Your Internet Presence is Your Face to the Community

A computer screen showing a couple lines of coding

The first website was created by a team of European Organization for Nuclear Research engineers in 1991. If you’d like to see websites from the early days of the internet, consider a visit to the Wayback Machine at www.archive.org, where more than 30 billion webpages are stored.

Using this site, I recently looked back at the earliest NSBA site. It offered the most basic and static content, limited graphics, and no interactivity other than a few email addresses. Today, the NSBA site is undergoing an update to offer dynamic content each time it’s viewed that will deliver a more personalized web experience.

The Wayback Machine reminds you about how far you’ve come since your initial site, but now it’s more important to think about how your current site reflects your district to the community. Internet usage by adults has gone from 52 percent of the population in 2000 to 89 percent in 2018, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. You can be sure that your website is the “go to” source for information that helps shape the community’s impression about the district or attract new employees.

The late Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy and activist, said, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” That must be the rationale behind the lack of information provided on many school district websites. Because it can be so difficult to find essential information on a district website, many people are left feeling powerless as they try to engage.

New Community Members and Family Engagement

Some district sites often fail to include even the most basic overview of the district, like the number of schools, district enrollment, and demographics. Failure to provide online information makes it difficult for parents new to a community to identify their options, determine which school their child should attend, and gather the necessary documents needed for enrollment. Kansas’ Derby Public Schools (www.derbyschools.com) on the other hand, does a good job graphically displaying that information while Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools (www.vansd.org/mission) places its history in context.

Too frequently, there is no ability to engage via email with a district employee through information available on the website. The lack of staff email listings is often justified as a strategy to minimize spam for the employees, but it also minimizes customer service and maximizes frustration in a world where email communication has become the norm. It also can be difficult for new families to identify student performance data for schools within a district, leaving them with no alternative but to search sites maintained by other organizations like Great Schools or ask local realtors.

Ongoing research documents that family engagement remains critical to student achievement, but the design of district, school, and teacher webpages does not always encourage active participation. Again, being able to reach educators and administrators via e-mail can overcome language and time barriers for those who work alternative schedules.

Parents with multiple children enrolled in a district must navigate different school web pages which often have no consistency regarding the placement or type of information provided across school sites. Illinois’ Kirby School District 140 (www.ksd140.org) does a great job of overcoming that frequent challenge between the district and individual school sites.

While virtually every district references the importance of parent and community involvement, at least in the superintendent’s welcome letter, the website often delivers an entirely different message.

School Leadership

Perhaps there is an institutional rationale, but there are district sites where it is nearly impossible to locate information about the superintendent or who serves on the school board. As elected or appointed officials, leadership information should be readily available to members of the public. When following the school board link on many sites, only board minutes and calendars can be found, almost as if the board members would prefer to remain anonymous.

While a district’s website is not the sole representation of its operation, an out-of-date letter from the superintendent or, worse yet, sections of the site template that remain permanently under construction with sample “place text here” language, suggests a low priority on external communication. Some districts, like Minnesota’s Minnetonka Public Schools (www.minnetonkaschools.org/district/leadership/board), do a terrific job identifying current school board members with individual or group photos and a brief bio for each member.

If a personal email is not provided, there is often a district email address or at least an intake form available to facilitate communication with the board. Some districts even include a tribute to previous board members, like the 50 years of service listed on Illinois’s Park Ridge-Niles District 64 (www.d64.org/boe/past-board-members).

Identifying the board clerk and how to reach that individual is also important. The way a district shares information about its operations or how to participate in its board meetings reflects how interested the board really is in hearing from the public. By failing to offer detailed instructions online about how to engage with the school board, a novice can be intimated at the thought of raising any issue with them. South Carolina’s Greenville County Public Schools (www.greenville.k12.sc.us/About/main.asp?titleid=boardmain) provides a clear description for public participation.

Examples of the barriers to electronic communication include one school committee’s website that says to expect a “minimum of two weeks for acknowledgement” from any email and another district site that requires users to sign in with their Google or Facebook account to be able to complete an intake form.

Community Participation

The district website is the lens through which many in the community view the district, especially when they do not have children in the system. Does the site use video and images to tell its story? How easy is it to apply for a position? Does it inspire someone to volunteer? Low participation in school board elections is a well-documented fact that has not been lost on a new generation of activists who are using social media to engage new voices. Check out the resources created by XQ, That’s a School Board Thing (xqsuperschool.org/school-board-thing).

In our transient nation, it becomes even more important for districts to ensure their websites reflect an accurate and engaging portrayal of the district and its leaders. Wisconsin’s Pulaski Community School District (www.pulaskischools.org/boe) does a great job educating the community about the role of a school board. If there is a desire to increase participation in school board elections and passage of bond referendums, districts must make every effort for their communities to know as much about them as possible.

An effective district website is the virtual manifestation of “putting your best foot forward” to the community. Spend time visiting other school districts sites to see how they organize and present information. Consider the following five points to see how your website reflects the district:

  • Look at the district site through fresh eyes. Think about it as a newcomer to the community. What would you want to know?
  • Who leads the district? Can you easily identify the superintendent and learn anything about the board members?
  • Can you communicate? Are there email addresses or at least an intake form?
  • Click through every major section of your site. Are there broken links or out-of-date information?
  • Involve students. Consider providing that real-world experience to students if district staff are unable to support an up-to-date website.

    - Article written by Ann Flynn, NSBA Program Director, Education Innovation

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