District Web Site Essentials
Most people use the Internet as a source of instant information and go online with a specific purpose in mind. Visitors to school district Web sites are no exception. Your district site should aim to be a welcoming, well-organized and engaging destination for parents, students, faculty and the community-at-large??a helpful place to find all manner of soughtafter information. “For school districts, a Web site is an integral component to growing a forward-thinking, quality learning environment. By planting the seed to develop a meaningful Web presence, those in education??at the district, school and classroom level??can positively impact and inspire students, parents, faculty and the entire community,” says Rob Lamy, chief executive officer of SchoolWorld.
Here is our perspective on important basic elements and approaches for an effective, efficient district Web site, in the areas of design, navigation, usability, content and interactivity. The guidance is based largely on the best practices we’ve identified in conducting our monthly district site evaluations for the column “How Well Does This Web Site Work?”
Design and Navigation
Consistency and clarity are critical to a Web site’s look and feel. Beyond portraying the distinct character and uniqueness of a school district, the site design should be well-organized, uncluttered and appealing to the widest audience. A visitor’s experience should be enhanced by continuity in layout, so that he or she will know what to expect. This can be achieved via a consistent treatment of text, images and links on the majority of a site’s pages.
In terms of site infrastructure, it is an excellent idea to use confi gurable, scalable page templates that can quickly accommodatefuture content growth (both text and graphics) and to make future site redesigns as painless as possible.
Intuitive and sensible navigation throughout a site is a key element for efficiency and effectiveness. Navigation tabs—be they in bars across the bottom or top of the pages, or in left-or-right-side boxes—must be clearly named. Acronyms and abbreviations that have internal meaning should be avoided as nav link labels, as they often make no sense to visitors.
Too many choices will overwhelm, and unnecessary redundancy will confuse. Consistent, easy-to-understand navigation across a site and/or in specific site sections is the goal. To aid visitors further in moving smoothly around the site, a breadcrumb trail (links that appear atop pages to indicate the path followed to get there, allowing a quick retrace of steps) is a helpful and worthy feature.
The Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools (www.ocps.net) has succeeded in putting these design and navigation essentials into action. “We consider our Web site to be an increasingly valuable and popular medium to share our good news and important news,” notes Dylan Thomas, director of community relations for OCPS. “The Web staff is driven to keep the pages current using the news slide ‘spinner’ [slide show], the calendar and other dynamic components. We have found a layout that works, and we try to keep the site tidy, without too much content. One measure of our success is a decrease of more than 1,000 calls per month to our main district phone number between 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008.”
The OCPS site is maintained by four staff members who share various duties and are primarily part of the community relations department.
District Web sites have a wide-ranging constituency to which to cater. To achieve optimal usability, a district site must speak to and serve parents, students, faculty and other employees, and community residents and leaders. Information should be compartmentalized and easy to find via efficient browsability and a high-performing search function. In terms of site search access, a search box (preferably located near the top right of pages) is optimal. Offering an adjacent link to a site map, as an alternative to locating content, is most helpful. Search results should be complete, deep and sensible. To enhance user satisfaction, advanced search options that narrow and sort results by criteria (such as date and topic) are advisable.
For example, the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District (www.klschools.org) has such a feature so searches can be narrowedto one of five different content areas. The “robust” site, powered by eChalk, offers an array of pages and links, and so the search tool helps visitors easily find information, says Carol Ann Lee, Katonah-Lewisboro’s director of technology.
Paul Kuhne, eChalk’s director of marketing, adds that the company is a “pioneer” in helping districts design Web sites, having been around for a decade. And when a business serves families and consumers who are used to using the “Googles of the world,” a school site needs to offer the same ease in locating information.
The site’s separate pages for clubs, athletics, and groups also allow for easy information access. Not only will teachers post assignments for students on the public site, but on the district’s intranet site, where information is not open to the public, teachers can post on group pages lessons and helpful Web sites for their colleagues.
