Barrington Community Unit School District 220
With its humble beginnings in 1835 as a one-room schoolhouse, education in Barrington, IL has been synonymous with the city’s history and a strong sense of community.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the Barrington 220 School District was officially formed, and since then, the district has developed into a nationally recognized PreK-12 school district, serving nearly 8,500 students in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
As the communication director for the district, Samantha Ptashkin leads the two-person department and is charged with managing the district’s website, along with developing crisis communications strategies, serving as a liaison to the media, and carrying out a range of other daily responsibilities that enable the district to inform, communicate, and engage with its families.
And while small, the busy communications department regularly receives praise from the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association (INSPRA) for its outstanding work.
Barrington 220 serves approximately 8,500 students from a 72 square mile area. Across the district, students come from diverse backgrounds, with nearly 70 different languages spoken. Its mission is to "Empower personal excellence in every learner."
Despite the well-deserved recognition, Barrington’s former Blackboard website wasn’t doing the district any favors, and with a dated design, a cluttered back end, and a limited content-management system (CMS) that wasn’t mobile-friendly, it made daily updates overly complicated and frustrating.
When Ptashkin and her team made the decision to leave Blackboard’s Web Community Manager and migrate the district’s site over to Finalsite’s content management system, Composer, it was a decision that had been years in the making.
The Challenge | A cluttered site with little control
Ptashkin and the team had received feedback that it was very hard to find content and navigate their old Blackboard site, and since there were multiple editors who had managed the website throughout the years, a lack of consistency with page structure, language, and design muddied the district’s communication efforts.
“With Blackboard, I felt like it was very limited as far as how you could stylize and design a page,” Ptashkin said. “We had been cleaning up the back end of that site for a few years, but it seemed anytime we wanted to do something, like add a button, it would cost more and be a long process.”
Accessibility had also been an issue with the older site, putting ADA compliance at the top of their new site’s wishlist, along with a clean and modern look. “We have a very engaged community with high expectations,” Ptashkin said, adding that the older Blackboard site was not very user-friendly. With an eye toward inclusivity, Ptashkin and the team knew that building a website from the ground up would allow the site to be built with both accessibility and an intuitive user experience in mind.
When it finally did come time to partner with Finalsite, the communications department took the lead for the district.
“For years, we were looking at different websites and spoke with counterparts in other districts,” Ptashkin recalled. “We looked at other vendors and chose Finalsite based on what we saw and conversations that we had with districts that were already using the products. When we decided to go with Finalsite, we used it as an opportunity to reorganize and update the site from scratch.”
"When we want to update the website or create a new page, we have so many more options for how we can present it in a more professional way than we did before."
Every journey starts with a single step, and for Barrington’s redesign process, it was no different. To help guide their planning for the site’s content, design, layout, and functionality, they looked at the site data to understand how users were using the site and where they could improve the user experience.
“We looked at our Google Analytics to see our most visited pages, but I think the conversations with our staff and parents were the most helpful in providing feedback about what they liked and what they didn't like on our old website,” Ptashkin said. “A lot of those discussions supported what we saw in Google Analytics.”
When starting the migration process, it’s important to consider what foundational changes need to happen. The Barrington team conducted multiple focus groups with representation from every school, meeting with all the principals and different staff at each building, and speaking with parents to get their feedback about what they wanted in a new website for the district.
Ptashkin and her team also met with the superintendent's cabinet and with all of the PTO presidents at each school to get their feedback about transitioning to a new website, what should be on it, and how it should be organized.
“It’s key to get feedback from your stakeholders, such as staff and parents at each school community, and look at your Google Analytics to see where people are going on your website. That’s key to helping you come up with how to design your site and what features you want to have.”
When it came time to map out their site’s content during the Deployment process, the team relied heavily on Google Docs to help organize their material and reshuffle its thousands of pages of content. When it did come time to lay in the refreshed content, it wasn’t a 1:1 copy of their old site — it was a chance to start a new chapter of Barrington’s long history.
“It was a really good experience,” Ptashkin recalled. “We met with our project manager every single week and I found that to be very helpful because we constantly had different questions, so each week we were able to ask him those questions, get feedback, and make sure we were on track.”
After months of restructuring content, building pages, and styling the site, Barrington’s site was ready to launch.
When the new site went live, only the communications team and a handful of users at each of the district’s schools had editing and publishing privileges to the CMS — a strategic decision to help limit the number of “cooks in the kitchen.”
“On our old website, we had a lot of people that had edit access to random pages, and it created a huge mess — that was one of the reasons why I think the website was so disorganized,” Ptashkin said. “Now, we can control access and we wanted to start out with very limited access because we didn't want to get into the situation that we had before.”
To train the group of core users, Ptashkin was able to offer 1:1 in-person coaching on how to use Composer and its modules. That instruction, combined with the online training videos and how-to documents within Finalsite's Knowledge Base and Learning Center, the learning curves were shortened, but what really helped the most, Ptashkin felt, was actually logging into the CMS and getting to work. If a question did arise, Finalsite’s support staff was there to answer any questions.
“We've heard a lot of good feedback; everything that I've heard has been positive,” Ptashkin said, adding that while the Barrington team does get the occasional, “where did this page go?” it’s usually followed with “oh, by the way, the site looks amazing!”
On the old site, something as simple as moving the calendar was difficult. But now, those edits are made easier with Composer’s drag-and-drop and copy/paste functionality, shared elements, and the ability to “create once, publish everywhere” with the Posts module.
“It’s nice to be able to go to our district website now and not feel like everything is a mess,” Ptashkin admitted. “I love the visual aspect of it. Overall it's organized much better, it's more user-friendly, and it's easier for families to find what they need.”
“We can do so much style and design-wise,” Ptashkin added. “When we want to update the website or create a new page, we have so many more options for how we can present it in a more professional way than we did before.”
Following the launch, Barrington’s site was honored with a Gold award from the NYX Marcom Awards, another accolade to add to the district’s growing list of achievements. “With Finalsite, the platform offers a lot more options for our style guide and how we can create a page and enhance different areas in the district. That was a big, big plus.”
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