As home computers become increasingly commonplace, many school transportation providers are learning that an effective department Website can be an invaluable tool for communicating with the public. It can provide parents, community members and district personnel with useful information, while reducing the number of phone calls to the transportation department. With this in mind, we consulted the creators of four interesting and informative pupil transportation Websites to learn how they developed their sites and how they go about maintaining them. Here’s what they had to say.
San Diego City Schools
Pete Meslin, information services manager for the transportation department at San Diego City Schools, says that his department’s Webpage was designed two years ago to appeal to multiple audiences. To target these different groups, the site information was divided into four categories — parent/guardian, staff, news and other.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the number of phone calls and amount of work everybody in the office has to do,” says Meslin. This is achieved through clickable features such as Frequently Asked Questions, Information About School Bus Service, Pupil Progress Report Schedules, School Belltimes, School Bus Transportation Statistics, and more. “Literally hundreds of phone calls have been cut down,” says Meslin.
Features for both staff and public include the weekly publication of manifests, or routes, on the Website. The routes at San Diego City Schools, which transports primarily integration and special needs students, change frequently. Of 3,500 manifests, Meslin says 15 to 20 percent change every week in one way or another. “Until recently, that meant we had to take all that information, print it and get it out to the schools. As of today, if you want an updated manifest, it’s available online and you can print it,” explains Meslin. “The manifests being online is one of the first steps in getting data that changes weekly out to our customers via the Internet.”
The next step for the site will be to accept applications for service online. Currently, paperwork goes through several channels before it gets to the transportation department. “The more people the data goes through, the less accurate it is. If we can save steps in the process by having the customer enter the information directly, it’s going to get to us quicker and it’s going to be more accurate,” says Meslin. Similarly, Meslin would like to put information on special needs students online for use by members of the IEP team. The information would be secure and accessible only by authorized personnel using passwords.
San Diego City Schools’ Transportation Website was designed using Visual Page, but has been redesigned and maintained with a variety of software, including some programs written by department personnel which automatically update the Website when new information is entered.
“The reality is, to do a simple Website and get some key information out there, it doesn’t take much at all,” says Meslin. The first step is deciding who your audience is and what you want to achieve. If your goal is to reduce phone calls to the transportation department, you might want to put the department phone number on an interior page, rather than on the homepage. This way people aren’t tempted to pick up the phone rather than looking for the information on your Website. Be sure to keep the page’s design simple and the amount of content manageable. “If you put too much information out on a Website, it’s relatively useless,” notes Meslin. “People need to get to things quickly and easily.”
The look of the site should be consistent throughout, says Meslin. “You don’t want to have your logo showing up on the bottom right on page one and on the top left on page three,” he says. However you design your page, Meslin says it is essential that you accept one reality — a Website is a constant work in progress. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you’re a perfectionist and you’re not going to put it up there until it’s perfect, you’re never going to put it up,” he says.
Polk County (Fla.) School District
In designing the Polk County School Transportation Website two years ago, the department set out to provide useful information to the district’s 42,000 student riders and their parents. Department personnel asked themselves, “If I were a parent, what would I want to know?” The result is a site with pages on Operations Department, Vehicle & Safety Services, Finance & Inventory, Related Sites, Inservice Calendar and Employment Opportunities. The homepage includes the department’s mission statement and contact names and numbers.
“We discussed it as a staff and decided we wanted to keep our initial page simple but informative. We wanted to provide data that was both useful and interesting,” says Fred Murphy, assistant superintendent, transportation.
Once they decided upon content, they needed to choose a structure that would effectively house that content. “We don’t want the user to have to go through any more than three menus or links to find out what they need to know,” explains Mark Chiampi, computer specialist for the transportation department. Chiampi designed the menu system to be used by function, rather than by department. This means that when parents search for field trip information, for example, they do not need to know that field trips are a function of the Operations Department. They only need to click on a “field trip” button to access information. The information they access will explain that field trips are a function of operations and that they are to contact the operations manager if there is a problem relating to field trips. “We provide the answers where the question is asked, rather than making them figure out where to look,” explains Chiampi.
