Combine a handful of teens, no budget, and a math teacher who is a complete web novice, and what do you get? If you’re Ohio’s Kenston High School, you get an award-winning web site, great “hands-on, minds-on” student learning, a $10,000 corporate gift—and a public relations bonanza.

“I took over the dormant KHS site during late fall of 1998,” says Ronnie Continenza, a KHS math and computer teacher. “I had no experience with web design, and a group of six seniors taught me.”

Using students’ home computers and Netscape Composer because “it was free,” Continenza and her hardy band of student volunteers built a content-rich web site that was named “Best in the USA” for 1999 by internet portal Education World.

Intrigued by KHS’s “Cool School Web Site” designation and its unique student photo galleries that let parents and far-flung relatives order eMailed copies, I asked Continenza to share some of her tips and strategies with eSchool News readers. Here’s what she had to say:

How did you get students involved in building a school web site?

You only need a few kids who can crank out pages. Find a couple of kids who have their own web sites and get them involved as student web masters. Ninety-nine percent of our pages were created on home computers and eMailed to me for posting. We didn’t have any classes or an organized club—just a dedicated group of students who did it on their own time.

The hardest part of building a site is getting timely information. The solution is to get kids involved from all aspects of school life. For example, find an athlete or two from every sport who is willing to eMail results as soon as they get home from competitions. Do the same thing with academic areas, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. This way, you can beat the morning papers with results, and in most cases you can beat the 11 p.m. news on television. The goal is to give viewers timely content.

You seem to have many faculty members involved and engaged as well. How did you do that so successfully? Did you meet with some initial resistance?

Once the site got going, it was well received by the faculty. Posting homework assignments is a great way to let parents know what is going on in class. It’s a communication tool that helps keep parents and teachers on the same page. If a student is having trouble getting homework done, parents can be contacted and asked to monitor their child’s homework, which can be found on the site. When we started this, parents loved it!

How do you balance security concerns with having lots of students and staff involved?

First and foremost, the law is on our side. Our site is copyright-protected. If someone redistributes any photos from our site, they are breaking the law and the courts will rule in our favor. Furthermore, if they are posting our photos somewhere else on the internet, they are breaking federal laws involving minors. The law is on our side, and we won’t hesitate to use it if the need arises.

Secondly, we will not post anything a student does not want posted, and we will remove any photo of a student upon request. In the last year and a half, we have posted well over 10,000 photos of our students and have had only a handful of requests to remove something—all for “vanity” reasons (closed eyes, for example). Our students love to see themselves on the site. It’s a form of recognition. If you walk down our hallways in between classes, you will see photos from the site printed and hanging in lockers throughout the school.

We also receive daily eMails from out-of-town relatives thanking us for our timely updates. Imagine being able to call up our web site on a Saturday morning and find the Winter Formal pictures from the previous night already posted. To be able to follow a student’s progress in academics, athletics, etc., from hundreds of miles away is a dream come true for many family members.

What do you think are the keys to a great school web site?

Content, fast load times, and easy navigation. We want our viewers to think, “Call up the web site” when they want to know about anything that is happening at Kenston High School. Instead of watching the 11 o’clock news for sports results, or calling the coach for directions to an event, or calling a teacher for homework assignments, we want our viewers to know they will find the information on our site.

We also strive for fast load times for all our pages. We don’t have fancy graphics and animated GIFs on our site. We want to feed our views useful information and do it quickly. Why wait two and half minutes for a fancy graphic to load if you can get the answer you want in 12 seconds?

In terms of navigation, we want our viewers to find anything on our site within three “clicks,” or pages. We make our pages uniform so people quickly will understand how to navigate the site, and our navigation bar appears on every page. We make our categories easy to understand, and we have a search engine so parents can type in their child’s name and find every page they are on quickly.

What software and other tools do you use to create your site?

Ninety-five percent of the HTML pages were created with Netscape Composer simply because it is free. If we need to write HTML code that Netscape does not support, we hand-code using a simple editor like Word Pad. We are discussing using Microsoft Front Page this year. All interactive scripts are written in PERL [Practical Extraction and Report Language], and we use ThumbsPlus by Cerious Software to generate our thumbnail photos. We use Adobe Photoshop to re-size, crop, and edit our original photos. We use the Nikon Coolpix 900 series digital camera for taking our photos, and we use WebTrends Log Analyzer to determine our traffic and help us find errors on the site—a very useful tool! We use WS_FTP Pro [from Ipswitch Inc. of Lexington, Mass.] to upload the site.

Any other tips you’d like to share with your colleagues?

Lay out the structure of the site before you start building pages. Use sub-directories for everything. For example, if you’re posting Spirit Week photos, put them in a Spirit Week folder. This makes it much easier to find something as the site grows.

I also recommend creating a navigation system as virtual menu. That way, you only have to make changes to one page (menu.html) in order to change the navigation bar on every single page on the site.

I also think we need to be considerate of our viewers. Set any color in your navigation bar as a background image. Since background colors won’t print, you will not deplete your viewers’ ink cartridge when they print a page from your site.

How has your web site benefited your students and your school community?

Our web site has had a great impact on our school spirit and pride in the community. Being named “Best in the USA” was like winning a Super Bowl or World Series in our community. It generated an unbelievable amount of enthusiasm and support. We were overwhelmed with literally hundreds of eMails, letters, and proclamations, not to mention the television, radio, and newspaper coverage.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Coming up with new ideas for the site is an ongoing process. Education World has made this easy. I check their site every Friday night to see who the new weekly winner is. I also revisit past winners. These sites change constantly, and we’ve gotten a number of great ideas from them.

What’s next for the KHS “Web Builders”?

We’re using the $10,000 we received from Cisco to upgrade our network. Information was traveling across our school at a rate of 10 megabits per second (Mbps). Thanks to Cisco, it is now traveling at a rate of 100 Mbps. We will be offering a hands-on web design class this year. We have 20 computers in our lab, and more than 80 students have signed up for the course.

Kenston High School

http://www.kenston.k12.oh.us/khs/khs.html

Education World’s “Cool School of the Week” Awards

http://www.educationworld.com/cool_school

Netscape Composer

http://www.netscape.com

Cerious Software’s ThumbsPlus

http://www.cerious.com

Adobe Photoshop

http://www.adobe.com

WS_FTP Pro

http://www.ipswitch.com

WebTrends Analyzer

http://www.webtrends.com