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Case Study: Organizational Resilience at a Private High School - Minnehaha Academy's Journey

Post 5:  35 Days - From Loss of Location to First Day of School

January 10, 2019

Author: Lynnda Nelson
President at ICOR


It is generally understood that one of the cornerstones of what makes some organizations more resilient than others is to what level they effectively manage risk and how well risk is managed throughout the organization.

As part of managing risk, organizations are encouraged to plan for incidents that could interrupt their business or cause damage to their reputation.  It is best practice to plan for the following loss scenarios:

The explosion on August 2, 2017 destroyed much of Minnehaha Academy’s high school campus They needed to immediately deal with the loss of their teaching environment – with only weeks until the first day of school.  They had a crisis management plan but no plans for how to continue teaching if they had no school.

This month’s blog will share what it took to find a new school location, fill that school with teaching supplies and chairs and tables, organize the fall sports season, access vital records, and open just 4 weeks after the explosion.  Subsequent blogs will explore the decisions around the rebuild of the school, with the final blog sharing the opening of the new school in August 2019.

This month’s blog content is provided by the principal of Minnehaha Academy’s High School (called the Upper School), Jason Wenschlag.  Principal Wenschlag joined Minnehaha Academy’s leadership team in July 2015 after serving as principal in the Richfield, MN public school system.

At the time of the explosion on August 2, 2017, he had just landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, IL on his way to some meetings. He took the next flight back to Minneapolis and provided assistance onsite at the command center.

The First 5 Days:  Thursday, August 2 – Tuesday, August 6

  

Photos: KSTP Chopper 5

Even during the response to the incident and in the hours following the explosion, parents, students, teachers, administrators, community members, and reporters asked the following questions:

“When will you start school?”  “Where will you have school?” “What about sports?”  What are you going to do?

The answers to those questions could not be “We don’t know.”  As the principal of a private high school whose parents and students are “customers” who are paying for a high quality educational experience and who have other options available to them, Jason had to have answers to those questions.

School was scheduled to open August 22, but many schools open the Tuesday after Labor Day so the decision was made that school would start on Tuesday, September 5.  That gave them 35 days.

“War rooms” were set up at the “south” or “lower and middle” school campus less than a mile away, that housed the kindergarten through grade 8 students.  With school not yet in session, rooms were used for meetings between leadership teams.

Their initial focus the first 5 days was to form teams to make decisions and to determine who would be responsible for what.  Once the teams were formed, a survey was created to find out from parents, students, teachers, and staff what was most important to them regarding the location of a temporary school.

The overwhelming response was that everyone wanted a location as close to the lower and middle school campus as possible. With that direction provided, the search began. 

The overriding objective in the front of everyone’s mind was that kids deserve a nice place to go to school.  They had experienced a major loss, so in addition to the new location needing to support the necessary academic programming, it had to be extra nice.

In addition to planning for the school location, with several of the leadership team recovering from injuries from the explosion, the Lower and Middle School hosted a memorial service on Sunday, August 4 for a staff member who died in the explosion.

Days 6-10, August 7-11

One of the amazing aspects of the first 30 days was the number of people who volunteered to help.  People reached out to offer potential sites, legal insights, and offices.  One parent volunteer had experience with moving large organizations and she volunteered her time to support the principal as part of the move. 

She served as project manager and along with another staff member pulled off an annual project deferred for 2017-18, worked with teachers to order classroom furniture, teaching supplies, books – essentially serving as the principal’s right-hand person. 

Access to teaching materials was an issue.  Many of the classrooms were damaged and none of them were accessible for several weeks.  For some teachers this meant rebuilding from scratch as all of their materials were lost.  For others, it meant waiting until their lesson plans were recovered from the network.  Some had their school records backed up into the cloud as well as on their laptops which due to it being summer, meant that they were good to go once a school was found.

A former parent who was a technology specialist, was hired to work with the teachers and administrators to recover what was needed as well as to build a new network at the new location.

The decision was made to include as many people in the process for choosing a location as possible.  Administrators, department chairs, and staff members.  The department chairs worked closely with the teachers and represented them.

There were lots of opinions and at times it was overwhelming.  But choosing a temporary location for the next 2 years was an important decision – high stakes – and they believed it was better to have as much input as possible.

As mentioned, help came from many unlikely places.  The Assistant Principal had a dad on his son’s baseball team who was a commercial realtor. After a game he mentioned that there was a space in Mendota Heights that might work.  They went out to look at it and at first didn’t think it would work as it seemed a bit small. 

The search continued, but after looking at other facilities they returned for a more serious look with architects and designers.  On August 10, after visiting many locations, the leadership team decided that the former Sanford-Brown College in Mendota Heights would meet their needs and be the perfect place to run the school for the next two years.  It was just over 8 miles from the upper school and 7 miles from the lower and middle school.

In order to make that possible, the city had to give them a variance.  On August 11, the city gave them a confidence message so that planning could continue while the logistics of the variance were worked out.

While managing the work of searching for a location, there was a unity walk on August 8.  The walk started at the lower/middle school and ended at the upper school.

Days 11-15, August 12-16

This is usually the week that teachers return to school for teacher workshops.  However, the classrooms in the lower school were occupied with their teachers so the upper school teachers were asked to work from home to prepare what they needed.

The volunteer project manager worked with the teachers to identify what they needed to rebuild their classrooms.  Teachers were empowered to order what they needed to be ready to teach on day one as well as into the school year. 

All of this could take place because Minnehaha Academy had business continuation insurance that provided cash up front to cover expenses so that there was no need to wait and planning could begin immediately.  They were able to access the permanent budget as well as a replacement budget.

