As more and more schools seek to forge closer connections with parents and families, the web can be a powerful communications ally. Time-stressed parents appreciate the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week availability and convenience of the web. And, as the recent merger of Time Warner Cable and America Online shows, this “new” media is no longer the purview of the rich or the technologically elite.

Developing a family-friendly web site takes careful planning and special consideration, however. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

• Know your audience and design your site with their needs—and not the district administrative staff’s desires—in mind.

Conduct a series of focus groups, either face-to-face or online, and ask parents what they want and need from your web site. Put yourself in their shoes, and at their reading level, and ask yourself what you would want to know about your district or school if you were a parent.

Offer a special section for parents that includes information about your curriculum, latest test scores, homework assignments and project deadlines, menus (always a big deal in our house), daily classroom routines, and teacher contact information. Then consider adding parent tips, password-protected access to grades, online registration, links to day-care and after-school programs, and other services.

Keep in mind that today’s parents are obsessed with safety, order, and the basics, so make sure you include plenty of information about these topics. They also want to know that their son or daughter isn’t going to be a number or get lost in the crowd. So keep your site personal, warm, and caring.

• Make your site easy to navigate.

Nothing is more frustrating to parents then needing a site map in order to find anything on your web site. Use consistent web frames, buttons, and links—and simple language—to guide and direct parents from page to page and section to section. Make it easy for them to get back to your home page, or to find another section without having to back-track endlessly.

Make sure you design your web site flow with the needs and interests of parents and the community as the top priority. In other words, the Parent Connection section should take precedence over messages from the superintendent or endless streams of data about the district or its history. Make it easy to find individual schools, and provide complete contact information, addresses, maps, and directions.

• Keep it simple and to the point.

Take the time to translate long-winded documents and jargon into simple, clear, direct terms and language. You can have a master’s degree in engineering and not understand terms like thematic instruction, authentic assessment, instructional accountability, educational equity, and experiential learning.

When it comes to communication, less is more and simpler is better. Avoid dumping all of your print brochures into Adobe Acrobat and take the time to reformat the same content and images specifically for the web. Many parents don’t have sophisticated enough equipment and software to handle such memory-hogging programs, and no one has the time to wait for long downloads of pictures, graphics, and text.

• Share the workload, but save teachers time.

Creating appealing, family-friendly web sites worth visiting often takes weekly, if not daily, updating. This means you’re going to need to get many members of the school family involved in creating web pages and content.

The most effective web sites have multiple authors who use mutually agreed upon guidelines for content, artwork, fonts, and design elements. Many schools accomplish this by using templates or basic page frameworks that are created in advance by one designer or webmaster. Sharing the same software packages, and providing frequent, ongoing training for teachers, students, interns, media coordinators, and office personnel, is a must.

• Try a teacher pilot.

When you want to debut a new web service, such as posting student grades or test scores, sometimes a practice run with a technology-friendly teacher or two can help you move your idea from concept to action. The key is to find ways to work smarter, not harder, so teachers don’t have to enter key data such as grades, homework assignments, class projects, and other details more than once. If it’s easy, they’ll do it. If it’s hard, “fug ad aboud it.”

Partnering with a teacher or two to develop new strategies can help you avoid pitfalls you might not even know exist. Keep in mind that many educators are intimidated by technology, so providing one-on-one coaching and technical assistance, at least in the early stages, is going to be essential to help teachers feel confident and competent in eCommunications. The speed inherent in eCommunications has enormous customer service implications, so make sure you stress the importance of checking and responding to eMails on a daily basis.

• Keep it simple, software!

Staying within one family of software throughout your school and across the district for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, eMail, internet access, publications, and web design pays huge dividends when it comes to effective and efficient communications.

Develop a system for keeping all hardware, software and operating systems up-to-date and current with each other. This makes transferring files, sending eMails, attaching documents, converting to HTML, and posting web pages much easier by eliminating compatibility problems.

Inequities and variances from school to school, and from department to department, can also have a negative impact on morale. Every employee deserves equal access to the tools and technology required for maximum productivity. School systems need to do a better job of putting these key items on rotating schedules, similar to those developed for new textbooks and curriculum.

• Recruit a webmaster for every school.

Every school, department, and office should have one person who serves as the web author and gatekeeper. While technological literacy is always helpful, this person can be a “non-techy,” as long as he or she is knowledgeable about your area’s key people, activities, programs, services, and successes.

Guidelines for online publishing should be established in advance by a cross-functional team or committee, and should be enforced by the school or department webmaster. Having one person as the final online editor reduces communication clutter and ensures that inappropriate items or links are kept off the school or district web site.

• Restrict server access.

While you want to get as many people as possible involved in producing content and pages for your web site, you need to keep the keys to the system—access to your server and district passwords—in as few hands as possible.

In addition to the obvious security concerns, you want to protect the integrity of your site in terms of content, image, and design so you can communicate powerfully, simply, clearly, and effectively. If a committee takes charge of your overall design and web strategy, your site will end up looking like the proverbial camel instead of the sleek racehorse you envisioned. — Nora Carr