The school scene has changed in many ways over the past several decades, but perhaps one of the most staggering is the use of technology – and specifically, school web sites – as a highly effective teaching and communications tool.

Where teachers and administrators used to rely on chalkboards and mimeographed notes to remind students and parents of homework, projects, and other announcements, the Internet has opened up a world of opportunity to enhance classroom instruction, increase parent involvement, and encourage participation in school events.

And this is just the beginning. Some schools are looking into providing tutorial access through their web sites, offering basic tutoring and other reference tools to support the curriculum. Some tutoring services are offered through the community through the local public library, others are provided by commercial entities, facing increased competition from international sources. The changing face of technology in schools has implications that reach beyond the classroom, but the learning curve is still in its early stages.

The Honor Roll ?

In the course of our online travels, we’ve seen many outstanding web sites hosted by school districts throughout the country. Because of both budget and time constraints, however, the majority of individual school web sites have not reached their full potential.

But many schools are paving their way? Our research – which focused on middle school web sites – did reveal several notable examples of sites and features that make the MuniNet honor roll.

  • Robert Smalls Middle School (Beaufort, South Carolina), is a yearlong school with strong web site content. We particularly like the 9-Weeks Standards that each teacher posts on their classroom page. This feature breaks down the curriculum for the year, listing specific skills and lessons to be covered during each 9-week grading period.
  • Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, does a nice job of organizing individual teacher web pages. Selecting a teacher (by name or subject area search), brings up that teacher’s summary contact information, along with icons that lead to further options. One of the choices calls up that teacher’s daily schedule. By clicking on a class period – 5th hour math, for example – users can view daily homework for that specific class.
  • Eisenhower Middle School (Everett, Washington) provides a great collection of resources for parents by subject area – math, reading, and general homework. In addition to helpful links, the school offers specific advice for common issues (e.g., strategies to encourage children to read for pleasure, or tips to help master basic multiplication and division facts).
  • The Middle School Curriculum page for Virginia Beach Public Schools provides a central resource for parents and students to access core curriculum information by subject for each grade level.
  • The Fairfax Middle School (Bakersfield, California) web site offers students a comprehensive virtual library of links to helpful resources by subject area.

It’s all about content

The MuniNet Model for Online Excellence incorporates function, characteristics, and content. While defining purpose (function) and building a web site that embodies core characteristics are important, perhaps the most fundamental element of a top-quality school web site is its content.

What types of information should a school web site include? At the most basic level, a school web site ought to provide staff contact information – phone extensions, email addresses, and where applicable, links to teacher or class pages – sports and club news, school-level announcements, and a calendar that might include events that do not appear on the district calendar.

A school’s web site provides an opportunity to publicize policies regarding dress code, cell phones, and Internet use, for example – along with standard grading scales and criteria for honor roll and other student awards. Supplementing policy information with online forms – like a cell phone usage agreement or parent volunteer form – offers increased convenience which, in turn, can improve compliance, response rates, and participation.

Harnessing the power of the Internet, teachers and administrators can use packaged programs (see references at end of article) to provide an online reporting system for student grades and attendance. Curriculum summaries, highlights, and interim performance standards for students enhances accountability for students, teachers, and the school.

Serving as a gateway, school web sites can direct students, parents and teachers to a variety of resources – from articles on Internet safety and nutrition to sites that provide homework tips and reference materials.

Criteria for an effective school web site

  • The importance of fresh content cannot be overemphasized. Whether it involves daily homework, notices of upcoming parent meetings, or quiz review materials, current information is vital. Outdated content sends the wrong message in an environment that teaches respect for deadlines (assignment due dates) and attention to detail. It also discourages people from using the web site as a reliable resource; if they can’t find current information, they won’t take the time to check the web site on either a regular or as-needed basis.
  • Perhaps more in the school arena than in other areas of the public sector, consistency is an extremely important attribute when it comes to an effective school web site. Because students often move from one teacher to another – whether in flexible grouping situations that change throughout the year, or for yearlong classes as in the case of junior high or middle schools, having teachers provide consistent information helps both students and parents.

    Consistency levels the playing field, so to speak, when all sixth-grade Language Arts teachers post the weekly spelling list online, or when all eighth-grade Math teachers list daily homework assignments. Students and parents can have balanced expectations, and can know that having a particular teacher does not mean having more or less access to class-specific information.

  • Because parents, children, teachers and members of the community at large all have different skill levels when it comes to using the Internet, simplicity and ease of navigation will help all users find the information they need.
  • Reader appeal involves color, design, graphics, sound, and other bells and whistles. Grabbing and holding visitor’s attention may be less important for a school web site than say, for a city hoping to attract tourists or promote economic development. However, anything a web site can do to enhance a visitor’s experience will encourage repeat visits.
Pre-Packaged Programs for School Web Sites

Many companies offer software programs specifically designed for schools and teachers. By using a pre-packaged system like those listed below, schools do not have to expend the resources to develop their web pages from scratch … eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel. Another advantage is that these systems encourage consistency among teachers within a school (or district).