Critiquing the school website

High School Student asked for comments and suggestions on how to improve the Grafton schools’ website after I noted my dislike of it in my post about the town’s new easy-on-the-eyes site. I can mention one thing that really irks me, but it’s not an issue with the site but an issue with policy.

Why can’t I see the School Committee agenda on the Grafton site posted on the meeting calendar, just like every other board? Why do I then have to navigate over to the school site, go to the School Committee section, and hope that this time the agenda isn’t accidentally put up in gibberish? If a person who is interested in the committee is considered more likely to go to the school site, why can’t it still be put up on the town site?

That aside, I’ve been trying to figure out why the Grafton schools site just seem to be an assault on my senses every time I visit. It probably comes down to the green.

I know. It’s the town color. But the glaring green against the blinding white is just too much contrast. The cross hatching of the bars that separate the different section also gives it the illusion of glowing. I’m a parent, the person most likely to visit the site. I have tired eyes from being on the computer all day (this is true whether I’m working or at home, I’m sorry to say — I kind of live on it with my writing habit). I hate the evil green glow.

When I go to each school section, the basic view doesn’t change much. Whatever is deemed news on the homepage (today it’s the announcement for the 2009 Partner in Education award) remains at the top of the page no matter where you navigate. Again, as a parent, if I’m going to my child’s school site, I’m probably looking for the information sitting at the bottom of the page. I want that school phone number.

And you know what would be nice to have alongside the principal’s name on the school pages? His or her email, which you need to find by navigating over to the staff list and scrolling to find by alphabetical order. Why isn’t the list of staff at each school at least linked off the pages for each school?

I would also, as a middle school parent, like for my child to know what kind of day it is. Grafton Middle School has this complicated schedule where weeks and days are certain colors and the different combos mean different things. During Christmas vacation, he and his friend were trying to figure out what their first week would be, not out of idle curiosity, but because on certain Mondays, they have band and need to bring their instruments into school.

I’d also like the calendars on each school page to actually tell me things apart from holidays and early dismissal days. This month, Grafton Elementary School has spirit week. Wouldn’t knowing what your child should be dressed in each day be convenient to note? How about when the Boxtops contest is finished, or when the next fundraiser packet is due, or a notation about the re-scheduled Many Thanksgivings?

Here’s another pet peeve. Say I’m researching the Grafton schools and I want to find out something simple: the superintendent’s phone number. I know, because I’ve visited this site, that I need to scroll down to the bottom of the homepage to find it. But a first-time visitor is going to look at the tabs, say “Oh, here’s the superintendent,” and either come up with the Links and Info page (no phone number) or the newsletter (no phone number and it makes the drop-down menus for each tab unusable).

You have to have phone numbers in an obvious place. The homepage should have a listing of each school and principal and the superintendent and phone numbers for each. Maybe there should be a standing box in the District Links column that just has that information handy no matter where you navigate.

Finally, let’s talk about the staff directory. It’s February, the middle of the school year, and several of the teachers have photos and handy links for their students online. Many, however, note something along the lines of “Mrs. Smith will enter some information here shortly.”

Wouldn’t it be nice for an elementary school student to see a picture of what her teacher will look like when she’s nervous about her first day of school? Wouldn’t it be convenient, as a parent, to have links to some of the sites they are using in class? Granted, we have Powerschool in middle and high school (which is probably why I’m not seeing, say, a link to Mr. Singley’s awesome band site on his page), but some parents might actually like to do a little research ahead of time.

You know, I thought this was going to be a much shorter post. Other thoughts?


25 thoughts on “Critiquing the school website

  1. have you ever tried to click on the tabs & then click on one of the drop down boxes?

    It’s like a carnival game. Every time I drag my mouse over the drop down area, it goes away!! That drives me nutso…

    This website is so lacking….Just google anyother school website & look what they have. Ours is just so sad : (

    I agree with Jenn, the calendar is just formal school calendar with which day they have off, vacation etc.. Never anything pertinent to their day-to-day events. RRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

  2. Yes, when there is notice of a snow day, I’d like to see the date. I know this should be obvious, but looking at the website pre-coffee, early in the morning, and we just had a snow day the previous day – how do I know of this is old information, or pertains to today?

    Also, and I think Jenn covered this, when I am on a specific school website, I’d like to see information about that school. Right now, only the title changes – for example, “GES Links”. “GMS links”. In that column, I think it would be useful to have a link to a calendar for that school only, contact information for teachers, superintendent and principal, cafeteria menu for that school only, etc, etc…..A site map would be useful too!

  3. And would it be possible to maybe add a Twitter feed for the superintendent, so when he calls off school, he can just Twitter and update the website? Or just something super-easy that he can update from home — I only suggest Twitter because he can do that from a cell phone, and parents could add his feed to get their own updates.

    Speaking of which, my Twitter widget is annoying me and I need to see if I can make the darn thing show fewer posts. It’s one of those “I can see where it would be useful” things that most people seem to use to say “I’m standing in line at Starbucks.”

