Practical Suggestions for Savvy (and Busy!) School Administrators
In the mid 1990’s, it was “cool” if your school had a web page on the internet. Many high schools like ours had students design them. We didn’t really know what to do with them other than to add some links and post some pictures. In short, school web sites were a kind of technological novelty item.
Times have changed. I would argue that the school web site is now an essential tool for the efficient administration of your school. It should serve two primary functions: to market the school to prospective families, and to serve as a means to effectively communicate with your current families. Keeping both of these purposes in mind will help you develop your site into something that can make your life simpler as an administrator, ease some of the administrative burden on your secretary, and provide real services to your families.
Marketing to new families
Your site is perhaps the most important piece of your school’s public marketing plan. Families new to town often use the internet as a way of screening schools prior to making a decision. In Montgomery Al, where our school is located, there is an Air Force base which rotates several hundred officers each year. Typically these officers receive their new assignment months before they relocate. I spoke with an officer’s wife, who said that in the interim, she and other spouses spend hours and hours on the internet, learning everything they can about the new city, the neighborhoods, and most importantly, the schools.
What kind of information do newcomers need to help them make a decision? They want information about tuition and fees. (Some schools seem reluctant to put this on line, but I don’t understand why--they would give this information out over the telephone if asked.) Prospective families want an overview of the academic program (like most schools, we have a curricular guide but have wasted an enormous amount of paper reproducing it instead of putting it on line, where it’s now far more accessible). Families want a feel for the campus itself and its facilities (we’ve included on line “tours”). They’d like to know about the athletic program. Their kids want to know what the uniforms look like (better to provide pictures of students in uniform than simply a written uniform policy). How might a new family apply to our school? Are applications available on line? If a family has questions that aren’t answered by the site, is there an email address prominently displayed to whom these questions can be addressed? There ought to be a place, easy to find, that provides answers and services to these families. And where-ever this place is on your page, I suggest adding two additional links as a means of marketing your school: first, a set of academic statistics that may impress (for a high school, as an example, the % of scholarships, the number of Merit finalists, the % going to college, etc) and second, quotes from former or current parents and students about your school and its teachers. When someone writes to compliment us, I ask if I can include this on our web page. I’ve made a point of posting comments from other military families who have come and gone. These testimonials are impressive to anxious parents, trying to make the right choice for their child in an unknown city.
The good news is that it costs very little to do all this, less than a single advertisement in the local newspaper (with a shelf life of only one day) and ultimately more appreciated, since the page is answering real questions for parents, rather than presenting them with a zippy line or a cute picture. For this reason, I believe when schools don’t use their web sites very consciously to serve prospective families, they are wasting their advertising dollars.
Communicating with current families
The second purpose of a school’s web site should be to effectively communicate with current families. I have a pretty simple test for this: Does our site cut down on the number of phone calls to our school secretary? If your secretary is like ours (and most school secretaries are), she has too much to do already. Answering the phone is especially time consuming. Most of the time, she is asked routine questions (What time is the basketball game tonight? How to I find your school? What’s the school address? How do I get in touch with teacher X?). These questions can all be answered on a well designed web page, if you can slowly bring your families around to use it. The more useful it is, the more they will use it.
So with this “secretarial test” in mind, here are 4 critical components for your school¹s web page, all of which should be prominent links on your front page:
• Most importantly, an up to date, on line calendar, which includes dates and times of all school events, including games, practice times, PTO meetings, when report cards go out, holiday and early dismissal times and anything else you can think of! There are many inexpensive (and some free) on line calendars which are easy to use and which your school secretary should be placed in charge of keeping current. She likely keeps a calendar any way for mailings; all I am suggesting is that she switches calendars (the on line calendars can be printed off, too, if the school still wants to mail them home). Our school actually keeps two calendars--an academic calendar (which the secretary controls) and an athletic calendar (which is the responsibility of the athletic director). These calendars are accessed far more than anything else on our page. For parents, the information is essential.
