School Websites in the Age of School Choice
We live in an age of choice. From music to groceries to fashion, consumers have become accustomed to having thousands of options at their fingertips.
Many families are now bringing these same consumer expectations to the education world. In this new environment of choice and competition, schools are shifting the focus to telling—and selling—their stories. A great school website can help in proper messaging and branding.
The Rise of School Choice
The school choice movement has been steadily growing over the last 15 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education recently announced that they have earmarked an unprecedented $1 billion in public money to support school choice in the 2018 budget. This money will go to support school voucher programs, charter schools, online schools and other programs designed to expand access to school choice.
This move has been a controversial one, with opinions running high on both sides of the divide. Charter schools and private schools are likely to benefit from the new budget, and school choice advocates say that more competition will help disadvantaged families and stimulate improvement for all schools. Public school supporters argue that school choice programs shift public money at the expense of the school systems that still educate more than 80% of students.
Whichever side you fall on, it is clear that all schools—public, private and charter—will have to adjust to the reality of increased choice for families and increased competition between schools.
Selling Your School’s Story
The school choice movement puts parents in the driver’s seat. Instead of automatically sending their child to the nearest neighborhood school, more parents are considering their options. These options may include magnet schools within their home district, charter schools, private schools (with or without the support of voucher or tax credit programs), and online schools that may operate locally, statewide, or nationally.
This means that school leaders may find themselves doing something that doesn’t always feel comfortable: selling. This doesn’t mean trying to convince an audience of things that aren’t so. It’s simply a matter of educating your audience about your school’s capabilities and strengths. To attract and retain families, schools will need to make sure that they are telling their story in the most effective way possible.
That means clearly communicating the things that make your school unique, special and effective. That can include your school’s academic approach, your faculty’s credentials, the programs you offer, your facilities, and your success stories. For schools whose philosophy, approach, or programs are geared for a specific kind of student, you also need to show parents why your particular school is (or, as the case may be, isn’t) a good match for their child’s needs, capabilities and interests.
Families approach shopping for schools in much the same way that consumers approach shopping for anything: comparing features, considering costs, and determining how different options will meet the unique needs of their children and family. Some of the factors they may look at include:
- School report cards or achievement rankings
- Curriculum or course availability
- Experience of teaching staff
- Class size
- Programs for students with special needs
- Extracurricular activity options
- After school programs
- Accessibility and transportation options
- Net costs, after factoring in any government aid or scholarship programs
Each family will have their own way of weighing these various factors. A parent of a child with strong interest in music may prefer a large school with a vibrant band and orchestra program, while the parents of another student may put more emphasis on academics and the availability of AP courses.
Building a School Website that Sells
The school website is usually the first stop for families looking for information about a school. In fact, prospective families may get their initial impression of a school entirely from the website. In a school choice environment, schools need to make sure that their website is helping them put their best foot forward.
Here are some tips for schools that want to stand out from the crowd.
- Design matters. Most people are highly visual. A website that looks outdated, hard to navigate, or just plain ugly is going to leave a bad impression, even if the school’s actual programs are top notch. If web pages are crowded and uninviting, most people won’t spend the time slogging through to read the information. A modern design template, clean and uncluttered pages, simple navigation, and compelling images will go a long way towards giving prospective families a good impression of your school.
- Hone your message. Families want to know that their child will be safe, supported, challenged, and cared for while at school. Make sure that message comes through loud and clear throughout your website. Then, think about what makes your school unique and special. What is your story? What makes you different from other options parents may be looking at? What are your best assets? Talking to current parents and staff about their experiences at the school can help you refine your story.
- Make important information easy to find. Think about the decision-making factors listed above. How can you organize this information to make it easy for prospective families to find as they conduct their comparative search? Consider creating a section on your website just for prospective families, with links to important information like academic achievement statistics, enrollment packets, programs, and policies in one place.
- Keep it updated. No matter how great your website is, over time it will get stale. Old, outdated content tells families that you don’t care enough to keep your website updated. Take down seasonal content when its utility is done and keep photo galleries and news feeds fresh and interesting. Families don’t want to know what you were doing last year. They want to see what’s happening at your school right now.
School choice is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. A great school website show prospective families why your school is the perfect choice.
For more tips on designing a great school website, check out these blogs: