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Cary Academy homepage on a laptop

CA Curious

Design thinking: the story behind our new digital home

April 23, 2020

A little over a year after we officially kicked-off our website redesign project, last week the communications team was proud to announce the launch of the new caryacademy.org.  

A long time in the making, this monumental project is more than just a visual upgrade. It represents a complete reconceptualization of the site—from function to architecture, content to design.   

Throughout this process, every new objective presented its own set of design and content challenges. And I thought I would take this opportunity to walk you through how we have approached a few of them. 

At the top of the list? The decision to shift our digital presence to serve primarily prospective students and their families, and prospective employees. (This, of course, was undertaken alongside a concurrent effort to shift communication for current families to Blackbaud).  

This new strategy begged the question: how do we appeal, specifically, to those potential students, families, and employees that would embrace our mission, learning philosophies, and community values? Those that would be excited to contribute their unique voices and perspectives to our community? How can we help them to really “get” CA? To see themselves here? 

Our answer lies, in part, in our how we tell our story.  

You might notice that the new site is written in a singular voice that addresses our prospective students directly. This was a purposeful, strategic choice. 

Community is important here. Personalized learning is important here. Student choice and agency are important here. We wanted to start that relationship-building and model that personalized interaction—that we see and treat each student as an individual—from the very first digital interaction.  

We wanted to underscore that students at CA “own their learning.” And what better way to start than by putting prospective students in the driver’s seat to make their school choice?  

The tone of the content is markedly different from our old site. It is meant to be more informal, playful, at times unexpected, even provocative.  

Heavy use of photography throughout aims to make an emotional connection and helps to visualize a CA experience—one that extends outside of the classroom to include ample experiential, community, and extracurricular offerings.  

Our aim with all these changes is to empower, inspire curiosity, invite discovery, and to underscore that we are an inclusive, accessible, and approachable community. One where there is joy, playfulness, and camaraderie. Yes, we work hard and are committed to excellence, but we have fun doing it. CA is not, in fact, where fun goes to die.  

On the visual design front, it was important to bring the site’s visual identity in line with our core values. To balance “serious, respected educational institution” with “ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, risk-taking learning visionaries.”  

We’ve walked this line with a traditional navigational structure and site architecture juxtaposed against clean page designs, hero imagery, layered animations, and video integrations that are in line with contemporary, future-oriented design trends that are more suggestive of a start-up aesthetic than a school. And we’ve designed the site from a mobile-first perspective. Entirely responsive, it was designed to be useable and appear beautiful first on your cell phone, then on your tablet, and finally on your laptop or desktop.   

In a landscape where some of our key mission words are often bandied about as education buzzwords, it was important to illustrate our mission and strategic plan through robust storytelling efforts. To demonstrate just what we mean when we talk about discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence. We wanted to be clear that, at CA, our commitment to our mission isn’t just lip service but something that our employees and students live and breathe daily.  

To that end, on key pages throughout the site you will find filtered news and stories feeds that put the “proof of concept”—those stories that illustrate out mission and values in real terms—next to higher-level descriptive text. This dovetails with a broader storytelling strategy that will keep this content fresh and relevant week after week, encouraging return visits and demonstrating the dynamism of our community. 

In addition, we’ve also developed a more robust news and stories section that allows you to explore CA through our various storytelling efforts. This section can be filtered and searched based on your interests. Over time, it will only continue to grow, becoming a rich community resource.   

As a relative newcomer to CA, this process has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to get to know our community in a multitude of ways and on a deeper level. And I’m grateful for it.  

I’ve learned more about our academic departments as I’ve crafted new text for each of them. I’ve had to dig into our learning philosophy and the principles that guide our mission to be able to accurately capture and reflect them. And I’ve had the opportunity throughout this process to get to know many of you through various formal and informal conversations that have informed the work you see now.  

As with all things CA, this was a highly collaborative effort. And I’d like to extend a special thanks to everyone that helped to contribute to this project, from those that participated in early stakeholder groups, to those that reviewed text, to those that provided their quotes and photos, to my team, your contributions were instrumental in laying the foundation for the project and helping to advance it.  

Thank you! 

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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More than ‘a fresh coat of paint’

March 21, 2019

With T3 well underway, the communications office is in full swing. Now fully staffedthanks to the addition of Dan Smith, our new Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager, who joins myself and Web Manager Dean Sauls—we’ve increasingly been able to turn our attention to more of the long-term strategic communications work that I’ve been itching to dig into since my start last July. 

Hopefully, you’ve noticed some of the fruits of these labors, including revised print materials that reflect our “curious” brand; a more robust and engaged social media presence on Facebook and Instagram; a new regular “spotlight on learning” storytelling video series; and ongoing tweaks to the CA Weekly to make it as useful as possible to our community.  

In the near future, we’ll be launching a communications survey to get your feedback on these efforts. We want to hear what you think we’re doing right, where we might be missing the mark, and how else we might be able to capture and share (and hopefully improve) your CA experience. Keep an eye on your inbox in the next couple of weeks for that survey. 

But, all that good stuff aside, perhaps what has my office the most excited is the behind-the-scenes work that is currently underway: the long-awaited website redesign project (altogether now: “Hurray!).  

Kicking off that process, at the beginning of March, I crafted and launched a request for proposals (RFP), targeting over fifty well-respected and innovative design firms all over the country.  

The RFP articulates five overarching objectives in service of a larger strategy to create a site that best supports the information needs of our community, positively differentiates us from our peer institutions, and positions us as nationwide leader of independent schools.  

Specifically, these redesign objectives include: 

  • Increased storytelling capabilities  
    • Develop a design that allows us to effectively share the stories that set CA apart through written articles and/or blogs, compelling visuals, video, and multimedia. 
    • Prominently integrate CA’s social channels into our web presence. 
  • Increased capacity for community-building 
    • Strengthen our community by presenting engaging and informative content that invites return visits, accurately and compellingly represents the CA experience, and instills pride in our institution.  
    • Create a space to highlight and promote campus events. 
  • An “outside-the-box” visual design that reflects brand values of discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence 
    • Bring the website’s visual identity into alignment with CA’s core mission, differentiating CA as an innovative leader in the education space through a clever, innovative, thoughtful design. 
  • Improved user experience and overall site usability with well-designed site architecture and information design  
    • Present comprehensive information and resources in user-friendly and engaging formats that leverage best practices of website design, including intuitive navigation, site hierarchy, and functional search.  
  •  Refined and new content that supports strategic objectives 
    • Develop and deliver concise and compelling messages in consistent and singular voice. 
    • Create a robust presence dedicated to the new Center for Community Engagement that allows us to highlight our equity and inclusion work, experiential learning, service learning, and social entrepreneurship initiatives as core commitments. 

I’m pleased to say that the RFP has been well received. I’ve had numerous follow-up phone calls with agencies that are planning to bid, and I anticipate over twenty proposals will cross my desk by tomorrow’s deadline.  

Over the next couple of weeks, we will review the bids, select our finalists, conduct interviews, and, finally, select a partner agency. After that, we will be solidifying a timetable for the project. We’re hoping to kick-off the official start of the project in April, with the completed site being delivered in the fall.  

As we move forward with this process, I’ll be reaching out to some of you to collaborate at various points along the way. That might include sharing your insights during an initial discovery process, providing feedback on early design options, serving as subjects for new video or photo story assets, or helping with beta testing as we approach launch.  

We’ve laid out an ambitious and exciting visionone that is truly going to showcase the diversity of the CA experience and the special learning community that we have built. I’m excited to dig in and get this project underway and to work with the community to see it through to fruition.  

Onwards! 

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Community

Tell Me More

March 21, 2019

“That’s an awfully long title,” someone recently remarked while introducing me on my 8th day on Cary Academy’s campus.

My business cards may read “Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager,” but I prefer “community storyteller.”

“Okay,” you say, “but what does that mean? Why does CA need a storyteller? And, in point of fact: why you?”

First, I have to commend you on your ability to get straight to the heart of the matter.

Basically, my job is to work with the other members of Cary Academy’s newly-established Communications team to tell stories… stories that speak to the everyday experiences and extraordinary things that go on here at CA, how they are often one and the same and, how that’s part of what makes Cary Academy different.

