Redesigning school web sites for the NCLB era: Part 2

Though it’s difficult to tell from most school district web sites, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has brought sweeping mandates for change in parent-school communications.

Parent compacts, involvement, and transfer and supplement service rights are now mandated, along with a major push toward public school choice. Parents also have rights to unprecedented information about teacher qualifications and disaggregated school and district achievement data.

While NCLB’s focus is certainly on high-poverty schools, smart school district leaders are requiring all their schools to conform with NCLB parent notification and involvement requirements.

Because urban education, which serves the majority of the nation’s poor and minority students, has been hit hardest by NCLB, it’s not surprising that members of the Council of Great City Schools have some of the best NCLB-related information for parents on their respective web sites.

One district in particular that is doing a commendable job is the Boston Public Schools (BPS). Nationally recognized for its extensive and long-standing support of Family Resource Centers and other innovative school public relations strategies, BPS’s home page reflects this commitment with a large “Family Resources” button.

The “Family Resources” section links parents and other family members (a sensitive touch, by the way, given today’s blended and non-traditional families) to a wide range of useful tools, tips, links, and information.

While the list of resources is too extensive to detail in this column, some of my favorites include “Choosing a School,” “Family Involvement,” and “Problem Solving.”

The “Choosing a School” link leads to key NCLB information, including facts for families, parents’ rights, understanding the district’s state test scores and AYP (adequate yearly progress) results, frequently asked questions, and school choice, transfers, and supplemental services eligibility. BPS also makes it very easy for parents and other interested parties to find out which schools made AYP goals, and which ones didn’t.

Not to quibble, because I think the site is excellent overall and certainly makes one of the best attempts I’ve seen at making NCLB information accessible to parents, but BPS would be wise to break the information down into smaller chunks and layers that could be reached by clicking or drilling down through a series of subheads.

Expecting time-pressed parents to scroll through pages and pages of information and data probably isn’t very realistic. Increasing the use of graphic organizers–subheads, bullets, boxes, pull quotes, lines, graphs, and charts–and restricting each chunk of information to paragraph size would help pull the reader through the copy.

I’d also recommend adding a search button on all pages and simplifying (OK, I can hear everyone laughing now) the NCLB and school-choice information. At the very least, make it jargon-free. I’m an information junkie, and I had a hard time digging through, let alone understanding, all of it.

My favorite BPS feature by far, however, is its impressive section on family and community engagement, and the calendar of parent/family activities and professional development opportunities that accompany it.

Family training sessions for the month of April (note to BPS: we’re past April; anything going on this summer?) included the relationship between student achievement and parental involvement, leadership, higher education, literacy and music, nutrition and obesity, and math and science nights, just to name a few.

I also would have loved to find out more about the district’s May conference, “Parents Make a Difference,” featuring Jeff Howard, a powerful educator and advocate for poor, minority, and disabled students and one of my all-time favorite speakers.

Alas, all that was posted was a “save the date” page–and the date of the conference already had passed. Hopefully, by the time you check out the web page, BPS will have some conference highlights or tips for families posted. (Hint, hint.)

Even though it’s difficult to do this right, we all know there is a cadre of very empowered, web-savvy parents, politicians, and gadflies in every school and district who will read, digest, and memorize this information word for word. And, they will immediately eMail you and all of their friends, neighbors, and constituents regarding any discrepancies or inconsistencies.

So don’t use the complexity or challenge of the task as an excuse for not using your web site as a key communications tool. If we don’t figure out how to do this, someone else will–most likely a for-profit venture or a CAVE (citizens against virtually everything) group that doesn’t have the best interest of your school or district at heart.

BPS also wins kudos for posting a simple, two-page (not 67 pages, like so many districts offer) PDF file of basic facts, so it was easy to discover BPS has 139 schools with 6,950 employees serving 60,300 students. I also learned that the city’s student population is 47 percent African-American, 30 percent Hispanic, 14 percent white, 9 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian, and that 74 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

BPS also took the unusual step of pointing out where the estimated 82,000 students in Boston who don’t attend public school are attending. Some would argue–perhaps persuasively, given the harsh realities of upper and middle-class flight from urban schools–that this isn’t the kind of marketing message a school system wants or should make available to parents. But it does communicate a powerful message to journalists, elected officials and other public policy-makers, business leaders, civil-rights leaders, and the liberally minded.

As the home of the nation’s first public school (Boston Latin) and the first public school system, and as an innovative urban district that is beating the odds in terms of providing meaningful choice options, engaging parents, and closing the achievement gap, BPS has an important story to tell and uses the web wisely as part of its communications arsenal.

If all of this is making you feel a tad bit overwhelmed, there are a number of excellent online resources available regarding NCLB and how to communicate its provisions effectively to parents and the media. Here are a few practical resources targeting educators that I found particularly useful:

  • “How to Present NCLB Results to the Media and the Public” by Michael A Resnick (National School Boards Association);

  • “NCLB: A Guide for Small and Rural Districts” (American Association of School Administrators); and

  • “NCLB: Implementation Resources and Best Practices” (AASA).

Regardless of how you feel about NCLB, it’s here to stay, along with its attendant issues of increasing parental empowerment, choice, involvement, and communication. It might be maddening that the federal government is only chipping in 67 cents of every dollar required for NCLB, according to data compiled by NSBA, but few would argue with the law’s vision of equity and excellence for all students.

My best public relations advice is to embrace NCLB, close the achievement gap, and educate parents, the media, and other key community stakeholders. Even better, get your stakeholders actively engaged in the work of your schools and your district. The web is just one of many tools you’re going to need to move NCLB from vision to reality.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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