• A “contact” link which lists email addresses to every faculty and staff member in your school, and on which a simple click on that faculty address will automatically launch the user’s email program. I am hoping I need not argue too strenuously for the importance of email addresses for every teacher! From an administrative efficiency standpoint, email takes the school secretary out of the “switch-board” operator mode, shuffling messages back and forth between parents and teachers. For teachers, email solves the problem of “telephone tag” since for most of a teacher’s day, he or she is in the classroom. It can also be used to communicate grades on a more timely basis than the 4 or 8 week progress report. Parents might say to a teacher “If my child starts going poorly, please let me know” but teachers, even good ones, forget to do so, which often leads to hard feelings. I advise our teachers to ask back from that parent “Please email me whenever you’d like, and I’ll be happy to give you up to the minute grades.” It’s possible, if the web page makes those addresses available to parents easily.
• A “school news” page. This will be one of the few links that will need frequent updating--probably once/week (see below). Here you would post announcements, congratulatory notes, scores from games--creating, ideally, a kind of “around the hallways” or “insider’s view” of the school.
• Finally, I suggest a link on the front page which invites families (or anyone else interested in the school) to provide their email addresses to a school list serve. These list serves are cheap to use but infinitely valuable to school administrators because they require zero maintenance (vs. typing in everyone’s email addresses and trying to keep track of all the address changes--a sure way to drive your secretary to drink!) and because they allow you to send out a message to targeted groups of individuals in your community, depending on either their relationship to you--students, parents, alumni, board members, etc.--or their particular area of interest. What a tool for administrators! As an example, there was a rumor circulating last summer that a much respected coach had resigned. Misinformation was being swapped around, getting everyone upset. I was able to instantly send an email that squelched the rumor to the 250 persons who signed up for the list serve and expressed an interest in athletics. Do you need to send out a reminder for an important parent meeting? Clear up a confusion about a calendar date? Invite your alumni to a school event? Send out a link to pictures of a ball game or school play? Notify parents of updates to your web page? The possibilities are endless. All I have to do is create a single email message, check the intended audience and hit “send”.
Web page upkeep without breaking the bank
To keep a web page useful and up to date requires time. Fortunately, as a school administrator, you have an enormous amount of free time to become HTML experts and work on the school’s web page each day. Right? Ha!
As a cheap alternative some schools have allowed well meaning, initially enthusiastic souls, perhaps even students, to design their web page and try to keep it current. The problem with this approach is that the initial interest of the designer inevitably wanes, the task of keeping all the links up to date becomes overwhelming, and predictably, the links become outdated. Could any of us imagine sending our parents information in the mail that was dated six months ago? Yet that is what many of us do by not keeping our web pages up to date. Perhaps as little as five years ago, with the internet still regarded as a novelty, the public would have forgiven us. Now, with the internet seen as an essential tool, poor web page maintenance is regarded as a sign of administrative ineptitude.
The opposite extreme is to pay a professional firm to create and maintain your school¹s web page. However, if your intent is to keep your site updated continually, this will cost your school thousands and thousands of dollars--perhaps the equivalent of a full time teaching position each year. For us, a school of 260 students, that is unthinkable.
I suggest a third way, with minimal costs, if you follow these suggestions:
• First, keep things simple. There’s a lot of glitz for web pages out there, most of which becomes annoying to frequent users of a site (Flash animations, the overuse of frames, sappy music, etc.). These things ramp up your start-up costs, require more knowledge to use and make your sites more complicated for the user. You don’t need them.
• Second, don’t over-commit. Limit the number of links that must be constantly updated. On our school’s front page, there is only one link that requires knowledge of html code and gets updated frequently (our “school news” page). Everything else on our web page except athletics (see below) -- financial information, admissions procedures, directions to the school, etc. -- is relatively static, requiring only once or perhaps twice a year updating. Don’t make the common mistake that many schools make: designing web pages which they don’t have the time or resources to keep up.
• Third, divide up responsibilities for your web site. It is our secretary’s duty to keep the academic calendar up to date and the athletic director’s responsibility for the athletic calendar. A teacher or student can keep the “school news” section updated weekly. In addition, we have a wonderful father, interested in sports and whose hobby is digital photography (I bet you do, too). I’ve given him access to our athletic pages, and he takes team pictures and game photos and then posts them on our site. The kids love it. The school maintains control of the front athletic page and the hierarchy of links, but as one moves down the hierarchy to specific teams, our volunteer maintains those pages completely. He enjoys it, and because we have narrowed his responsibility to his area of interest, he is willing to keep the links current, in contrast to a volunteer who may be asked to “keep the web site up” and gets overwhelmed.