  4. I just visited the web site (My first time, sorry to say) and I found all of the things that Jenn mentioned. It was extremely painfull trying to select the school I wanted from the ‘Schools’ tab. Once I managed to arrive, I thought I was still on the home page. I had to scroll to the bottom to get the info I wanted.

    I have a great suggestion for High School Student…Hire Jenn to re-design your web site for you.

  5. The school district website has always been a peeve of mine. I have heard that a new improved website will be appearing very soon. The suggestions you made, Jenn, should be forwarded to someone on the SC so that they can be considered for the new website. I would think anyone else with ideas should do the same.

  6. I’m still learning HTML and shopping around for a good price on Dreamweaver for my next class, Bob. πŸ™‚ BTW, now I’ll have “Dream Weaver” as an earworm for the rest of the day, I really wish the software had another name…

  7. The school department website has been on the table for discussion for some time. And, while I applaud the efforts of the high school students who run it – the community needs more. More than a year ago, there were discussions with Dr. Connors and the school committee about committing money to site’s re-design. And, then with budget contraints I suggested using local “free” talent – but that didn’t go over very well. So, now we’re going another way – consolidated/shared services – opportunities to take overlapping functions (technology, purchasing, energy, facilities, fields) and find synergies, eliminate duplication, and reduce costs. The BOS has established a “Shared Services” study group that includes finance committe and the school committee to meet and develop a plan for this approach by April 1st.

  8. Thanks for sharing the earworm, Jenn. It replaced ‘American Pie’, because I was reminded earlier that it was 50 years ago today that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. “The day the music died”.

  9. GreaterGrafton,
    The school department is taking this very matter of its web operations very seriously. I for one have mentioned several times to the School Department many deficiencies and irregularities and they have responded.

    All items mentioned are valid, but items like you mention take time to reorganize and to plan, review operational concept and who will have access to what, and so on. Not to mention what policies procedures will need to be drafted so that misinformation is not provided by staff and who will be drafting the content. Just look how long it took to revamp its site, and they have a just a little bit more money to accommodate their needs than the town does.

    I agree that it has taken this long for something so visible to become mainstream GG blog.
    Hey, I bet if websites had anything to do with accreditation this would have been handled yesterday.
    But than again, they only have four people to cover their needs regarding Technology, and none of them from what i can see are web-programers or desingers by trade.
    Its a very daunting taks to learn on the fly… Only hope they are contracting out to some company to provide them with the experts they so need.

  10. I would love to see a link to the cafeteria so that parent’s could check the balance of their child’s account. And add money if needed.

    Trusting a 1st grade boy to come home with a verbal report that he “needs a check” is not a good way to go.

    Agree with the others that the website is hard to navigate and information is lacking.

  11. A few random thoughts…

    My boys are all in special ed and believe it or not, they are in high school now and I’ve never accessed “power school”. No one has ever given me a good reason to use it. But then I live in a different world.

    I’d also add that the crazy schedule at the middle school is just ridiculous. It confuses everyone and makes special education services extra difficult. There has got to be an easier way. But whatever the schedule, it would be great to have it on the web site.

    An easy improvement to the web site would be to require all teachers to post a photo (a real photo of themselves).

    I’d also like to see a separate site for each school with frequent updates about what is going on.

    I like the principles email updates, this information should be on the school site as well.

  12. I’d say special education probably needs a section all its own on the site — a FAQ for parents just entering the system, links to helpful sites, maybe notes on where the handicapped-accessible entrances and elevators are in each building?

    Powerschool can be useful when you can actually access it. I haven’t been able to do that since the school break. My son finds it a useful motivator to see his grades in real time and I’ve talked online with a couple of his teachers.

    A site for each school with updates on what’s going on. Like a… blog? (slaps hand over mouth) No, I think it should be fairly easy to put the monthly newsletters up, at least.

    Another thought: we’re in the process of fixing the high school’s accreditation and investigating the school space issue. There doesn’t appear to be an information about that on the site either — the news section doesn’t go back that far.

  13. First off, thank you, all of you (especially Jenn) for the comments and criticisms of the GPS website. Some may have already figured it out, but I am the student who has built the school website up from ashes, starting at the beginning of the school year.

    I agree with a lot of the design issues presented here, but I feel uneasy to change them b/c they are the town and school colors.

    About the teacher’s profiles and superintendent newsletter/information being out of date, THANK YOU. One of the biggest problems with the website is staff not taking the time to update their information, it’s been an issue in the past, and will continue to be an issue in the future (w/ the new website.)

    So thank you for any and all continuing comments,
    Student Web Developer

  14. For the record, my husband has already taken me to task for bitching about a high school student’s work, so I apologize for scarring you for life. πŸ˜‰ I designed newspaper pages for years, so I’m used to thinking of above and below “the fold,” which in this case would be your computer screen.

    Think about what people might want to see first when they visit the site and make it easily accessible (phone numbers!), make the rest of the page attractive and people will grab what they need quickly and stick around to read the rest.

    These are all things I’m overthinking as I figure out how to design the next phase of Greater Grafton!

