Project: Northstar Academy Website Design
Description: Northstar Academy is a private, non-profit, K-12 school located in Richmond, Virginia for students with learning challenges. GIC, a web solutions company, was approached to evaluate marketing efforts and redesign their web presence.
Problem: Enrollment was declining. Although Northstar’s retention rate – both students and teachers – was outstanding, getting the attention prospective students and their parents was problematic. An existing website was static and completely out of date; giving the impression that the school itself was second rate. Communication with the parents of current students was ineffective. Everything from snow day announcements to permission slips, from event times to lunch menus, was typically handled by telephone calls from parents to the school.
Assessment: It became quickly apparent that both an out-facing marketing site as well as an internal solutions site was needed. We met with students, parents, and faculty to determine what would create a website that would meet their needs.
Methodology: We took a traditional development track because we were creating a web site for a small school. As noted above, we began with a needs assessment and an extensive interview process. We created wireframes, graphic design comps, content creation, coding, testing and implementation. It should be noted that our methodology was “agile lite” if you will. Stakeholders and users were involved in every step within many processes. As an example, we delivered several design ideas and revised their selection until it was completed. We didn’t delay content creation while this process was going on (since our content matrix was not design specific). We maintained an agile attitude throughout the project. When we realized that the “Voices of Northstar” (as we came to call it) could be a determining factor in how parents viewed the school, our methodology was flexible enough to create an audio slide show.
Challenges: The biggest challenge was when the Director of Development left the school for another position. The project had been her brainchild and she had been our point-of-contact. I stepped up my efforts to get to know the Head of School. As one of our primary stakeholders, she was of course, well informed about the project. It became clear that she and the former director had not always seen eye-to-eye on the project. While not delaying any of the processes currently underway, I did “circle back” through all of the previous steps with the Head of School to make certain that we were in fact on the same page. We developed new procedures for keeping her informed of our progress and of course, directly involving her in the decision making process. In the end, having the advantage of both perspectives worked to our advantage and made the final product stronger.
Budget, Scope and Schedule: Our budget was fixed as a result of competitive bid. We were able to accomplish all of our services in addition to providing the “Voices of Northstar” slide show not included in the school’s original RFP. Our scope was defined as the creation of the web site and personnel training on the maintenance of the site. Due to our extensive interviews in our needs analysis phase, maintaining the project scope was no problem. Our time frame was short – only three months – because we needed to have the site up and running for “enrollment season.” We met all of these goals.
Team: I have operated my company for six years with the great work of 1099’s hired on a project specific basis. The reasons are twofold. I never wanted people sitting on the bench waiting for new projects. I wanted the flexibility to hire the right people and skill sets for each particular project. In the case of Northstar, I served as project manager and client liaison. I hired a writer, a graphic designer, a programmer and a photographer for the project. When we decided that we needed an audio slide show, I borrowed audio recording and editing equipment from a colleague, brought myself up to speed on audio, and interviewed students and parents myself.
Training: As part of our service to Northstar, we included several training sessions for the person responsible for site maintenance as well as two backup contributors. All of these individuals would self- describe as “not technical” people. We create the site in a commercial Content Management System, assigning levels of authority in keep with their roles. We also provided phone and email support for a period of time.
Value Added: Awareness of the school and it’s online reputation increased as a result of the new web site. Enrollment applications increased the year the site went live. Parents have access to the latest information. The site is currently maintained by staff who can easily update information to provide up to the minute announcement.