• Fourth, get help to set up your original template (a parent, a student, a teacher). This template will require little updating, once set. It’s important, however, that you maintain ultimate administrative control over the “look” and the links on page one of your web page. You may want to hire a professional to design a school banner for your site if a skilled volunteer isn’t available. This will be the first impression of your school to the outside observer, and aesthetics matter. We aim for a simple, clean look on our front page.
• Fifth, purchase Adobe “Acrobat”. Acrobat will allow you to add content to your web page with very little extra work. All of us have things like newsletters, curricular guides, cafeteria menus, application packets, etc. which we produce on paper to give to our families. Acrobat will allow you to re-create all of these things in a .pdf file which can be placed on line for anyone in the world to access. Going back to the “secretary test”, what forms does she constantly give out to people through the office? At our high school, prospective teachers need application packets, students need “good driver” discount forms for car insurance, athletes need physical forms, families need financial aid forms, teachers and coaches need purchase requisition forms, prospective students need school applications—just to name a few. You probably have these on a computer file already. Acrobat will let you easily recreate these forms (no re-typing or re-formatting) for access on line, thus cutting back on your office traffic and providing a real service to your families (and your beleaguered secretary). Acrobat is not expensive, and you will quickly recover your money by mailing fewer things and using less paper.
Our School Web Page: What We Use and How Much it Costs
I don’t pretend that our school’s site is one of the best examples of a school web page out there. I’ve been deeply impressed by the quality of other school sites around the nation, many of which are far superior to ours. However, ours works well for us, and I reference our page here as an example of the suggestions I have made through-out this article.
Our school site is at http://www.knights.pvt.k12.al.us We use the following tools:
1. For the on line calendar program, we use a service at http://www.webevent.com, which costs $2400 for a non profit institution to purchase 20 on line calendars. (You’ll only need one or two of these calendars. Our diocese purchased this for all our schools, so we only had to pay for a fraction of this). It may be possible for you to work a similar deal with schools in your system. Prior to upgrading to this calendar, we used a free on line calendar program for over two years, available at http://www.calsnet.net. It worked reasonably well.
2. For the list serve, we use a service at http://www.mailermailer.com. This service is free if you intend to send less than 200 messages/month, and $30/month for up to 20,000 messages. I suggest signing up for the free service initially, and once you begin to build the base to a significant number of families, upgrading to the monthly service.
3. Most of the documents on our page were created by Microsoft Word or Publisher (available with Microsoft Excel and MS Outlook in a suite of tools for only $150, using academic pricing) and then made internet-ready by using Adobe Acrobat (for another $150). It will be the best $300 you spend all year.
4. You may want to get a professional to design an original banner for your page, or you may simply know someone that is proficient in Adobe Photoshop and is willing to make you one (my 12 year old son designed ours!). If you use a graphic designer, it should cost no more than $300-500. Don’t buy Photoshop, as it is expensive. Unless you intend on spending a lot of time creating and manipulating images, you probably don’t need it.
5. We use the free html editor which comes with the Netscape browser to make minor modifications to our site. For only $80-100 (academic pricing), you can purchase Microsoft Front Page, which allows you to create and modify web pages with very little knowledge of html.
6. Finally, our web site is hosted for free by the company that runs our T-1 internet line to the school (the T-1 line is decidedly NOT free). It’s likely that whoever provides internet access to your school will also host your page cheaply if they don’t already. If not, you can have your page hosted by a variety of reliable internet providers (AOL, Compuserve, Earthlink, a zillion others) for only $20-25/month.
If you did these things, then, it would cost you anywhere from $600 to $1000 dollars to get the necessary software to start, and another $30-55/month for monthly service to run a page similar to ours.
From the time we improved our web site along the lines I have outlined, we’ve noticed the following trends: Office traffic has slowed (OK, only a little). Routine phone calls have decreased (no kidding). We don’t shuffle pink “message” slips around the school anymore. Mailing costs have declined. I wish I could say our paper usage has diminished, but I’m sure it would be worse if we didn’t have so many documents accessible on line. We’ve been able to do more advertising, because our budget goes further with the cheap marketing our page provides. Parents are happier, because they feel like the school keeps in better touch than our previous once/month mailings. Our teachers, via email, are more accessible to parents for questions about their children. And the happiest person of all? Not, not you. The school secretary! But if she’s happy...