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January/February 2013

Practical PR: Communicating needs vital during construction
by Danielle Schweigert

Danielle Schweigert is director of community relations for DuPage High School District 88 in Addison and a member of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

With today’s challenging economy, undertaking and completing a school construction project can be a daunting task.

Should you renovate current buildings or rebuild? How do you earn support of stakeholders to make the project a success? And which design elements will ensure the project provides long-lasting upgrades?

DuPage High School District 88 recently completed a $115.3 million construction project to modernize the infrastructure and learning environment at Addison Trail and Willowbrook high schools. In April 2007, the two communities voted to fund a $104.7 million referendum proposal called “Building the Future,” and the project was completed during the 2011-12 school year. The project included:

• Technology enhancements

• Added/up-to-date science labs

• Enhanced music and art facilities

• New spaces for team learning opportunities

• Extensive upgrades to electrical and plumbing systems

• Student-centered commons areas

• Added classroom and instructional space

• Added physical education and athletic facilities

• Air-quality improvements

• Improved traffic flow and parking

District 88 would like to share the following six tips for boards to consider regarding construction now and providing for the future:

1. Engagement is key
When campaigning for a school construction project, it’s crucial to know the audience in order to target messages that matter. Engage the community ahead of time to show you care and that schools are the cornerstone of the community. Involve key groups such as civic organizations and governing bodies as early as possible.

Also reach out to parents/ guardians, community members of all ages, surrounding school districts, media, students, staff and union members to get their input. The more ownership stakeholders feel toward the project, the more they will want to see it succeed.

Continue to survey stakeholders to gauge their level of support, and focus on those who will vote “yes.”

2. Create a sense of need
It’s important to show why the construction project is needed. Give tours of facilities, make a video to show the facilities and offer tours of newer facilities to point out the differences. Many people may ask, “It was fine when I went to school here. Why do you need money for new facilities now?”

Needs change, especially with so many changes in technology. It’s the district’s job to show people why updates are important and possibly more energy efficient, and why good maintenance is essential.

3. Create a vision
Work with stakeholders to develop a strategic plan and a mission of that reflects the board and community vision for the district and how the project fits into this vision. Create committees to help with various aspects of the construction project (such as campaigning and finances), and remember to contact legal representatives to make sure all laws are being followed.

Keep lines of communication open to listen to everyone’s wants and needs, and then prioritize those items. Allow all groups involved to give input, and try to implement as many of those wants and needs as possible. If something people say they want isn’t feasible, be prepared to tell them why it won’t be included at this time.

4. Everyone on board
Having all board members support the project is important. If the board supports the project, it can move forward for the voters to decide whether they want to approve it. The District 88 board was tremendous in supporting the district’s “Building the Future” vision.

As a board, be prepared to allow committees to make some decisions in order to keep the project moving forward, which will save time and money. Those committees should report to the board regularly to keep members up to date.

5. Plan for the future
Upgrades, especially with regard to technology, can be short lived so make certain planning is for a long-term vision versus a quick fix.

To learn about school design trends, District 88 toured many schools and recognized that school design today includes wireless technology. Therefore, installing wireless capabilities was part of this project. Also budget to train staff on how to use that technology and for the replacement of technology.

District 88 noticed another popular trend was creating a college-like environment, where students had a commons area to gather. That area was near the main administrative offices to form the “central hub” of the school.

Remember to consider what needs to be done internally to the buildings in terms of infrastructure to ensure they’re up to code to allow for expansion in the future. Buying materials with better finishes helps avoid continuous maintenance.

District 88 focused on improving multiple areas/aspects of the school, which allowed the district to take a holistic, yet realistic approach to the project.

6. Piecing together the puzzle
If school is going to be open during the project, try to keep construction away from students. Schedule construction during breaks as much as possible, and go section by section to ensure the learning environment is minimally disrupted.

Determine which staff members will be involved in the project, and allow principals to remain focused on the education of students. District 88 named assistant principals as administrative liaisons for “Building the Future” to ensure that principals and other administrators could continue their regular work.

Develop the project as completely as possible before construction begins — and be sure to review it — to avoid having to do things multiple times.

School construction projects can seem overwhelming, but with careful planning, community involvement and everyone working together, a successful project can be developed that embodies school design of the future.

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