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Maximum web management for K12 schools

Consider homegrown, open-source or commercial websites to engage your community
At Blue Valley Schools in Kansas, above, the website redesign team shows off its work. CIO Greg DeYoung stands on the far right.
At Blue Valley Schools in Kansas, above, the website redesign team shows off its work. CIO Greg DeYoung stands on the far right.

A district’s website presents contrasting demands. It needs to be a constant digital presence: always up and always available. Yet its content and functionality are ever changing.

District leaders nationwide solve this two-pronged challenge with commercial, locally-developed or open source software that lets them add new functions and content to keep their communities informed and engaged.

A district’s choice of software depends largely on the IT resources. “It’s a classic technology decision-making process,” says Greg DeYoung, chief information officer and executive director for information technology at Blue Valley Schools in Kansas. “All paths can get you to the same goal, but it’s a matter of how much flexibility you want and what resources are available to properly support it.”

About 48 percent of districts rely on commercial software for their websites, according to Christiane Crawford, vice president of K12 community engagement solutions with Blackboard. (Earlier this year, Blackboard acquired Schoolwires, which provides website, hosting and content management to K12 schools.)

The remaining 52 percent have websites that are either homegrown, open source or developed by local boutique providers.

Design for multiple devices, channels

An effective school website should incorporate social media and other popular online tools. For example, the home page should provide one-click access to the district’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Conversely, links on Twitter and Facebook often take visitors back to a district website for more information. This seamless integration makes it easy for visitors to connect with the district through multiple channels.

It’s also crucial to ensure that calendars, annual reports and any content display well on any mobile device. “Doing mobile well takes a lot of coding, and coding takes time,” says Blackboard’s Crawford. “The content needs to be delivered so that it is responsive to any device. People shouldn’t have to pinch and zoom to see something.”

Strike a balance

Keeping content fresh and updated on a district website often means opening up access to it. Yet districts need to maintain some control and consistency. Here are some best practices for striking that necessary balance.

  • The webmaster at Blue Valley Schools reviews most of the content submitted by about 30 staff members in the district for consistency and accuracy before posting.
  • Newark Public Schools recommends creating a content style guide and tutorials written specifically for websites.
  • Mariemont City Schools limits the access of content contributors. For example, athletic coaches and the Parent Teacher Organization can change content only on their own pages, reducing the possibility of them accidentally making a change to other pages.
  • Provide ongoing, hands-on training to content contributors. Take advantage of training modules, videos and online help available from vendors.
  • Train multiple people so there is always a backup should the person responsible for uploading content be out of the office.

Additionally, content pushed out through a website also should be transmitted by text message, voicemail and other methods so constituents get the information through the channel of their choice. Districts must also ensure they or their vendors keep up with changing regulatory demands for accessibility and privacy, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and FERPA.

No tech support needed

Mariemont City Schools in Ohio chose to license a commercial website solution from Campus Suite because it made sense to find someone outside the district, says Josephine McKenrick, district spokesperson. “It’s easier and more cost-effective to have someone else manage the technical aspects of it,” she adds.

The software comes with a template for navigation and design—a big plus, says McKenrick. It helped the district determine what content to post and to create a streamlined, easy-to-navigate site.

Vendors also handle updates and maintenance of the software. For example, new versions of browsers sometimes require updates to website software so content continues to be presented well. Missing updates can result in images being cut off, along with other issues.

Another advantage of commercial software is that websites can be launched more quickly—it takes about eight weeks for districts to create a website, to migrate content from a previous site, and to go live, says Rob O’Leary, co-founder of eSchoolView, a provider of websites for K12.

Commercial software is also more secure than websites built on open source, which can be compromised, says O’Leary. He notes that some internet videos explain how to hack the code.

Most vendors also host the website, which means a district doesn’t have to maintain its own servers.

Take control with custom software

District leaders who take the custom software approach say it gives them more control, better functionality and saves money. Blue Valley Schools purchased Microsoft SharePoint as a framework and then built its custom website on top, creating its own theme and navigation. Content on the website is compatible with four types of screen sizes: normal smartphone, large smartphone, tablet and PC. 

“The commercial website software we were using wasn’t meeting all our needs and limited the way we wanted to structure content,” DeYoung says. “This approach give us a more feature-rich and custom platform.”

The Blue Valley district has created numerous custom features for the website including a real-time system that feeds calendar subscriptions to phones, tablets, and PCs; custom search libraries; and a photo mashup driven by social feeds on Twitter.

New functions in development include a portal that gives students, parents and staff access to internal and external web resources with just one sign-on, plus a custom teacher finder for each school and staff finder for the whole district, DeYoung says.

The district, which hosts the website, worked with a digital media company to create the design. It took about five months to build the website and migrate content over.

Ongoing support is provided primarily by a webmaster with additional help from others on the tech and communications teams. Developers on staff create the new custom functionality, and occasionally contract for additional support when they need it.

Innovation leads way

Newark Public Schools also moved away from commercial software to gain more control—and to save money. Administrators chose WordPress open source software, and when they need a new feature, they either develop it in-house, find a contract developer or hire a development firm to create it.

“With our previous, closed-source vendor solution, there were many times when we wanted to do something innovative, but we were limited by the functionality provided,” says Cameron Barrett, senior manager of website technology at Newark Public Schools. “Technology is moving far too fast for most vendors to keep up.”

For example, Barrett built an interactive map showing the locations of all the schools. However, the vendor software did not support the pan-and-zoom feature.

Now, the district can add new functions when it wants, and often at no cost to the district. For example, the district developed a mobile app for iOS and Android to push out notifications when schools are closed or delayed, and for Amber Alerts.

For just 50 cents, the district can send up to a million push notifications per month through Amazon’s Push Notification Service. Districts that have commercial websites would likely pay an additional and fairly considerable fee for notification software, says Barrett.

“You can build school websites on top of open source for a lot less and still have the mobile app capability without having to go with yet another expensive vendor as a partner,” says Barrett.

Barrett manages all technical aspects of the website, including the codebase, themes, programming, new features, bug fixes and WordPress updates. A second staff member handles content changes. Developing the website and migrating content from the previous vendor took about three months, although the process could take six to 12 months for other districts, says Barrett.

An open source site is usually created by a local software development agency that specializes in WordPress. Then the code is handed over to the district to update and maintain. For example, IT staff would need to build interfaces to integrate new software applications, like online registration.

Districts with few IT resources or not enough expertise often enter into a low-cost contract with the software development agency for ongoing maintenance.

Barrett says he sees more districts, especially large ones with bigger IT staffs, migrating to open source solutions like WordPress and Drupal. Districts that take this path need to host the site themselves or pay an external provider for the service.

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.