On December 30, we had the privilege of launching a brand-new district website for Dubuque Community Schools. We’re incredibly proud of it… but more on that later. First, a word on the K-12 environment and how it’s been changing lately.

In the last decade, educational institutions have been rethinking the way they engage with their audiences. The change happened in universities first—as prospective students became more likely than ever before to look outside their home state when choosing higher education, the universities and colleges realized that they needed to start marketing themselves better. To that end, it became very important to have a strong logo and brand as well as an engaging website presence. It had a very real impact on their admissions.

At first, K-12 districts didn’t see the need to follow suit. Their enrollment numbers were overwhelmingly determined by geography and so there wasn’t much to be gained from marketing or having a good brand presence. But with much of a district’s communication moving online, not to mention open-enrollment laws changing around the country, we’re starting to see a shift. Perception is very important, especially to a parent who is putting their child in someone else’s care for seven hours a day, five days a week.

So how does a parent develop perceptions of his child’s district? We’ve given this a lot of thought, and we’d say there are three main ways.

1. The schools’ physical presence: The architecture, the landscaping, and the cleanliness are important to a district’s perception. This is huge, and it’s why districts will spend so much money on a new stadium or high school facility. It’s a reflection of who they are. And it’s been this way for a long time—some of the most beautiful school buildings I’ve seen are over a hundred years old.

2. What comes home in the backpack: This one dries up after middle school for the most part, but it deserved a mention. This includes both the content (what’s happening at school) and the delivery (how it’s presented).

3. The district website: This is the first impression you give to a potential staff member who’s thinking about applying, or to the parents who are trying to decide where to move now that their kids are school-age. But beyond first impressions, it’s also the tool that they will use over and over again. Many parents will see the website more often than they see the school facilities, so one could argue that its influence on perception is even stronger.

But lots of districts still haven’t realized this. A few years ago I worked with a district who had just spent tens of millions of dollars on a new activity center, but their district website was designed and built by their IT department—with no budget. They had done the best they could with what they were asked to do, but this wasn’t their area of expertise. Would the district have asked a teacher draw up the architectural plans for a new building?

…Which brings us back to Dubuque. We started working with Dubuque Community Schools in February of 2014, and it was interesting because the two people on their project team had actually come from the marketing department of one of the universities across town. They had been through that marketing shift I talked about earlier, and they recognized that the same thing was happening in K-12—and they wanted to make something awesome.

(Actually, the word they used was epic.)

The key to success in any website project is to create something that highlights the strengths of the organization. For instance, if we prominently feature beautiful photography in the site’s design, we’d better make sure the client has the resources to take good photos or we’ve missed the mark. We’ve set them up to fail, and it’s our own fault if the end result doesn’t look as good as our design mockups.

The big thing we recognized in our initial planning meetings with Dubuque is that they had a unique set of skills and resources. Not too many school districts have a dedicated video department, much less one with fantastic production quality. They also have a full-time graphic designer, and they had just rebranded with a new logo and color palette only a few months before we started, so that gave us a lot to work with.

As a result, we were able to do something for Dubuque that probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for the strengths of most other districts. Their homepage is based around a panel system that showcases new content and announcements in a very unique way, interspersed with static links to frequently-accessed content. And the cool thing is that the layout of the panels is rearranged automatically based on the content. All they do is publish a new panel and everything else moves around to fit.

The homepage of the Dubuque Community School District's new website

The homepage of the new Dubuque Community Schools website

Knowing that they had some great writing talent, we developed a really engaging news engine for them that lets them show different types of content in different formats. If they’re posting a brief announcement, it’s displayed in a low-profile format with no title. If it’s a post about an upcoming event, the event itself can be embedded directly into the content, in the same format that it would show in the calendar.

News listing for Dubuque Community Schools' new website.

News listing for Dubuque Community Schools’ new website.

And speaking of the calendar: there’s a lot going on at this district, and their calendar had to be functional and easy to use to showcase all of these events. The calendar features very intuitive filtering, so you can show only the event categories that are of interest to you (for instance, just those from a certain school). Behind the scenes, their events are imported into the site automatically from a variety of sources: all athletic events come from the regional conference’s calendar, and the individual school events come in from those schools’ Google calendars. The calendar pretty much takes care of itself in their case.

Calendar for Dubuque Community Schools.

Calendar for Dubuque Community Schools.

All in all, this project was a whole lot of fun to be part of. We’re really proud with not only the appearance, but also the functionality and the ways that we were able to work with Dubuque to elevate their web presence to the level of excellence that they had already achieved in other mediums like video and social media.

One final note: If you’ve come across this article as part of your research wondering if Juicebox would be a good fit to build a new website for your district or organization, there’s a good chance you might look at the Dubuque site and think that the homepage is a little “out there” when you think of what your own site should look like. That’s perfectly fine! Dubuque’s site was designed for them, and it reflects their unique abilities and personality as a district. Rest assured that anything we’d do for another client would reflect that organization’s own personality in an equally unique way. If we’ve done our job, when it’s all over, you’re going to feel like yours is the best website out there.