My job is to curate, cultivate and celebrate those stories across every corner of campus.  One week in, I already know that there are so many interesting, unique and downright exciting facets to learning, life, work and play at CA, that it would be almost impossible to know everything that goes on here, but I will share as much as I can. Connecting the different communities within CA will help strengthen our sense of community.

But ‘community’ and the importance of what makes Cary Academy such a special place extends beyond just our campus, past our homes and the dinner table conversations and the course of our day, into the broader communities in which we live, work and serve. Hence the second part of the job title: Social Media Manager. The work isn’t so much about drafting hashtags, amassing likes and inviting retweets as it is about building the modern world’s digital equivalent of the town square, in order to foster a place for the CA community’s connections to grow and for the public, potential collaborating organizations and our peers to be able to share in the conversations, for the sake of engaging as many perspectives of our increasingly interconnected world, as possible.

https://www.facebook.com/CaryAcademy/videos/289253021718956/

“Okay, I understand what a storyteller does and can see why CA might need one, but, again: why you?”

First and foremost, I’m from Durham – but my journey to Cary Academy was a bit more complex than simply heading east on I-40 (one does not simply head east on I-40 at rush hour). My career has wound a circuitous path from photography and graphic design work as a high school student to researching and advocating in the halls of government and amongst the foreign policy establishment as a recent college graduate, in Washington, D.C. However, it was upon my return to North Carolina as Assistant Director of Duke’s Center for International Studies, that things finally came into focus.

While at Duke, I often collaborated with scientists, researchers and artists whose work concisely and compellingly reached across time and distance, bridged culture and language, and related powerful and poignant experiences. In that work, I personally experienced the pedagogical power of art and technology: how it drives change in our lives, forms connections, provokes exploration of ourselves and others, and transforms the ‘everyday’ into the ‘extraordinary.’ Driven by that discovery, I took a leap of faith, went back to school, stepped outside of my comfort zone and shifted the course of my life towards telling stories in order to bridge understanding, engage empathy and encourage connections.

Following this newfound path, I have stumbled upon challenging, surprising and fun stories to hear and tell. I love exploring the concepts of community, culture and the fundamental notions of how we relate to one-another. I revel in the opportunities I have been granted to walk in someone else’s shoes, to roll up my sleeves and learn, hands-on, from others and then to share those experiences with the larger world.

And that is how I found my way at Cary Academy, already awed by the myriad stories that I can’t wait to tell.

“Tell me more,” you say.

And I shall…

…with your help. Please, tell me about the everyday things at CA that catch your eye, your imagination, your inspiration. Things that make you smile or stop and think, things that touch your heart and your mind. I want to know how you see this unique place and your place in this community.

Written by

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I’m a Collector

August 23, 2018

“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”–Tahir Shah, in Arabian Nights

Walking around campus these last couple of weeks, I’ve been collecting images, sounds, and moments, tucking them away as if they were precious artifacts. Some highlights:

  • A construction paper star with a wish and advice for a new sixth grader from a rising seventh grader.
  • A summer adventure story told in excited voices over lunch with old friends.
  • A handshake between a confident senior and an awed middle-schooler.
  • A nervous laugh between new CA parents sharing first day anxieties.
  • A round of applause for faculty sharing transformational professional development experiences.
  • A supportive critique of a student’s impressive TEDx presentation.
  • A smile of delight at learning the cool things a new tablet can do.
  • The determined, red-face of exertion while giving it your all in the Middle School Tug-of-War.
  • Countless thuds from the ceiling above my office (I’m told these are courtesy of robotics.)

Small moments, to be sure, but each hinting at a larger story to explore. Each a single thread in the larger fabric of our shared community, our shared community experience.

As your new Director of Communications, I like to say that I am Cary Academy’s Chief Storyteller. I’ve been drawn to the power of storytelling since I was a child, when I would spend hours immersed in books (often under the covers with a flashlight, long after it was lights out).

It is a passion that I’ve pursued throughout my academic career. First with a degree in English, then with a MA in Technology and Communications, and later through my professional pursuits in digital innovation, publishing, information design, marketing, and communications.

