Students in Florida’s Miami-Dade County School District are saving local nonprofit organizations thousands of dollars in design fees by creating professional-looking web sites in exchange for high school credit and the irreplaceable benefit of real-world experience.

More than 1,000 students have enrolled in the district’s Web Design Academies in the past two years. The year-long courses were created to equip students with technological skills that would make them more attractive to college recruiters and to future employers.

“Web design students gain real-world skills by experiential learning,” said Rick Reece, an educational specialist in the district’s instructional technology department. “We want to help them understand what the business world is like while they’re in a learning environment.”

The courses are separated into two phases. In the first half of the year, students learn how web design technology works. Using a product called the Digital Design Curriculum, from Macromedia Inc., students learn to operate web-authoring tools by creating potential product logos and building professional portfolios, which they can use to showcase their talents for future employers. According to Reece, the curriculum focuses on teaching a number of high-tech concepts, from the basics of HTML design to web publishing and data-imaging. During the second half of the year, students are assigned to design groups and tap their newfound skills to begin work on actual web sites for local community organizations.

Each design group is composed of four to eight students, and every student plays a specific role within the team. While some students take on the task of product management, others choose to head up web design or business relations. The team atmosphere allows students to concentrate on the area of the business that interests them most, Reece said. It also teaches them the value of compromise and teamwork.

The first order of business is to create a portfolio of sample web designs to show to the client. After every student in the group submits his or her samples, the young designers pick what they believe are the three best proposals. Then, the client goes over the organization’s needs with the team and picks the model that it thinks best suits these demands.

“Students are getting the experience of what it would be like working on a professionally developed web site,” Reece said.

Part of that experience, however, means learning to deal with problems as they arise. Reece said clients occasionally are dissatisfied with the original proposals, and students sometimes are forced to supply additional sketches.

Other times, he said, clients ask for functions that are too advanced for the students to create or that simply do not exist. When this happens, it’s up to the students to explain why the group cannot fulfill certain requests and to reach an acceptable compromise.

Still, Reece said, many of the sitescomplete with pull-down menus, maps, roll-overs, and other interactive featuresare so high-tech that visitors would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a site that was professionally designed and one created by his students.

For example, a site built by student web designers for Foster Care Review Inc. (FCR) contains photographs, a split screen, and a fully interactive menu.

FCR Executive Director Maria Pozo said she was impressed by the students’ quality of work. “It was a good experience all around. We had about three or four proposals, which were all very good,” she said.

But the project did not occur without incident. In some cases, she said, students promised more than they could delivera commitment that forced the instructor to finish the project after the students already had left for the year.

Because the students only have until the end of the school year to finish a project, they face a challenge many professional firms often can skirt by repeatedly extending deadlines.

Students do the bulk of their web design during regular class periods, Reece said. As a result, correspondence between student designers and their clients is critical. If communication fails, the project runs the risk of being scrapped.

While five sites were launched last year, four sites never got off the ground, Reece said, though he expects better results in coming years. “It was a growing year,” he explained.

District officials claim they would like to see the program produce between 20 and 25 web sites per year.

Though the organizations do not pay the district or the students for their services, Reece estimates some of the sites would have cost as much as $15,000 on the professional market. District officials claim the value of the community web sites built by students already exceeds $250,000.

See these related links:

Miami Dade County Public Schools http://www.dadeschools.net

Foster Care Review Inc. http://www.fostercarereview.org