Before 2020, we were seeing the beginnings of an important shift in the world of school district communications: a shift towards websites that focus on more than just utility, but telling stories and bringing communities to life online. And while many school districts have been slow to adapt their websites due to budget or time constraints, the Covid-19 pandemic forced many districts to re-think the role of their website...quickly.
For some districts, that meant focusing on the mobile experience for low-income families that didn’t have computers at home. For others, it meant flipping the switch from “communications” to “marketing” as increased competition from charter and independent schools that remained open left more and more virtual seats empty.
And although 2020 was a year of unparalleled stress and change, as we look back, it’s also a time to celebrate the challenges you’ve overcome and the work you’ve accomplished. Dozens of school districts of all sizes worked to launch websites in 2020, all while managing the Covid-19 crisis. And while every district that launched a website last year deserves a round of applause, we thought now was the time to honor our best public school websites of 2020. These then websites stand out for their content, design, and overall user experience.
The best public school websites of 2020 (in no particular order!) are:
School District 197 | MN
Let's dive in!
No large hero images here! When this website launched back in October, we knew it was going to make our list of best websites of 2020 because of its unique design that puts an intentional focus on community news on the district homepage and individual school pages.
When Longview Public Schools in Washington sought to redesign their website they had two primary goals. First, they wanted to “ provide our parents and the community quick and easy access to high value school district content in a photo rich environment,” said Rick Parrish, the district’s Director of Communications & Operations. “And from a larger perspective, our plan is to become the 'news agency' for the district since in smaller towns like ours the local media is almost gone.”
This goal is well-achieved on their website, which resembles the layout of major news sites like Buzzfeed and the New York Times — which comes in handy during a time when things are constantly changing. “A key goal of the new site is to be ‘mobile first, mobile friendly’ and we’ve seen some great jumps in mobile traffic.”
And while this website is one of our best of 2020, we are excited to see how they continue to evolve and innovate throughout 2021. “We are just getting started learning how to take advantage of this powerful platform and are excited about the opportunities it presents to grow and retain audiences,” said Rick.
- District calendar with filtering options
- "Points of Pride" community celebrations
- Streamlined news, user experiences and branding across individual school sites
Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) definitely has one of the most beautiful website designs we saw in all of 2020.
The focus on design comes from increased local competition, and KCPS knew an improved website could make a difference in enrollment:
“The primary goal of our new website was to highlight KCPS as the school district of choice for Kansas City families. We wanted to focus on student achievement and exceptional experiences for our families. We are very intentional about branding and perception work and our new website allows us to showcase our grasp of reputation management and brand management – all while conveying love, care and attention to our students, families and staff,” said Kelly Wachel, APR / Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Kansas City Public Schools.
While the bright, bold, and lively design brings a vibrant community to life online, it’s the site’s easy-to-use navigation structure and accessibility that really sets it apart. Like many schools, KCPS launched their website smack dab in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic — bringing into the forefront the importance of finding information quickly on desktop and mobile devices. “We were able to focus on homepage navigation and quick links for direct information needed during a pandemic – all without losing the essential element of visual appeal and a welcoming look and feel,” said Kelly. “We focused on the look and the user-friendliness in balance. We know our students, staff, families and community expect a customer-friendly experience with intuitive navigation. We think we accomplished this. This contributes to a more transparent and efficient site.”
- Beautiful, scrolling homepage that tells a rich story of the KCPS culture and community
- Streamlined user experiences across individual school websites
- An easy-to-use "sticky" navigation that keeps website content one click away
- Organized interior pages, such as "History of KCPS" that optimize the experience for all devices
When Enumclaw School District launched their website in January of 2020, they had no idea how important their website was going to be to their community that year.
Enumclaw School District’s website is powered by one of Finalsite’s Theme Designs. Because a theme design is a budget and timeline-friendly option, it sometimes doesn't feel as “exciting” because it doesn’t have the same pizazz as a custom design. But, Enumclaw School District knows that a great website goes beyond bells and whistles. A great website adapts as the needs of the community adapt — and that’s something Enumclaw School District has done incredibly well throughout the course of 2020.