In businesses, when planning for the loss of a primary location, best practice is to have identified ahead of time what business activities would continue at what level with the assumption that it will not be business as usual for some time and that not all activities will continue at any level.

With the loss of the school happening in August, the school had some time before teaching needed to begin and the students arrived.  The decision was made to continue all courses at full service levels.  Science was the most difficult due to the specialty equipment.  They were told to plan for what was needed for the first quarter and to purchase the rest as needed.

The Fine Arts building of the school was not damaged and access was provided during week 3.  The music teachers were able to retrieve instruments, music stands, chairs, music, and other equipment.  Most students had their instruments at home since school was not in session on August 2.

The construction firm, along with the design team, created a fitness center from 3 classrooms.  It was decided that students would use the fitness center for physical education and were instructed to complete their health class requirement until they had access to gym facilities.  Lifetime Fitness loaned them the equipment for the fitness center.

                

https://www.twincities.com/2017/08/14/in-search-of-normalcy-minnehaha-academy-athletics-get-underway/

Fall sports began practicing on August 14 using available lower school fields. The athletic department worked with schools in their division to schedule “home” games at their schools as the Minnehaha Academy gymnasium was not available.  St. Thomas Academy provided practice space for several teams and the City of Eagan provided its community center and some fields for athletics.  Most of the athletic equipment was undamaged and once that part of building was deemed stable, it was made available.

And, on August 13, the lower school hosted the memorial service for the second staff member who died in the explosion.

Days 6-25, August 17-26

On August 22, the city’s variance was given and a 2-year lease was signed.  http://www.startribune.com/damaged-minnehaha-academy-hopes-to-move-temporarily-to-mendota-heights/441457403/ 

Also, the authorities released the severely damaged upper school site and access was provided to some areas of the school and the buildings began to be evaluated to determine what could be saved, what needed to be reinforced, and what would need to be demolished. 

 

Minnehaha Academy used social media to communicate progress to the school families and the community.  One method was a virtual tour of the Mendota Heights location shared on August 23, 2017.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=7uUN2PckE08  

A construction firm was hired and on August 25 construction began to transform the Mendota Heights location to meet the needs of the Upper School.  The furniture company was selected based on quality and immediate stock availability.

The volunteer project manager worked with the department chairs to identify 3 choices for furniture in their classrooms.  Custom colors were chosen to represent the school colors and custom furniture was identified.  Teachers were given 24 hours to choose their furniture and all orders were submitted as requested.  

The facilities team had to split their time between overseeing the destroyed site as well as the construction at the new Mendota Heights location.

Days 26-34, August 27-September 4

Construction continued during the final 5 days until Labor Day weekend.  By September 1, the construction was completed and the furniture began arriving.  A board member and the parent project manager reached out to some families and volunteers began arriving in large numbers.  The question became, “What to do with families who want to help?”

Someone had the idea to ask the families to sponsor teachers – adopt a teacher.  Parents, students, and other volunteers worked alongside the teachers helping to put together furniture, bringing food, and taking care of needs as they came up. 

   

Labor Day weekend was a time of everyone working together to ensure that the students and teachers had a quality school location and a quality learning experience when the doors opened.

Day 35.  Tuesday, September 5, 8:15 AM

35 days after the explosion Minnehaha Academy teachers lined the main entrance and welcomed the seniors into the building after finishing their traditional tailgate breakfast.  Same tradition, new parking lot.   http://www.startribune.com/back-to-school-minnesota/442754073/

Minnehaha Upper School seniors and some staff members gathered in the parking lot before the first day of school. (Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune)

 

The ribbon was cut and each student was personally welcomed to their new school.

Photo 1: Minnehaha Academy seniors Kayla Williams, left, and Grace Kirkpatrick cut the ribbon allowing the senior class, followed by all students, into their new building on the first day of the school year in Mendota Heights on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press), Photo 2: Minnehaha Academy Upper School Principal Jason Wenschlag gave a thumbs up to students coming to the temporary building for first day of school. (Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune, Photo 3: Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, joined by faculty and staff, greets students entering their new building for the first day of the school year in Mendota Heights on Tuesday, Sept, 5, 2017. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Upon entry, they were greeted by a sign with the hashtag “Together We Rise,” a social media sign of solidarity that emerged after the explosion.  The day began with an all-school assembly to thank all those who made the move possible. 

Photo 1: MA FB, Photo 2: Soccer coach Bryan Duffey was severely injured in the explosion at the old school. He returned for the student assembly. (Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune), Photo 3: Minnehaha Academy freshman Maddie Pluntz enjoys a Dilly Bar, in memory of custodian John Carlson, as students attend the first day of school year in their temporary location in Mendota Heights on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. Carlson, known for handing out Dilly Bars to students, was one of two Minnehaha Academy employees killed in the explosion at the school's Minneapolis campus on Aug. 2. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

 

Photo: Minnehaha Academy Upper School Principal Jason Wenschlag points students in the right direction on the first day of school in their new building in Mendota Heights on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press

Students were dismissed and tours were conducted to teach them how to find their way around the school.

There was plenty of parking as the school was located in an office park – in fact more parking spots were available than were needed.  The bus system ran the same as before for the most part with the exception that the busses went to the south campus every day on the way home to pick up the lower and middle school students.

https://www.twincities.com/2017/09/05/minnehaha-academy-starts-school-year-in-mendota-heights-site/

 

Next blog post:  The first semester at Mendota Heights and the rebuild begins.