding representatives of your school. District 214 students provided refreshments at one event. For a relatively small amount of money, they were able to purchase needed supplies and, as part of their class curriculum, create a continental breakfast menu they served to guests at a kickoff open house, all the time welcoming them and explaining a bit about the program and their culinary futures.

Celebrate origins

Going back to where you started is a natural way to honor your district’s past while also celebrating where it is going. Additionally, more than other events, it often attracts alumni or curious community members.

In District 214’s case, the first school, Arlington, was closed amid controversy in 1984 and sold — but the building remains, serving as a private school. We worked with the current owners to open the space to the public for a half day to kick off the Centennial Celebration.

The committee sought memorabilia donations from alumni. There was no shortage. Supplementing the collection with district archives of yearbooks and historical documents, the team created a hallway display that told the story of the district’s start, and Arlington specifically.

Yearbook viewing stations, arranged by decade, were set up in the library. There was also a video memory booth — a stationary camera and branded backdrop — which encouraged alumni to share their stories. The resulting video generated more than 1,000 views on YouTube, and many alumni who attended eagerly volunteered to become more involved in the district going forward. We added 300 names to a new alumni database.

The biggest lesson was to use what was available: the old PA system was used for announcements throughout the event, a community band played the schools’ fight songs in the gymnasium as guests arrived, and former staff and students hosted a discussion. Décor was kept to a minimum, and guests enjoyed simply being back in the building.

The success of the event came as much from it being in the old school building as it did from recreating the original atmosphere, to the extent that alumni from other schools that remain open surprisingly asked us to do similar events in their buildings in the future.

Create opportunities for students

Social media can be a great way to engage the younger generation, as well as staff.

The District 214 team created a weeklong spirit campaign leading up to the Centennial Celebration, assigned a unique hashtag to each school and asked students and staff to use that tag in conjunction with a tweet about what they loved about their building. The results were stunning: More than 300,000 tweets and retweets, and many engaging posts of students and staff telling why they loved their high school. Every student at the winning school received coupons donated from a local restaurant.

Consider media partnership

Particularly if the district has a local news source, a media partnership can be a significant way to increase exposure of the celebration and add new dimension to events.

District 214 partnered with the Daily Herald, a major suburban daily newspaper based, as the district is, in Arlington Heights. In addition to coverage and advance promotion of Centennial events, the Herald produced a video highlighting a century of athletic excellence; did a significant spread on the community food drive, along with a call to action; and ran 100 vignettes telling pieces of the District 214 story over 100 days. District 214 journalism students, community engagement and outreach staff, and Daily Herald reporters produced these vignettes. Collectively, these efforts ensured this story was in front of thousands of readers for more than 12 consecutive weeks.

Seek sponsorships

Stressed throughout the process was the reality that we are a public school system. While given a budget for the event, the committee worked to create celebratory opportunities that had minimal cost, and sought underwriting and sponsorships whenever possible.

As a result, a community band graciously agreed to play the fight songs of all schools during the kickoff event at the former Arlington High School. A local bakery underwrote the entire cost of refreshments for a special reception later in the year. The Jewel-Osco in Arlington Heights donated 15,000 plastic bags for the community food drive, which were dropped with notes on local doorsteps, filled with food by residents, and picked back up by students afterward. A local florist underwrote part of the cost of décor used throughout the celebration, and the local Panera Bread partially underwrote the cost of refreshments at the kickoff open house.

The next 100 years

Overall, the District 214 centennial effort met our key objectives — showcasing our district to diverse audiences and broadening our community’s exposure to District 214’s rich history and the path of our future by utilizing the talent of students and staff and the help of a team of volunteers. This is particularly important in public education. The initiatives also laid the groundwork for the launch this year of the District 214 Education Foundation, which will continue to build strong partnerships into our next century.

Visit to learn more about District 214’s Centennial Celebration.