School web sites are packed with more information than ever before, but are they telling a story? If we really want to champion education on the web, we’re going to have touch people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Great storytellers paint pictures that capture our imaginations and transport us into the lives of the characters they’re describing. We feel what they feel. In schools, the central characters–the lead players–are the students. Yet they’re noticeably absent from the web.

We bludgeon site visitors with district maps, superintendent messages, boring mission statements, and bland descriptions of our schools, yet ignore the most powerful public relations opportunities–the kids.

Which communicates more? Itemizing the state academic standards in mind-numbing detail, or using words, full-color photos, and the unique interactivity of the web to “walk” visitors through a typical school day in Mrs. Johnson’s fourth grade class?

What matters most to parents? The school’s 100-point discipline code or the latest test scores … the debate team results … mock-trial winners … science fair champions … and community service projects?

Protecting students’ privacy and keeping their photos and identities safe from web marauders is critical, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep their achievements off the web.

A warm, caring climate

Children’s International School in Palo Alto, Calif., offers a good case-in-point. Its well-crafted web site takes you into the classroom, conveys the strength and richness of the school’s curriculum, and introduces you to teachers and students–without putting children at risk.

How? Initials only are used in the “meet some of our students” section, and names are edited out of “The Compass” newsletter sample without sacrificing content. A password-protected “parents only” section offers more detail.

The site’s “photo essay” communicates the school’s warm, caring climate. Soft edges and focus make it difficult to pick out or identify individual children. The simple agenda for the day–meeting, group work, reading aloud, math, language, Hardy Boys, trinomial cube, Japanese, library, etc.–conveys academic power.

The site also recognizes the school’s funders and “friends”–a nice touch. When statistical information is communicated, it’s kept short, to the point, and easy to scan in a special “quick facts” section.

The right thing

KMOV-TV in St. Louis, Mo., offers another effective approach. As the sponsor of a program that recognizes area youth for “doing the right thing,” the station uses its web site to complement its on-air features of award-winning students. Students are shown in group photos only, and built-in copyright protection makes downloading files, text, and images virtually impossible.

Here, you can learn about a compassionate kindergartner who helped a lost child; a teenager who spearheaded collections of clothing, toys, and other basics for two families who lost everything in a fire; or two young boys who foiled a couple of shoplifters.

You’ll also find students who have worked hard to improve their attitudes and their grades or who have befriended struggling or lonely classmates. The result? A storytellers’ dream–and potent PR for area schools.

Children’s International School