Picking out the best independent school websites for 2020 definitely sent us into a state of mental anguish for days. There are too many good ones, and just as many great ones, and yet still, just as many superb ones. In short, if you didn’t make the list, don’t be dismayed — you’re not alone. Hundreds of hard-working independent school professionals worked diligently to launch new websites, alongside managing the muddy waters of the Covid-19 pandemic — and that in and of itself is an accomplishment. So, bravo to you! 👏
Our independent schools that made the "Best Of" list infuse strategy into every last pixel. From daring designs and compelling content strategies to visuals that embrace the realities of 2020, these websites — although hard to choose — are inspiring. And while everyone deserves a standing ovation, let’s take the time now to celebrate the best independent school websites of 2020!
The best independent school websites (in no particular order!) are:
Viewpoint School | CA
Gill St. Bernard’s | NJ
We’re going to start with Carolina Friends School in North Carolina. Why? Because it’s not often these days to stumble upon a school website and do a double take. That’s how different the new homepage is: there is color everywhere, beginning with the logo, which is pieced together like a quilt, with no two letters alike.
The central graphic feature “On Purpose” is both a message and a calling, but operates as an invitation to explore, further teasing the user with hidden pictures of student life peeking behind large letters that take up the entire screen. The colors continue to shape the design — it’s an uncommon palette of light and dark hues of greens and blues set with deep oranges, a fresh example of how to differentiate from safer and more traditional color combinations, made even simpler with big circle and square shapes throughout.
There’s not a lot of content on the site, but pages like Quaker Values say a lot with a little, which is in keeping with their own philosophy in the first place. The site — like the school — is built “On Purpose”, with the “Value of Simplicity”.
Providence Christian School | TX
By contrast, Providence Christian School in Dallas, presents a more traditional design, but also downright stunning, impressively so for a school that’s just a little over 20 years old.
High definition, perfectly framed, vibrant video clips of scenes span all parts of the day; you can’t help but feel like one of the students will turn to you and start a conversation. With so few words — other than the school name and a big “Welcome” — the hamburger navigation carries the load: its overlay reveals a conveniently-organized set of four primary buckets and a search, symmetrically organized around the school’s logo and bannered with the motto “Esso Quam Videri”, to be, rather than to seem. That’s pretty much how this website rolls.
A compelling message from the headmaster joins substantive blocks of content, paired with images that jump off the page, each playing an effective role explaining its deeply Christian mission and its call for service.
There’s more than one reason Viewpoint School in California makes the “Best Of” list. For one, if you’re feeling a little stuck at home, this opening video lets you daydream a bit, imagining yourself working, playing, studying and having fun in this stunning place. But besides that, the site throws the school right in front of you — ceramics, robotics, soccer, theater, dance — with shots of kids in masks that also remind us of today’s reality but also combining with an aerial perspective that is both peaceful and beautiful — things will be better.
As if this video hook wasn’t enough for this best-in-class design, the rest of the homepage captures the school through a series of interactive panels — one for Viewpoint voices, student life, the mission and more — all assembled with a color scheme and design that seamlessly connects the top to the bottom with engaging interactive components, subtle animations, and big clear pictures.
The St. Paul’s Schools | MD
One big reason the The St. Paul’s Schools in Maryland makes our “Best Of” list is because of the incredibly challenging proposition that lay under the project. When, less than two years ago, you were two schools, and you’re now one institution with a unified board of trustees, there’s a very big story to tell.
The identity of each school has been paramount during this transition, while also requiring a narrative that is clear to prospective families about the benefits of a single-sex education, combined with coeducational opportunities that naturally occur when it’s one large campus.
As a design, the website is stunning, but it’s also cleverly intuitive for those trying to make their way through the site — which isn’t always easy when you have three unique campuses with their own content.
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Gill St. Bernard’s | NJ
Up next: a site that is well-thought and well-structured throughout. Gill St. Bernard’s in suburban New Jersey has a brilliant site that focuses on telling its story through stunning photos and compelling testimonials throughout the site.
For photography, athletes interlocking arms; a particularly interesting artistic shot of a girl behind a fence; two preschoolers with crayons; a scenic campus shot -- these semi-framed, semi-candid shots open vibrant windows into school life, a first impression that’s strong and natural. One moment that helped rise this one to the top: “Balance” the website claims, reaching into the minds of prospective parents who are worried about the complexities and pressures of growing up in this world, and the role that a school plays in sorting through it all. This beautiful design (which, by the way, has “The Farm” in their utility navigation, which you can’t help but click on) ends with a wide-angled campus shot behind buttons for next steps and a fully blue footer that is every pixel worth of GSB.
