We all want school web sites that are easy to use, graphically appealing, and packed with useful, parent-friendly information.

But let’s face it–as a group, we’re not there yet. In fact, many of our sites are downright boring–filled with stale news, bad graphics, dead links, and poorly constructed HTML. (And we wonder why public education has an image problem?)

Every once in a while, however, I come across a site that makes me realize that proactive, personalized, and relevant communication with parents isn’t just a PR person’s fantasy.

GreatSchools.net is such a site. Currently serving California and Arizona, GreatSchools features clean graphics, smooth navigation, and snappy search tools that make it easy for parents to access school data and information.

Parents can quickly search and compare schools by address, school name, district name, or city. More complicated searches can locate and compare schools within a certain geographic area or near a certain address. Parents can also compare class sizes and programs, including services for special and gifted education

Do educational terms and jargon leave your parents cross-eyed? All they have to do is key in the term of their choice, and GreatSchools.net’s library will deliver a straightforward definition, outline teaching methods and highlight other critical issues.

Parents new to an area or confronting the complexities of school choice for the first time will enjoy the site’s well-researched and pre-packaged content. The site covers school options, charter schools, standardized test scores, volunteerism, and more.

Content is packaged and promoted in clever ways. Case in point: the Arizona site offers a “School Selection Tool Kit” that includes a print guide to area schools, plus tips for getting the most out of school visits and helping children make a smooth transition from one school to another. Parents can also sign up for online newsletters that keep them updated regarding school data and other issues.

Test scores–and the tests themselves–are explained in concise, no-nonsense language. More importantly, school selection content and tips help parents realize that test scores are just one of many important aspects they should consider when choosing the educational program that is right for their child and family.

While the site uses state department of education data and information to build its school profiles, school leaders can update, correct, and enhance them by fax or by submitting an online form–a free service.

Need volunteers or funding for an innovative reading project? GreatSchools can help you create a “wish list” of potential partners, complete with a link to your school or district web site. Want to recruit students into your mathematics magnet or showcase your character education program? GreatSchools lets schools customize their profiles quickly and easily–the only technical skill required is typing.

“We want to present data responsibly, and we want to help parents think about it and analyze it critically,” said Gabrielle Lamourelle, school operations manager. “A lot of parents aren’t comfortable with the school system. We try to teach them how to get more involved in their child’s education and how to make more informed decisions.”

Headquartered in San Francisco, GreatSchools provides its online resources to the public free of charge. A nonprofit organization, GreatSchools is funded by the Fisher Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and SGI, among others.

Even if you have an award-winning web site and vast resources at your disposal, there are advantages to linking with outside agencies, according to Lamourelle.

“Many districts are using the site to print out information to share with their communities,” she said. “There’s an advantage in having this information come for a neutral, third party. Many parents and relocation experts feel we’re a more credible source.”

Though it currently serves just two states, GreatSchools is hoping to expand nationwide. In the meantime, the ideas, tools, and content provided by GreatSchools raise the standard for online community relations.

For more information, contact schools@greatschools.net, visit http://www.greatschools.net or call toll-free, (877) 977-8884.