When you’re out to make your school website the best it can be, you need some others to compare it too, right? Regardless whether you are early on in the planning stages or narrowing down your list of website providers, you want to look around to see which school districts are doing it right.
Let me save you some digging around. I’ve assembled my list of the top 10 school district websites that feature great design. It was no easy task to do so, but it’s an exercise that reinforces my own design principles and school web design best practices. By marrying function with aesthetics, you can produce a website that your users and visitors will want to keep coming back to, and one that raises your level of engagement with your school communities.
How to make the list of top 10 school district websites
Determining what constitutes a great school website starts with avoiding the seven fatal mistakes in school website design. My top 10, of course, all do a good job of ducking those. For example, being unfriendly to your mobile users and having way too many links in your navigation are two major design flaws that actually are pretty common.
So what are some of things I look for in determining greatness? An overall simplicity should permeate your site design (think Apple products), with the most popular pages streamlined in terms of layout and copy. Quick links and frequently accessed information – news and calendar information, for example – should jump out at you. The images you choose are very important too.
While it’s hard to eliminate subjectivity from the equation, there are several constants that every great school website has these days. Specifically, a great website should feature:
- Clear, well-organized navigation
- Exceptional brand/design consistency
- Responsive design and/or mobile app integration
- Featured videos
- Social media integration
All of my top 10 sport these features and then some. Well, here they are – in no particular order:
Community Consolidated School District 59
The CCSD59 site features beautiful imagery that helps bring to life many great stories in the district. The site is fully responsive, so you can explore it on any device. It also spotlights the district’s strategic plan prominently – a refreshing break from the cliche mission statements you see. The district unveiled a new logo/brand identity last year, which features nice branding continuity from district pages-to-school pages, and from school pages-to-teacher pages. CCSD59 is all about transparency with a dedicated page and thorough run-down of the district policy on Freedom of Information Act, one of the many regulatory requirements every school needs to mind. It’s real easy to find teachers and staff: after a click to the utility link, staff and school directory drop-down menus really pop from the mega menu with a text overlay, creating a modern effect.
Park Ridge-Niles School District 64
I have to admit I might be a little partial to this one, for this was a collaborative effort using Campus Suite CMS with a custom designer, but the site stands on its own. It received a design award from the Illinois chapter of NSPRA, so my assessment is apparently shared. What strikes me first about the site is the use of positive, energetic colors. Don’t get bogged down in using your two school colors in everything you do. Featured upcoming events overlay rotating feature images. A user-centric panel makes it easy for visitors to select their area of interest and find the info they need quickly. It’s cool too how content is offered up by ‘suggesting’ items visitors are likely interested in based on their profile. For more detail about how that site came together, check out this article.
Oakland Unified School District
This is a huge district with more than 80 schools, and the site does a great job at organizing large amounts of content. The first thing you see when you visit the Oakland Unified School District site is an opt-in dialogue box asking if you want to follow district news. It’s bold, but it’s a great start. What parent or community member wouldn’t want to take this easy step to keep up with announcements and updates? Nothing especially artistic about the design, but it’s a very clean design that’s easy to read, featuring warm colors that support youthfulness and growth. Common areas of interest are organized intuitively using quicklink panels. The site also utilizes Google Apps for Education to some degree.
Barrington 220 School District
This 12-school district features a very distinctive website that uses a full-screen welcome video prominently not only on the district homepage, but for every school, with videos personalized for each school. Featured calendar items overlay quick-cut vignettes of authentic school scenes. In addition, full navigation capability is maintained while the videos run on a loop. I especially like how it reinforces the school’s branding and logo – a stylized Bronco that resembles a knight chess game piece, which to me embodies intellect and agility. The district’s commitment to technology is quite apparent with a mini-navigation bar that directs users to the digital portals for students and parents respectively.