For me, part of the magic of storytelling lies in its community-building power. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we relate to one another, and how we define ourselves. Stories enable us to connect with others, develop empathy, and learn from one another. They can challenge us, requiring us to stretch our own thinking and assumptions. A sense of shared story is integral to cultural and communal identity.

Looking forward, this year will be dedicated to collecting and sharing Cary Academy community stories, both internally with each other, and externally to the world.

To collecting those tiny moments and following them to larger stories that exemplify and embody our mission and commitment to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.

To elevating diverse voices within our community so that we can build new connections, embrace multiple perspectives, and grow together.

To bringing our strategic plan to life by connecting the dots and illustrating with real stories how we are tracking on our goals together.

And to sharing those stories across a variety of channels in ways that inform, inspire, and engage our community, while supporting our academic, admissions, and development goals.

There is much exciting work to be done. On the horizon: A completely redesigned website. More robust social media featuring rich digital content. Three new issues of ?, The Magazine of Cary Academy. A re-tooled CA Weekly. Ongoing improvements to internal communications. And redesigning all of our materials to reflect our new CA Curious brand. . . just to name a few projects.

Thankfully, storytelling is a communal and collaborative effort (another reason I love it!). In the months to come, I’ll be enlisting help from students, faculty, staff, and parents to collect and amplify those diverse stories that define and characterize Cary Academy. Whether that is by asking you to share your own stories–big or small–with me, inviting me into your classrooms, opening yourselves up to interviews, or sharing your feedback. However you participate, I hope you will join me as we create the story of this year together.

In the meantime, if you see me around campus, I’m listening, observing, and carefully collecting those precious moments, seeds of stories to be explored.

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Welcome to the 25th Anniversary Year at Cary Academy!

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Introducing #CACurious

August 23, 2017

It all started with a question.

Cary Academy, I mean.

What if?

What if a school could combine an interdisciplinary, liberal-arts curriculum with technology-rich, innovative approach to teaching and learning?

Over the last 20 years, we’ve gotten an answer to that original question, and we’ve found incredible power in embedding that optimistic curiosity in everything we’ve done since our founding.

Today we are proud of the curiosity that drives our faculty to design evolving paths of inquiry to engage and enlighten our students, and in turn of the curiosity those students bring to their intellectual pursuits.

This is what it means to be a learning community. Everybody learning. Together.

Of course, there is danger here. As a community of learners, we are bound to make mistakes. When taking risks, there will be failure. What keeps us going is the goodwill that comes from a community aligned by mission and a deep respect for open communication.

Toward that end, I am proud to announce a new initiative this year. We are calling it #CACurious. This is intended to be a weekly blog, written by members of the CA community, that examines the processes behind the work we do together. Rather than be a finished essay or a promotional story, we want to give you a sense of what goes on behind the scenes at CA.

We expect that some of these will impart good-to-know information. Others might leave you with more questions than answers. That is OK. We embrace questions.

We will highlight a new blog entry each week at the top of our CA Weekly e-newsletter, and I hope you’ll take time to click through on some that interest you.

Communications Updates
While I have your attention, let me also share a few other changes coming in the ways we communicate with friends and family this year.

Email

  • Last year’s launch of the CA Weekly was well received, and we want families to use this as the go-to place for regular information about happenings at the school. This comes out every Thursday at 4:30PM. Our PTAA grade level reps will continue to share monthly email messages with information specific to grade level activities.

Website

  • We will continue to post updates about our students and alumni on the “news feed” of our website. This is a place we share pats-on-the-back for individual or group excellence. Of course, the calendar section on the website has all you need to know about events and activities.

Social Media

  • We update our school Facebook page regularly with images and takes on events and activities around the campus. Thanks to the work of the PTAA, we also have very active grade-level groups. Our athletic department and alumni office also have active presences on Facebook. The school’s Twitter and Instagram accounts also highlight school activities. You can find links to these accounts on the front of the CA website.

Print publications

  • This summer we updated the school’s “viewbook” that is given to prospective families in the admissions cycle. One page of that new publication is illustrated at the top of this post.
  • This year, we will be combining the school’s two print publications, Access and Discoveries, into one publication. This will be printed three times a year and feature stories of campus life and from our alumni.

There is a lot to share, and we hope you find some meaningful ways to engage across all these platforms.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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