  15. Thanks for the effort, High School Student! You are right to suggest that it will only be as good as the information you are given and when you are given it! Don’t give up! : )

  16. OK, I can’t resist weighing in on this….

    I have been communicating with the School Dept. wrt this topic since my oldest was in NGES. She is now in Middle School. As you can see, I have not been successful.

    My suggestion would be to see how willing those in charge (not the students) are to work with a focus group of parents (or interested parties for that matter) to do this. (update the website) Otherwise, it is a waste of time.

    While I am here you folks should know there is a new law on the books — “201 CMR 17.00: Standards for The Protection of Personal Information of Residents of the Commonwealth” –that applies to schools starting this summer. (The deadline was extended from 1/2009)

    I queried the School Dept. a month ago as to what they were doing to comply with this LAW.

    –My head is still spinning from the response I received.

  17. I want to hire High School Student in a couple years to build my new software/web suite that will revolutionize the world. I’m thinking I’ll call it Michaelsoft, and High School Student gets to be CTO.

  18. “Design isn’t what it looks like. Design is how it *works*” – Steve Jobs

    Does the current site, regardless of the color scheme, “work” for its users? I submit based on the responses here that it does not.

    Color, while an obvious problem, is the least of the site’s problems. Content is king – the information, and the format in which it is presented, is really the core issue here.

    As a user experience (UX) designer, I would say the fundamental problem with the Grafton Schools’ site is this – the folks who created and mantain it are simply out of touch with the people who use the site – who they are, what they need, and what their expectations are.

    What I would normally recommend in a case like this is a detailed study, through surveys and interviews of the parents and students who use (or would use) the site, which would eventually yield what we in the profession call “personas,” characters with distinct goals, motivations, and needs. Then, the school system needs to address those needs as well as their own goals in a redesigned site that includes continuous feedback from its users.

    Re: the “sitemap” comment above, just because I cannot resist… There’s a fair amount of debate in the UX community about the usability and usefulness of sitemaps, and what it boils down to, for me, anyway, is that if a site presents the kind of experience, content, structure, etc. that its users are expecting to find, a sitemap isn’t necessary, and you don’t have to go through the bother of trying to maintain a sitemap every time you update the site. Sure, there’s software that does that bit for you, but why run the risk of something else not behaving as expected?

    OK, I’ll get off my soapbox about that bit now. πŸ™‚

  19. @greatergrafton – Don’t worry about “scarring” me, software (and) web development is the career I plan on going into. This is all a necessary experience.

    I wish I could say that all your ideas will be implemented and the website will be back, better than ever, because of the changes a student made as a learning experience (and this is, absolutely, a wonderful learning experience). But, I cannot. As I believe Selectwoman Cotton mentioned, the website will be farmed out to an outside company. After that website is rolled out, all ‘requests’ for changes will have to be forwarded to that company.

  20. I have had an opportunity to review sites that are managed by the outside company. I can tell you that most, if not all, of the suggestions given here are already included in the new site. The research suggestion by Amy has already been done by this company and their staff of professional designers. So she is right on the money. They have designed school websites that are pleasant on the eyes, functional, and easy to navigate. Check out as a local example.

    They keep it simple by providing a template with the ability to modify certain aspects. Once the template is set it can’t be changed without going through the company, that is true. However, all content is updated by the schools all the way down to the individual teacher. As far as the template goes, the group is taking their time, looking at samples, trying to decide what works for Grafton and what doesn’t. It will take at least another 2-3 months before this process is done.

    I feel this is going to be a great way to showcase our schools. I do feel badly that HS students are disappointed in not being able to have full control over the look of the page. Don’t take it personally. When the site first started it was a perfect project for student’s to manage. But as more and more people rely on the web to gather information, the site needs to evolve and reflect the needs of the community. I think we can all agree that most of the comments here are making the case that the site hasn’t evolved enough. You guys did a great job designing what we have now and I am certain will do a great job designing sites for a living.

  21. To start out, I am just wondering what the level of interest is to work with the GPS on this?

    As Amy pointed out, this [user input] is typically done in some sort of focus group setting. I’m hopeful that since we (parents, residents and taxpayers in Grafton) are the customer here, GPS would want to involve us in the process. JTC, are any of these folks members of ‘the group’ you mention?

    In reading the comments by JTC stating that this has already been done, does there exist a Requirements and Specification document for the site that we can look at and view that input? Online somewhere? I couldn’t help but notice the use of ‘I’ (vs ‘we’ or ‘the group’) in the first sentences, which makes me nervous.

    Not to jump too far ahead on this, but the use of scrolling or marquee text on the front page of is curious to me. Did the user base request this? It has been my experience (Amy you too?) that the use of marquee scrolling is to be avoided.

    –Eager to help and get it right.

    ps:I personally want to thank all the GHS students that have worked on the site. You folks have done a great job! Maybe there is a role for you in implementing the new site.

  22. I agree with TwoBeagleDogs and Amy, to have a functional website , perhpas having a smll focus group of teachers, parents and students would have been appropriate. Remember, we the tax payers and students are the CUSTOMERS, the staff at the school is the vendor, why we should not be involved is beyond me. But, it seems that what ever is delevered is what we will get. I would hope the school commttee would have some major input in this process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s