Other design goals for the Polk County transportation site included keeping it simple, fun and fast. “Clean, easy-to-understand site navigation is the goal,” says Chiampi. You should keep clutter to a minimum, while maintaining interesting content. Murphy and Chiampi say that statistical data, such as financial information, is of great interest to their public. However, statistics can be rather dry. Department personnel also wanted to include graphics that would lend color and movement to the page, while maintaining a professional look. In adding graphics to a site, Chiampi warns to chose artwork carefully to avoid lengthy download times. “We know that John Q. Public is probably going to dial-in to our site, and he doesn’t have a T1 link at his house,” he notes.
Originally designed using Microsoft Publisher 98, the Polk County School Transportation Website is going being redesigned with FrontPage 2000 software. Chiampi says the change in software will help the department standardize its Web format with that of its district office. New features will include department staff lists with biographies and photos, interactive route maps, employment and training opportunities, transportation links and frame captures from the department’s security cameras. “We will have the capability to view the inside of our building from home using a secure link on our Homepage. This will be great when the alarm goes off at 2 a.m.,” says Murphy.
Since its creation two years ago, the Website has received positive response. Murphy says that a number of people have contacted him regarding accessing information on the Webpage. Ultimately, says Chiampi, department personnel will evaluate the success of its Webpage based on its reduction of customer phone calls.
St. Lucie County (Fla.) School Board
Still in its debut year, the St. Lucie County School Transportation Website is teaching its creators something about its users — for starters, there are more of them than they realized. “The initial focus was for the parents and the community at large. We wanted something dynamic that’s updated on a weekly basis. As soon as we put it out, the hidden benefit was the school personnel using it,” says Greg MacDonald, a K-12 technology consultant who works on designing and maintaining the department’s Website.
The site includes a page for inputting student addresses in order to locate their stops. Not only do parents find this feature helpful, but school secretaries and other staff often use it to look up stops for elementary school students. “The kids in elementary school are constantly forgetting what stop they’re at. They [school staff] just type in their street address and pull it up,” explains MacDonald. Current features of the Website include About Us, Information, Field Trips, Driver Training, Routes & Stops, Dispatch and Daycare. The homepage also includes the department’s mission statement and a link to volunteer opportunities for the district.
MacDonald says that he’s designed the site so that people in charge of each area (routing, for example) have the security necessary to input information and update the Website regularly. To update bus routes, the designated employee goes through a process that imports the routes into a Lotus Notes database, which is then Web-enabled. Routes, which include almost 800,000 records, take a couple of hours to update on a weekly basis. “It’s very efficient and it provides real-time data,” says MacDonald.
Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools
In designing Fairfax County’s pupil transportation Website, which is now three years old, Maintenance Coordinator Ernie Greene’s main goal was to keep it simple. “I sort of came at it from a perspective of, ‘What is it that I would want to see,’” explains Greene, who advises putting links to key information, such as phone numbers and addresses, on the homepage for easy access. He does not, however, advise posting contact names and numbers right up front. When he originally did this, it led to quite a few misdirected calls by parents who couldn’t determine who the contact was for their particular situation. Since then, he’s created a separate page titled, Who to Call, where parents can punch in their child’s school and find out who’s in charge.
The Fairfax County site includes sections on frequently asked questions, transportation statistics and more. On a page called Winter Road Conditions, users can access a map of the district area that includes information on weather considerations and road access. The district also includes pictures of school bus roadeo winners on its site. This not only helps reward the winning drivers, but it also inspires other drivers to practice their skills and participate in the competition.
The Fairfax County Website was designed using several software products, including FrontPage 2000. Greene, who also created the Website for the Virginia Department of Transportation, designed the Website himself and has delegated management of the site to another district employee.
Greene’s theory on Website design and management is that a Website is imperfect and ever-evolving. “When I see something out there that I think could be useful to somebody, I put it up,” he says.