HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


A School Grows in Washington: Insights on Opening a Second Campus

by Ronit Greenstein Issue: Size Matters

The move from one campus to two solves space issues while challenging a school’s sense of unity and intimacy among students and faculty. Greenstein describes changes and innovations her school developed to meet these challenges.

The fall of 2013 at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital (JPDS-NC) was a time of firsts: the first days of 5774, the first days of the academic year, and our first days as one school on two campuses. The expansion process had begun three years earlier, as the population of young Jewish families in the District of Columbia and surrounding areas rose and there was increased demand for quality Jewish day school education.

A Second Home

Based on the results of a detailed survey, we knew that we needed to find a second campus within a ten-minute drive from the current school. The board found a suitable building already zoned as a school one mile away. The building even had Jewish roots and a direct connection to JPDS-NC: it was built in the 1920s by great-great-grandparents of a current JPDS-NC student.

The construction and move to the South Campus was a carefully orchestrated operation. Working closely with the project manager, the transition team—composed of administrators, board members, staff and the architectural team—executed a plan comprised of studies of projected student population, infrastructure changes to connect both campuses, programmatic changes to maintain the connections across the campuses and countless spreadsheets and checklists.

The renovation of a stately home turned school building came to fruition on September 9, when the Kay and Robert Schattner Center South Campus became home to one pre-kindergarten and three kindergarten classes. In the fall of 2014, three first grade classes will join the South Campus, leaving the North Campus to house second through sixth grades.

Redefining Size, Reaffirming Identity

Being on two campuses drove us to reflect on our core values. What does it mean to be a small school? Is it about the number of students? Is it about being in one location? Or is it really about intimacy and having a sense of community that is essential to our identity?

Throughout this period of growth and transition, JPDS-NC has continued to foster the elements of the school culture that defines us. We were staunch in our commitment to creating strong bonds among students of all ages, among their families, and among students, teachers and administrators. We devoted hours to discussing the programs and practices that encouraged our students to develop connections within and across grades.

We designed new programs, schedules and opportunities for bonding and bringing our students together as one community. We are working continuously to ensure that our signature programs—Reading Buddies, Birthday Lunches, iBuddies, and whole-school performances—adapted and endured. And we continue to reflect, re-evaluate and tweak programs and processes as needed.

Form Meets Function

The South Campus building provided an opportunity to rethink and revitalize our early childhood learning program. Built as a large private home with smaller rooms and larger public spaces, the building encouraged us to explore different ways of thinking, planning and designing our program, and to apply elements of the Reggio Emilia pedagogical philosophy.

The building features two spacious central rooms that serve as the kikar, the central gathering space for students in their grade; an expansive studio/laboratory, a sadnah, where students meet for research work and art exploration; and an outdoor learning area. These large communal spaces allowed us to introduce research labs in reading, writing, and science. The labs have contributed to the curricula and to building community on campus by providing children with scheduled times to connect with grade-level friends and to learn with every grade-level teacher. Teachers began using communal spaces more frequently, which invited more collaboration. Our studio/laboratory and outdoor learning area also presented an opportunity to develop our STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program.

Adding the South Campus also gave us the opportunity to reassess our use of space on the North Campus. We redesigned classroom use to better align with our educational needs, built a new science lab, created spaces for small group work, and added much needed office space.

Necessity Drives Innovation

The year before we opened the South Campus was the most challenging year from a recruitment perspective. Since the site was occupied by another school, we did not have a physical space to show prospective parents. We used architectural sketches to convey our vision of the physical space. Although we were able to meet our goal of filling three kindergarten classes and a pre-kindergarten class last year, now that we are in our beautiful new space, applications for kindergarten are up.

The shift to a school with two campuses also meant rethinking the logistics of admission events. Hosting open houses and tours that span two campuses became an opportunity to give parents an even richer sense of JPDS-NC. Since most prospective students are entering kindergarten or pre-K, we begin our visits at our South Campus. Then we invite parents to take the five-minute bus ride to the North Campus. Not only does the ride literally take parents to a different place, but being on a school bus allows everyone to embrace the spirit of elementary school life, and gives administrators a chance to have one-on-one conversations with prospective parents.

Our changed landscape also inspired programmatic innovation. Community events such as the annual Veterans Day performance and an Art & Science Expo are hallmarks of JPDS-NC life. We wanted to ensure that not only would these beloved traditions continue, but that each program would remain a whole-school event, providing a sense of unity for our school, and a sense of continuity for returning and alumni families.

Community Outreach

When a major transformation takes place, creating effective communication channels and getting key messages right become imperative. We began by focusing on internal communications, and proactively addressed the potential for confusion, resistance, and concern that growing pains can bring to any organization. We strengthened our communications infrastructure by launching a new parent portal. We expanded and adjusted our weekly newsletter to better meet our goals and changing circumstances. We engaged with parents, alumni and friends through social media.

We also expanded our external communications with an eye toward building trust, increasing outreach and gaining visibility. We created opportunities for connection and conversation by giving those impacted by the new campus a way to share their concerns with us directly and productively. We scheduled community meetings to discuss changes prior to opening our South Campus and we invited parents, grandparents, alumni, supporters, staff and new neighbors to several “Meet the Building” open house events.

Ahead of construction work on our new campus, we went door-to-door to meet the neighbors. Our efforts also included goodwill gestures to our immediate neighbors, clear communications with the local community via meetings, mail and listservs, and outreach to churches/organizations, neighborhood association representatives and elected officials. Finally, we shared news and stories about the life of the school through press, social media and other externally driven communications.

Opening a second campus also opened the door to donor engagement. We saw steady, solid and continued growth in our community. The opening of a second campus presented opportunities for engagement with grandparents, alumni students, alumni parents and supporters, and led to an increase in our donor base.

Face Time vs. FaceTime

Among the biggest challenges we face is how different it is for a staff to be in two separate locations. There is value to proximity, to impromptu conversation, to face time. Being on two campuses has resulted in a loss of some cross-fertilization among teachers and administrators. Just as important, despite the fact that administrators split their time on both campuses, there is sometimes a feeling among staff that it is harder to connect with administrators.

And at times, it is literally harder to connect. The JPDS-NC leadership team meets regularly to discuss the various aspects of school life. Since many meetings take place during the school day, it means that some of the leadership staff has to participate via FaceTime. All staff members who have had to jump into an energetic conversation via FaceTime, rather than in person, have noted that it is far more challenging to do so; in addition, there are the technical challenges of frozen screens while we are in mid-conversation. We continue to explore effective models and solutions to overcoming this issue, from using different technology to changes in schedule times and locations of meetings.

A Time of Transitions and Possibilities

Not surprisingly, the past year centered on transitions, integration and adapting to a new reality as one school on two campuses. While there was a breathless quality to this year and the last—a time of continuous planning and preparing for operating on two campuses—this transition period has also been marked by a burst of creativity, innovation and productivity. Our expanded environment presented us with an opportunity to look at everything anew. An opportunity to grow in new ways.

To plan for an expansion, it is necessary to engage in strategic planning, identify areas for process improvement, examine data and accountability measures, develop leadership, embrace creative solutions, encourage collaboration, and acknowledge that transitions can be demanding and continuous. To thrive, it is necessary to inspire and challenge your school to not only align to a new vision, but to become an organization that is constantly improving while fulfilling its mission.♦

Ronit Greenstein is the communications manager at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, DC. ronit.greenstein@jpds.org

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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