For Administrators

How Schools Can Get the Most from District Websites

By Brian Gatens March 31, 2014

Every school district tells a story to its public, and in today’s world that story is told through the district’s website. With the rise of the Internet and our culture of connection, more and more people are learning about your district — and your classroom if you’re a teacher — from their Internet searches.

How do you ensure that your district website is doing the best job of telling your story? Keep these points in mind:

Insist on ease of navigation

An entire section of the website-creation industry focuses on a site’s user interface, or UI. Today’s Web user, well-versed in high-quality commercial sites such as Amazon and eBay, has little tolerance for a website that makes it difficult to find essential information quickly.

An example would be access to your student absence procedures. Rather than put that information five or six clicks deep into your site, it is best to post a direct link from your main page.

Avoid busy and over-the-top

Some school districts’ desire to tell their story produces a website that is overwhelmingly busy with swooping graphics, far too many main page links and excess text that loses the interest of visitors very quickly.

To help combat this, aim for a design that is clean, efficient and clear for the visitor. Do not get pulled into the idea that more is always better. A common philosophy that drives good Web design is “More isn’t always better, and most of the time, less is more.”

Target your audience

It is vital to know your community and understand why they are visiting your website. At its very core, a website is about communication, but it’s essential that you know who the communication is for. Do families access your site? What about prospective homebuyers? Is it the portal into another part of your website or an access point for your teachers?

Knowing your audience enables you to tailor your information and primary access to specific people. For example, my district has a high level of teacher communication through the district website. As a result, parents who visit our site’s homepage can find links taking them directly to the “parent pages.”

Change with the times

Some experts argue that the traditional website is a thing of the past, thanks to the rise of “push” notifications, automated email servers and smartphone apps. Does that mean districts no longer need a web presence as a stand-alone information site?

Not exactly. No matter how many other ways people get their information about your school, your website can still be a simple information “warehouse” that helps families sign up for your automated information services.

Don’t neglect back-office features

One often forgotten aspect of a district’s website is back-office use by district staff. How heavily do your teachers use the lesson-posting, homework-listing and grade-reporting aspects of your website? While these quiet and unseen features are not as “bright and shiny” as your main page, often they create the most benefit for your students and teachers.

Be careful about changing providers

Before you decide to change your district’s website provider (goodness knows there are enough companies out there), it is essential that you base the decision on what is best for your community. Using a Google Form survey goes a long way toward getting teacher and community buy-in to a website redesign. Don’t underestimate the public’s connection to traditional website offerings and designs.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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