The theme design Enumclaw School District chose is flexible, which allowed them to swap out calls-to-action, videos, and news elements to keep the community informed. It also puts a focus on social media content through Finalsite Feeds, which was a brilliant way to keep the vast district connected throughout virtual learning.
The site is accessible, and behind the scenes is using Finalsite’s Advanced Search technology — providing a Google-like search experience to website visitors to ensure content is easy to find the way they like to find it.
- Embedded social media feeds to keep community engaged
- Beautiful hero videos on the homepage and individual school pages
- Organized hubs for parents, students, and employees (password-protected)
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When you have so much information to share, it can be easy to overwhelm yourself and your website visitors — but Richfield Public Schools’ site nails it! With seven schools and hundreds of web pages, the district manages to keep all content within one to two clicks.
“The primary goal for our new website was to provide easy-to-find information. There were other priorities as well, but this was essential. Our old website had grown out of control over the years and had evolved into a tangled web of outdated content, 404 errors and great info that was 15 clicks away from the main page and never found by users,” said Jennifer Valley, Director of Marketing & Communications at Richfield Public schools.
“We wanted to keep everything one click from the main page. We did this through a mega-nav and then creatively organized content on each page using accordions, tabs and section dividers to visually layout content to make it scannable. With a static toolbar on the left, users are always able to navigate to new sections without needing to hit the back button.”
In addition to easy navigation, the district used their new website to bring their stunning new brand — which they worked on with CEL Marketing, PR, Design — to life, as well as “tell the story of our District and give our schools a marketing edge,” said Jennifer.
While their website is easy-to-navigate and beautifully designed, it also offered them essential flexibility throughout 2020 to keep their community informed. “Providing timely updates for families became more essential than ever. Knowing that they could always find the most up-to-date information right on their school’s website was a relief to us and to them,” said Jennifer.
- Mobile-friendly menu with "find it fast" search features
- Detailed and organized interior pages, like this one for Academics, that tell the district's story
- Searchable staff directory
- Up-to-date Covid-19 hub
Tacoma Public Schools is large: 36 elementary and pre-schools, 12 middle schools and 11 high schools serving around 30,000 students. And while the more your district grows the more complex your site architecture becomes, Tacoma Public Schools makes it look easy. Zero-ing in on any one school is simple via the “Schools” menu to find any one of the 50 or so sites that the district can distribute site management to, while also maintaining a consistent design and architecture. This translates to a more seamless user experience for parents, prospective employees and residents alike.
Beyond the navigation, the site’s unique design and content beautifully intertwine to tell the story of a district that cares deeply about its community members. Animated infographics, unique graphic elements and stunning photography round out this one-of-a-kind district site.
Tacoma Public Schools' site is so much more than a beautiful design — it's a powerful communications tool that helped keep their community informed throughout 2020.
"The COVID pandemic has forever changed how K-12 schools operate and communicate with our families and the community. Our websites and digital communications provide crucial information for families, and they must be timely, accurate and credible. As we transition students from remote to classroom learning, and facets of the school day change quickly, the spotlight on our websites grows. New, detailed schedule information and COVID restrictions have been easier to communicate with composer and the variety of options we have to display and push information," said Rae A. McNally, MSML, Strategic Communications Manager and Webmaster at Tacoma Public Schools.
- Beautiful scrolling homepage to tell Tacoma Public Schools' unique story, complete with unique animations and fun design components that you just have to see for yourself!
- Detailed and organized interior pages, like this FAQs page for hybrid learning
- Up-to-date "District Newsroom" news feed
- Engaging and informative "Careers" page
Like many districts in 2020, Rockford Public Schools made the switch from a utilitarian website to a website that focuses on telling their district’s story. “The primary goal of the new website is to market our district to recruit families and quality staff,” said Monica Bayne, Web Manager at RPS 205. “The sleek, modern design allows visitors to focus on the key information and stories showcased on the district and school home pages.”