The high school’s site also has a “Reach Out John Jay” page which lists the community organizations where students offer their time and help. And the district site has a language transition tool that supports 34 different languages.
Lee estimates that about a dozen staff members and administrators help keep the site updated. School building principals and main secretaries post their own information to their sites, as do teachers. And with a dynamic site, which offers homework assignments and access to academic reports, comes better parental involvement and student achievement, Lee adds.
As is true of Web site usability choices, when selecting the types of information to offer, district site administrators must consider their broad audience. “School district sites are a critical tool for getting informationto those who need it, but they can also exist as true central community hubs, capable of building better relationships and positive interactions among students, parents, faculty and the greater community,” says Jason Mueller, communications manager at SchoolFusion.
Parents will visit your site seeking school registration materials, the latest safety or student conduct policies, and to access their children’s grades or homework assignments. District faculty and other employees may come to sign in to their e-mail accounts or to browse job openings in the school system. Local media may seek news of the latest developments on a building project expansion.
“Our district site serves as an annex,” says Nancy Soscia, site content editor for Virginia Beach City (Va.) Public Schools (www.vbschools.com/index.asp). “When our offices are closed, much of our business continues online. Our site is updated continuously during the work day to ensure that the wealth of information available is current and accurate.
“Having a diverse and comprehensive selection of content available on the Web has reduced the number of phone calls, walk-ins and e-mail requests we get,” she adds. Maintaining the site involves a team of four—a Webmaster, a part-time Webmaster’s assistant, a content editor and an editorial assistant.
Distinct, clearly labeled content sections that are useful to your constituents greatly enhance site efficiency and effectiveness. At its best, site content should be up-to-date and well-maintained. Some specific information that should be offered on main district sites and/or individual district school sites includes:
? Registration forms (and other forms and documents for students and parents)
? News, strategic plans, mission statement and superintendent’s message
? Emergency alerts and school closings
? Safety and security, code of conduct, and dress code policies (and any other important policies)
? Special events and activities
? Athletic programs
? Address of the district, including city and state, on the home page
? District facts and fi gures (“About Us”)
? Faculty and staff directory
? Departments, programs and services
? Board of education meeting schedule and minutes, as well as member profi les and contact information
? PTO/PTA meeting schedule, minutes and activities
? Various affiliated local, county, state and federal agencies
Cost-effective content administration and maintenance is also key. Having a content management system provides an administrative backbone to make district sites manageable and aff ordable. In a straightforward and seamless manner, such systems enable the addition of text, graphics, interactive features and page links without knowing HTML or programming.\
The Carthage (N.Y.) Central School District site (www.carthagecsd.org), has two site Webmasters (an IT director and an instructional technology specialist). Via a content management system, each building and/or department is assigned a content section.
Building and departmental staff can update and maintain those sections. “The benefits of having an informative, comprehensive and template-generated site are numerous,” says Ramona Dent, IT director at Carthage Central School District. Administrators can contact the community; parents, students and community members can access a dynamic site; and the district can showcase relevant information efficiently.
There are many ways that district and school sites can take advantage of the unique interactivity and opportunity for engagement aff orded online, as well as the possibilities for content and presentation customization. The judicious use of video, audio, photo slide shows, e-mail newsletter services, dynamic event calendars and other interactive tools is highly encouraged to establish a rich, real-time site visitor experience.
“Having the most current information and a variety of communication tools on our site is essential for communicatingwith parents and the community,” says Lakota (Ohio) Local Schools SuperintendentMike Taylor. “Along with posting traditional news releases and newsletters, we also provide video, podcasts, e-mail notifications and text messaging.”
A district Webmaster manages the site (www.lakotaonline.com) and administrators, teachers and parents can update it through a content management system.
Many district and school sites offer 24/7 access for parents and students to classroom information, grades and progress reports. For faculty and other staff, access to intranet portals and e-mail accounts is a plus, as is an employment section with job descriptions, open position listings and employment applications. As a rule, interactive site features should assist and empower users, not just “wow” them.
Laura R. Bona is a freelance contributor to DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION.