Choosing a school for their children is one of the most important decisions parents will ever make, yet few guidebooks exist. Steve Rees is trying to change that, however—one school at a time.

His San Francisco company, School Wise Press, is using the web to inform and educate parents about California schools.

Marked by fresh writing, easy navigation, and coherent design, www.schoolwisepress.com is an information-rich web site. Launched in 1997, the site translates the complex business of education into layman’s terms, making it easier for parents to locate and compare schools.

Parents can look up an education term, join the debate about vouchers, access test score data and statewide rankings, link to national clearinghouses, tap into online experts, or order parent-friendly publications.

Most of the information is free. Detailed school profiles cost $6 and give parents information about enrollment, teacher credentials, class sizes, computer resources, the make-up of the student body, and other key factors.

“We’re combining the old-world ways of getting words on paper in a polished form with the new-world ways of automating the data reporting for California’s 8,000 schools,” says Rees. “We’re selling school information one school at a time.”

Using public records and data, School Wise Press’s goal is to make parents “school smart” by helping them understand the complex business of teaching and learning.

“We try to present the data in a readable format and help explain what the figures mean and don’t mean,” says Gordon Smith, the site’s lead designer. “Context is so important, especially in the area of testing. In order to make good decisions, parents need to understand the pros and cons.”

While other web sites and education portals offer many of the same services, School Wise’s clear, concise writing, subdued advertising, and tightly organized format set a new standard for effectiveness.

By helping parents understand the nuances of testing, accountability measures, desegregation, school finance, or social promotion, School Wise hopes to inspire them to get actively involved in decisions affecting their children.

Here’s a sample of School Wise’s brute honesty and snappy writing from a recent posting on its Legislative Watch: “The ‘shape up or ship out’ solution: school accountability rules that rank schools, reward high scoring ones, and ‘assist’ low scorers. If low ranking schools don’t improve, there’s hell to pay. How fair are the rankings? How are they computed? And will school districts have more power (or less) to fix floundering schools?”

Or how about this, from the site’s Virtual Library: “Split Personality: What difference would it make if high school counselors were actually given the tools and the time to do their job? And how can overworked counselors handle two disparate student needs: college preparation and personal counseling? Millicent Lawton, of Education Week, gives us a comprehensive account of this complicated issue.”

The company’s proprietary software application can interpret relationships between data sets, recognize patterns, identify statistical anomalies, and explain them in sentences that can be “understood by anybody with a high school education.”

“We do what many special-interest publishers do: We interpret an area of technical expertise for the interested layman,” says Rees.

The site’s content is enhanced by its clean design and intuitive approach to navigation. Graphics are kept to a manageable size, and the information is displayed in a coherent fashion.

“Looks are not that important,” says Smith. “Design should add to clarity and make the information more accessible, not less. We tend to go toward the utilitarian rather than the glitzy.”

Smith says school webmasters would be wise to assume that parents and other site visitors will not have the latest and greatest technology.

“A lot of parents are going to be looking at our site using [America Online] or older browsers that aren’t frame-capable,” he explains. “We need to keep it simple, so people with older equipment will be able to tour our site quickly and easily, or upload our graphics without using a lot of bandwidth.”

While some educators shy away from controversial subjects or operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to communications, Rees and Smith believe that open communication actually builds greater trust.

By using the web and other communication channels to share vital—and often controversial—information with parents and the community, school leaders can engage parents more effectively, they say.

“If we could make communications active and public-oriented rather than passive and ‘damage response’ oriented, we might be able to change the nature of this dialogue,” says Rees. “It’s right at the heart of our schools’ relationship to their customers.”

Links:

School Wise Press
http://www.schoolwisepress.com

Gordon Smith Design
http://www.sirius.com/~zibbis/index2.html