Trinity Christian Academy | TX
Heart+Soul+Mind+Strength are big and bold on the homepage of our next “Best Of”, Trinity Christian Academy, a co-ed Christian school in Texas. The homepage video tells the story so well that scrolling down almost is beside the point — the extended montage combines unusual close-ups of individual students with traditional action shots and scenes that highlight the foreground image by blurring the borders.
But scrolling delivers: the four pillars (Heart+Soul+Mind+Strength) are like a tour guide pointing the way, such as for “Mind” which goes to the Academics landing page or the “Heart” page, which takes users to Service and Missions, a closer view on how the school connects students to the community, bound by a greater mission and purpose.
Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando was an easy choice for "Best Of", possibly a candidate for "Best Of Best Of", if there were such a thing. On load, the camera view of the first morning rays leisurely float around the campus cupola, letting you take dawn in and consider the promise of a new day. And with that 10-second good morning, the homepage story, “Success Starts Here,” begins: we see just what happens from morning to evening in this high energy PK-12 day school as the cupola intro becomes a complete video montage of the “Heart of a Highlander.” Divisional entry points have tasteful interactivity, leading to well-developed landing pages for Lower, Middle and Upper School.
The interior is full of excellent examples of landing pages, such as the Arts, Support, and the About page — which is one of the most well-developed pages I’ve seen in a long time. All together, if a website is meant to reflect the quality, attention to detail, professionalism and values of the school itself, this is about as good as it gets.
It takes just seconds watching the homepage image and video of Springside Chesnut Hill's site to see the innovation going on, which of course is just part of the SCH story; the video clips are almost optical illusions that instruct your eye to focus on just one part of the video, which in turn conscripts your mind into giving more thought to what you’re watching.
Of course, it takes a lot more than a snazzy video to make "Best Of" winner. The rest of the homepage is excellent in every way, but so is the user experience: high on the page, there are three very clear options: Explore Grades, Start Here, and Search.
Together these capture the most important entry points for a prospective family, and allow the site to gently guide the user to areas of the site that make sense. Once inside, pages like the Upper School combine the essential elements for a great landing page: stories; critical information; and key resources, such as the curriculum guide — all laid out in an easy-to-consume format leveraging Composer elements like accordions.
A "Best Of" website is likely going to have big bold messaging, and that’s very much the case for this 150-year old New England boarding school. The Frederick Gunn School (previously known as The Gunnery) is an institution that lives and breathes change — so much that they even updated their school name in the process of their website launch. The video close to the top of the homepage focuses on how their founder shaped, believed and centered the school around Change, capital C.
What a great message to share in such a turbulent year.
But it’s the depth of this site that’s just as notable as the homepage. Important pages like Why The Frederick Gunn School are hyper focused, with spare navigation and tight language, whereas the Quick Facts page highlights impressive numbers with animation, slightly mesmerizing as you wait for each one to conclude — and when they stop, you can’t help but read what it says.
For those parents interested in sports, as an example, the athletic teams landing page is a beautiful display of sports in all seasons, while the Meet Our Faculty page is elegant and strong. The keyword of their messaging is the word “Discovery”: even their website bears that out.
Greater Atlanta Christian School | GA
Animation is not a requirement for "Best Of," but in this case it helps Greater Atlanta Christian School. But pay attention! The lead-in “Be Greater” animates quickly and doesn’t come back, a smart approach to handling first-time users but not weighing down repeat visitors. The design is an excellent implementation of a unique grid with images and text that cross traditional boundaries in the layouts, making for a visually engaging experience. But the content is also sound — “This is the story of us” claims the homepage — which is spot on, playing out in ways that are uniquely designed for the words.
Likewise “Spaces Students Thrive” is a homepage panel that makes the campus facilities sound like destinations unto themselves, and the 360-degree tour drives it all the way home. Finishing the homepage with testimonials is smart, and the high-contrast CTA inquire button in the footer is a great example of a best practice. A terrific website — before even leaving the homepage!
For every school website on this list, there are a dozen more that took our breath away. It’s no secret that 2020 put K12 schools in a new spotlight, but that only drove them to be more unique and innovative. The creativity that budded is a keen reminder that in order for new flowers to bloom, you need a little bit (or a lot) of rain.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.