In honor of back-to-school season, this month’s installment of Top Picks highlights several elementary and secondary school district websites that rise to the head of their class. While some school district websites function as administrative “shells” for their schools, many others – including those highlighted in this article – are content-rich resources that educate and  inform, promote involvement in academic and extracurricular activities, and facilitate student-parent-faculty interaction with the district and the community.

It should be noted that the granular interaction between teachers, student, and parents, as well as the day-to-day “business of learning” takes place at the school – really the classroom – website level, where, in an ideal world, teachers post homework assignments, grades, and other classroom communications on a regular basis. In reality, there is a high level of variance across the country, and even within school districts, when it comes to the use of technology at the school and classroom levels.

School district websites are typically a source for district news and events, budget and financial information, career and employment resources for current and prospective employees; policies and procedures; and links to schools within the district.

District websites often provide an introduction to new programs being implemented by schools in the district, including new student email tools and web-based student information systems to track grades and attendance (programs such as PowerSchool, Edline, and others). Some districts provide a treasure-trove of resources that serves as a virtual library of links to helpful third-party resources for students, parents, and teachers.

School lunch menus and payment options are also usually offered at the district level, as is information for families new to the community (providing answers to questions such as, “How do I know which school my child should attend?” … “Where does my student catch the school bus?” … “Where can I purchase a school uniform for my child?”).

While our survey of school district websites was admittedly unscientific, we spent the past few weeks visiting websites hosted by the one hundred largest school districts in the country. Our findings:

  • The notion that only wealthy school districts are able to host high quality websites is a myth.
  •  Specific content offered on school district websites varies from district to district – and from time to time. As would be expected, many districts feature back-to-school information in fall, and highlight drug and alcohol awareness programs during prom season in spring.
  •  Over the past decade, the quality bar has been raised; the “average” school district website is no longer a “C,” but really more like a “B+.”
  •  The districts that go the extra mile, clearly earning an “A” across the board, have carefully done their homework, aced the tests, and even done some extra credit. Translated: they’ve taken the time and resources to identify – and effectively present – tools and content that promote student, parent, and community engagement and foster a healthy learning environment.

Our Top Picks for outstanding school district websites include:

Austin Independent School District (Austin, Texas)

Austin Independent School District’s website earns a spot among our Top Picks because it is one of the most interesting, engaging district websites we’ve seen. Its home page features a Question of the Week, a poll that asks what students like most about the first day of school, ways in which students planned to “keep their minds sharp” over summer break, and reaction to the District’s addition of healthier food choices to the cafeteria menus – as a few examples. It also includes a Picture of the Week (this week’s picture is actually a video of a high school teacher who is featured on Good Morning America!), a calendar, District news, and links to articles about timely, hot topics. And that’s just the site’s home page … !

The Schools section of the website provides links to elementary, middle, and high schools in the District, along with a map and information about bus routes and transportation options. The Budget & School Finance section not only provides transparency, but also explains, in plain-language, how the District plans to cope with budget challenges without compromising educational standards.

Washoe County School District (Reno, Nevada)

The tagline of Washoe County School District – “Every Child, by Name and Face, To Graduation” – says  a lot about this school district and its approach to education. And its website echoes the focus on preparing students for success – through high school and into their future – with the help of school, parents and community. It’s “How to Get to School Safely” is unique feature that bears mention because of its attention to wellbeing – for the students (walking and biking are great exercise) as well as the community at large (by reducing vehicle emissions). This page even provides information about how area residents can volunteer their time to walk younger students to school. While only one of numerous noteworthy features on this website, this page clearly exemplifies the philosophy of the district.

Also worth noting for its comprehensiveness is the Parents section of this website, which highlights opportunities for parental involvement, lists a number of helpful resources for families, and explains district tools and programs. In addition to information about volunteering, the Community section of this website promotes the District’s transparency and accountability through links to annual financial and budget reports, strategic plan, and even a link to a public complaint form. We won’t be needing one of those. This school district website is among our favorites.

Philadelphia School District (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

At first glance, Philadelphia School District’s website looked good – but upon deeper exploration, we were absolutely wowed by the sheer volume of resources it provides. Most school districts have some type of program by which to measure student progress, but Philadelphia’s StudentNet stands out because it tracks progress over time – not just over one school year – and includes measures such as standardized test results in addition to homework and classroom tests. The website does a fabulous job of explaining the resource, and how parents and students can use it. Another example is the District’s College Readiness and Accelerated Programs page, which includes access to a “scholarship clearinghouse,” along with a collection of other valuable resources aimed at preparing secondary students for college exploration.

The District has a bit of a “corporate” look and feel to it, evidenced by its News, Events & Press Release page (comprehensive!) as well as its “customer service comment form” …. But it works, lending professionalism and efficiency to the website.

Seminole County Public Schools (Sanford, Florida)

Seminole County (Florida) Public Schools website makes our list of Top Picks because it shows that if a website is well organized, it can house a plethora of information without being cluttered or overwhelming. This is a tough balance to achieve, but Seminole County Public Schools gets an A+ for accessibility to information. Like many others, the District uses tabs to organize its content by target audience – parents, students, employees, and the general public. Each tab then features sub-menus through which to find resources, information, and links – from the district’s policy on bullying to school bus stops, lunch menus, and results of a parent school climate survey, to name a sampling of the wide range of materials provided here.

In addition to a plethora of valuable information for parents and students, Seminole County Public Schools offers an equally impressive range of materials aimed for District employees and members of the community at large.

Its Get Involved page includes links to the District’s many volunteer programs, with opportunities for every interest – from people looking to help with clerical duties in the office to those who want to roll up their sleeves and help in the Environmental Studies Center or Student Publishing Lab.

San Bernardino Unified School District (San Bernardino, California)

Prepare to be impressed. This school district website does a beautiful job of integrating the concepts of community and successful learning. Case in point: Among the resources on the Parent Resources page is an explanation of “12 Powerful Words,” a list of words used in class and daily life based on the work of well-known education consultant Dr. Larry Bell. The explanations are brief (“Explain=Tell How”) but help students, parents, and teachers stay on the same page when using these words, which have been deemed to have a positive impact on student learning. The page suggests ways in which parents can use these words with their children to help boost academic performance. The Teacher Resources page also has a section devoted to “12 Powerful Words,” but the explanations and suggestions are geared for teachers.

Within San Bernardino’s Student Resources page, the collection of Online Student Resources page is fabulous. The page is divided by subject area (English, Math, Social Studies), and includes links to textbook companies online guides and sample quizzes, as well as other helpful websites (like “GrammarGirl” – a great website for anyone looking for a little grammar guidance!).

Its College/Career Development page is full of helpful resources for students preparing for college – as well as those headed directly for the workplace.

This district also tackles some tough social issues head-on; its website includes a section devoted to homeless students, as well as one on HIV Education/Prevention. In doing so, the district conveys a message of concern for all students.