Kirby School District 140
Kirby School District does a fantastic job of depicting a unified brand at both the district level and on its seven school websites. This is a very important goal of a district that wants to project continuity from grade-to-grade and from school-to-school. Parents shouldn’t be forced to re-learn how to get around on your website with every new school year. Quicklinks show up prominently, and feature both text- and icon-driven links to frequently viewed content (calendar, news, staff directory and contact us form). Their news and events page is not only easily accessible, but once you get there, the unified thumbnails and teaser copy about the articles are invitingly clear. The teacher pages are organized nicely in the main navigation of each school.
Pulaski Community School District
This district is all about engagement, and their website is no exception. For example, in its search for a new superintendent, the district is using the home page to link directly to page that includes a community survey, timeline and FAQs. The survey, created with a form using Google Apps for Education, screams parent and community involvement. The site also promotes a social media directory that's simple to access and use. The district is obviously grabbing enrollment issues by the horns by featuring a very inviting "Future Families" section on the homepage. Administrators are also demonstrating they're very sensitive to bullying, harassment and other incidents with its Red Raider Incident Reporter form easily accessed on the quick links page.
Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township
This 16-school Indianapolis-based district website has a very well organized homepage with a nice feature-image rotator. The images align with some of the district’s strengths and key beliefs, ranging from promoting the district’s mobile app, an increasingly desirable tool for schools wanting to reach parents, to tooting its own horn about a strong music education program. User-centric portals make it easy for students, parents and prospective families to find their information fast. In addition to a link to the district’s Youtube channel, one cool feature I particularly liked was their Honor An Educator program page, which uses an online form to recognize deserving school staffers. The recipients and their supervisors are notified of this gesture, which raises money for the foundation programs in the district.
Laguna Beach Unified School District
You can tell that the Laguna Beach USD is not too far from Hollywood, because these guys are all about videos (and well-produced ones, at that). Its welcome back video is a spirited production that makes even me want to return to school. They’ve an exceptionally large video library to choose from that demonstrates a high-achieving student body. This site features a very clean, simple design with lots of ‘white space’ making it extremely easy to get around. Laguna Beach Unified School District was recently named as one of the top three districts to watch as an example of a “leading digital district” in California. Not surprisingly, the Laguna Beach USD approach features great branding consistency and across all schools.
Dexter Community Schools
This district too embraces video. Its homepage features a full-screen video montage of some beautiful, intimate close-ups that capture great glimpses of interaction and the character of the school both in and out of the classroom. Dexter school administrators grasp that it’s all about engagement, and they use their website to foster it: a “talk to us” balloon in the utility link section invites viewers to a page that encourages everything from making comments, questions and compliments to squelching rumors and reporting problems. Very sleek, clean design with – my favorite – lots of white space.
Kildeer Countryside Community
The Kildeer district website makes it almost impossible not to quickly find what you’re looking for. A district calendar that pops, and an easy-to-find superintendent’s blog keeps you up to date and in touch with school leadership. The design features an inviting call-to-action button embedded in featured photos rotator. It’s also a politely helpful site in how it anticipates your further content interests based on where you are on the site with “You may also be interested in:” Speaking of knowing where you are, the site helps keep you oriented by a having a “Where are you” with page hierarchy simply laid out above the footer of each page.
What schools (and why) would you add to the list?
Those are my top 10, but there are more. In our own work for schools, we ask early on in the discovery process for a short list of school websites they like, and why they like them. It's a great exercise that's worth the time you spend on it.
Most times you'll come back to the ones that include simplicity (think white space!) concise copy and images and media that make you want to view more than once. Toss in clear, well-organized navigation, consistent branding, responsive design and social media integration, and your school district website will make somebody's top 10 list.
You might have some favorites of your own you'd like to share. What are they?
Here's a follow up article you might like that explores five tips for a great school website design.
As co-founder of Campus Suite, Steve believes behind every great school is great communication. His tech savvy and passion for design fuel his desire to help administrators understand, embrace and seize the power of web communications.