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Downingtown Area School District

Long before beginning her position at Downingtown Area School District, Katherine Lawyer’s experience with school websites began when sites were built using only HTML, and users wrote code to update and manage their pages.

When she began her role as the systems and support administrator, Lawyer inherited the district’s website, which was designed and hosted by Blackboard and managed with Web Community Manager.

Some aspects of the processes were working fine, but Lawyer noticed a big contrast on the backend of the site. “We came to a place where the old site had aged; it had decayed,” Lawyer recalled. “We counted about 10,000 pages, and there were a lot of loops — It wasn't intuitive at all to me, and I've been in tech for 20 years!”

With a system that felt piecemealed together and an overgrown site map, Lawyer knew what changes needed to happen. She began to explore the district's requirements and interests in launching a new site and started the process of gaining community buy-in to make the switch from Web Community Manager to a new provider.

At a Glance

kids on a playground waving


Set in the heart of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Downingtown Area School District encompasses 16 schools and a K-12 cyber academy throughout one of the most populated municipalities in the state. DASD is home to over 13,000 students and is regarded as a top-rated district in Pennsylvania.

The first step Lawyer took was to create a working team to review, vet, and propose which website vendors the districts would consider for their new provider. The core team was comprised of members of the district’s communications office, tech department, and other stakeholders, which reviewed features and offerings, and met with and reviewed a number of vendor proposals to find the best match for their district’s needs.

After Lawyer and her team narrowed down their options, they created a scoring rubric to grade each of the providers, but having worked at a previous school district who used Finalsite’s CMS, Composer, Lawyer knew more and more districts were following that path.
One of the major considerations for Lawyer and the district was for their new website to be ADA compliant and offer accessibility features. “Not all hosts have that, or they say they do, and it's just not quite what was expected,” Lawyer said. For DASD, the ability to layer ADA compliance with AudioEye was critical, as they wanted their new website to offer a truly accessible and equitable experience for users.

“Ultimately, we chose Finalsite, but to get to that decision we had to bring in more stakeholders.” The team presented their proposal to director-level leadership, the superintendent, and the board of directors. “We presented the option and the data, and the feedback throughout the whole process.” Finalsite’s ability to provide powerful built-in accessibility features and AudioEye, Lawyer shared, was “a big home run.”

The proposal was approved, and DASD prepared to partner with the Finalsite. The question remained: How does a district prepare to migrate thousands of pages of content and train hundreds of users?

Change can be difficult

Rather than migrate every page from Blackboard to Finalsite, DASD reimagined their site from the ground up. “The reason we did that is because the Blackboard website had not even received a facelift in more than seven years — there was no way we could just migrate that data, so we started from scratch.”

students rehearsing with trumpets

Lawyer and her team began the process of evaluating content for the new website. They vetted pages, navigation elements, design, and more through their communications and technology teams to ensure the content was relevant and served the district in the best way possible.

While Lawyer was more familiar with the deployment process, she knew not everyone was feeling the same sense of confidence in adopting a new product. With about a hundred page owners across the district, the editors and publishers who manage page content and monitor ADA compliance would need additional support during the transition.

“We all know change is hard,” Lawyer said. “I think my biggest concern was the range of technical ability among the group and the different comfort levels with learning with a new product and a new system. It was a big lift as far as getting all those people involved.”

Setting up for success with Finalsite Composer

To assist the team and core group of users, Lawyer relied on the ease-of-use of Finalsite’s CMS, Composer, to ensure her team’s success, as well as the training resources Finalsite offers.

Lawyer utilized Finalsite’s Learning Center and training platform, which included the Knowledge Base articles and training videos to bring the district’s page managers up to speed, but she also developed her own coaching method based on her own knowledge of the platform and its modules.

For page editors who would only be managing certain aspects of the site’s pages, the instruction was brief, and users were feeling comfortable using the platform with minimal training. “Finalsite’s training resources are wonderful,” Lawyer said. “I used them all, as well as my own knowledge and training, and developed an outline as a beginner's guide.”

The new face of the district

Now that the site is up and running, Lawyer’s team is equipped with the resources they need to keep the site fresh with current news, events, and daily calendar and content updates. She even has a member of her team dedicated to training new users and ensuring they have what they need to keep their pages and information up to date. And with permission-based access and editing, the site’s designs, content, and edits are kept consistent and on-brand.

students watching a lesson in coding

“We keep access control lists, and all the permissions are kept very tight,” Lawyer said. “Users don't get access until they’re trained, so that's our gatekeeping. We keep everything locked down.” 

And since launch, Lawyer’s confident with how her team of users has adapted to using the new site. “They like it, and they like how easy it is,” she added. “They appreciate the drag-and-drop elements and the variety of design options that are available.”

For others starting the redesign of their website, Lawyer says that the key is communication and planning. “It’s 90 percent planning, 10 percent execution. Communication is key in any project, but planning is one of the most important considerations.”

The planning has ultimately paid off. Downingtown’s new site received a silver award at the recent w3 Awards, a group that celebrates digital excellence.

“We’re a large and affluent district that has a lot of pride,” Lawyer said, adding that they knew the redesign was an opportunity to create something for the community they could be proud of.  “Your website is the face of your district — It's where everybody goes to see everything about you.”

What started as a monumental task for Downingtown turned into an opportunity that Lawyer and her team could accomplish together. “I put my whole heart and soul into making it a success because I didn't want anything holding me back. It never felt impossible. Finalsite makes it possible”.

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