And while storytelling and a sleek design can definitely make an impact on recruiting new families and faculty, the district’s site doesn’t neglect the needs of current families, either. The website’s main navigation makes it easy for parents and extended community members to find what they are looking for — and fast. Simple navigation coupled with beautiful storytelling elements — like testimonials and infographics — aid in keeping parents happy (and enrolled).
- Powerful "Schools" dropdown to make individual school sites easy to find
- Beautiful homepage complete with testimonials, infographics, video, and more
- A strategic content strategy called "205 Vibe" that includes a blog, podcast, and more.
There is a lot to admire about the Stafford Municipal School District website — from their mobile-first design to their incredible website search experience. It’s a website that clearly puts the user experience first, and that isn’t something that’s easy to do.
“Stafford Municipal School District is the best little school district in Texas, so we needed a website to match that,” said Gracie Martinez, Communications & Marketing Coordinator for the district. “We wanted our website to reflect the heart of our campus, our Stafford Spartans excelling in academics, arts, robotics and athletics.”
Throughout 2020, the district’s site maintained the heart of the campus. Because parents could easily access information from any device, the website kept the community connected and informed. “The website became our safe place more than ever during the pandemic,” said Gracie. “It was a challenge to make real-time decisions and changes, plus ensure all of our stakeholders were in the know. The website was the perfect anchor during all the chaos and COVID-19 alerts to keep our parents and staff in the loop.
- Individual school sites that focus on answering the question "Why Stafford?" and feature social media integration
- Organized athletics teams, schedules, rosters and more powered by Finalsite's Athletics Manager
- Engaging portals for employees and parents
Simplicity, storytelling and streamlined communications make up the “three s’s” of a great district website — and Palo Alto Unified School District’s (PAUSD) website achieves all three elegantly. It’s hard to launch a school district website and still keep it simple, which is what makes the new website for PAUSD so impressive.
According to Derek More, the district’s Chief Technology Officer, “the main goal of our new websites is to represent the phenomenal educational activities that happen every day in our schools.” The district achieves this goal through the stunning mobile-friendly design, vibrant photography, infographics, new stories, and more. Individual school pages, like Addison Elementary, pick up the design with content that is managed and unique to the school, allowing for autonomy and the distribution of work across the whole district.
“The new websites have been instrumental in our efforts to communicate with our community,” said Derek. “As plans shifted constantly throughout the Summer and Fall, the consistent platform allowed us to quickly publish shared content to all our school sites, post photos of what in-person learning looks like today, and also maintain a consistent voice across our organization.”
- "Find it Fast" navigation experience
- Engaging "Careers" area of the website to recruit new hires
- Detailed "Return to Campus" website section to highlight the road to in-person learning
School District 197 | MN
ISD 197’s website proves that you don’t need a long scrolling site to keep your community engaged and informed — and that sometimes, the simpler, the better. This is another website that puts its community first, featuring separate hubs for parents and teachers, ensuring pivotal information is just one click away.
This website launched in June of 2020 — which means they were working on this project at the height of the pandemic — which is an amazing feat that highlights the priority of the district’s website for communications.
This is another school district across the country that made the most of a Finalsite Theme design in 2020. Like Enumclaw School District, Washingtonville Central School District pushed the website’s design and content management system’s functionality to its limits to ensure its community had what they needed throughout the turbulent year.
One extra component Washingtonville added in 2020 was their virtual graduation microsite — a digital celebration of the class of 2020 that they can (and will!) use for the years to come.
The shift websites took in 2020 wasn’t just because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but because of the growing need for school districts to compete for the best students and teachers. We will continue to see more and more districts feel the pressure to update, upgrade, and change the way they communicate as expectations and competition continue to rise.
If you’d like to learn more about how Finalsite can help your district improve its online communications through web design, request a free 15-minute website consultation today. And if phone calls aren’t your thing, start with a free website report card sent directly to your inbox.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.