You Are Using Your School Website Wrong

A school website is the first port of entry for anyone looking to learn about a school. This includes existing community members (students, teachers, staff, leaders), potential community members (new students/parents, teachers apply for jobs, potential board members), and those looking for more information about the school (inspectors, donors, media, educational organizations). Schools that try to create websites that are all things to all these people end up creating a diluted or inconsistent experience for all.

The schools that use their web presence successfully understand that needs of each stakeholder group and partition their sites accordingly.

Existing Community Members

Stakeholders in the community don’t have much need for a standard website. Static information about the school’s curriculum or contact info have little value to students and parents that visit the school daily. Instead, they need dynamic content that changes each time they visit. They need portals that are customized to their needs with regularly updated information that informs them and incites action. A teacher needs communications about calendar changes, policy updates, and means to interact with parents and students. Parents need news, pictures, and communication channels directly related to their children rather than schoolwide information. Students need academic and social content that meets their interests and needs while aligning to their uses of social media outside of school.

A school website cannot do this…and nor should it. A school website should only provide access to other systems, such as social media sites, communication systems, a learning management platform, or access to related online tools. A school website should not be developed with existing community members in mind.

Potential Community Members

Incoming parents, potential employees, and students applying to a school will look at the website as their first interaction with the school. They will be looking for a snapshot of school life. Rarely will they delve deep into policies or mission statements, instead looking for highlights of school events or examples of student work. They will want to know about requirements for entry, what to expect when on campus, and a calendar of school events.

This is where a school website should focus. It should provide high level information about the school that answers all the key questions potential community members may have. It should deliver static information about the leadership structure, school history, and curriculum. It should show the school calendar with links to pictures and videos from recent events. It should provide a very clear process for admissions or job applications. It should not be overly dynamic, instead relying on consistency so when school personnel meet these potential community members they know what has already been seen.

A key aspect for potential community member is a visually appealing product. Whereas existing community members will be more impressed with targeted dynamic content, potential community members will be judging the school on its presentation. The website should have consistent branding, colors, fonts, and headings. It should have professional visuals and pictures that showcase the best the school has to offer. The structure of the site should be simple and clear and it should include an easy to use search function. Written language should follow the 3 Cs: concise, cogent, and consistent.

Schools should think of their website as a classroom visit from an outside inspector; it is their time to show their best selves for someone who knows little about them, but who is judging them.

Outsiders Looking to Learn More

While potential community members are the website’s primary audience, there will be outside people and organizations using the site to learn about the school as well. This audience is often looking for two things: clear explanation of process and procedures and a snapshot of the school community.

Inspectors, accrediting agencies, and even the media will evaluate the school based on its adherence to accepted school practices. They will look for a clear mission and vision statement, descriptions of curriculum, and policies such as admissions criteria or privacy protection. It is important for schools to include this information in a standardized format that is easy to find. Further, the site should include an “About Us” or “Message from the Head of School” that encapsulates the key aspects and statistics of the school in a few short paragraphs.

The website should also provide content for potential donors, the surrounding community, and outside organizations just trying to get a feel for the school. There should be content that provides a snapshot of daily life at the school, highlighting key achievements and features of the school. This content should be interspersed throughout the site while being prominent on the landing page. For example, if the school has just held an arts installation pictures from the event should be prominent on the home page and placed as anchor images in random areas throughout the site.

A Window into the School

A school’s website should not be designed for those already in the school. As a window display in a mall is intended to attract people to the store rather than support customers already inside, a website should focus on the external. It should provide rarely changing information, pictures, and videos of the school for those outside of the school community. It should present a realistic view into daily school life in a professional and polished fashion. To cater to the needs of existing community members, the website should only be an entry point to more dynamic and targets systems.

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