If communication is the key to parent involvement, then consider a website to be a virtual door that opens onto your PTO. Even if your group publishes a monthly newsletter, sends home notices, and submits items to the local newspaper, there's still room in your media mix for a website.
An online presence will not get misplaced, nor will it end up crumpled in a ball at the bottom of a child's backpack. What it will do is give parents instant access to the information they need, when they need it.
Put someone in charge. Behind every good website is a webmaster. Appoint a volunteer to take charge of your website. The person in this role will provide content (or solicit it from other parents and school personnel); maintain the site regularly (you should update it at least once a month—more is better); and train a successor.
The main requirement for a webmaster is enthusiasm. Experience and technical know-how certainly help but aren't strictly necessary. Carmon Brooks of Brownsville, Ky., thought an online presence was so important for the Kyrock Elementary School PTO that she volunteered to create and maintain a site even though she had never done one before. She learned the basics from the school's technology resource teacher. Then, using a free website creation and hosting service, she put together a site.
Whoever takes on the job of webmaster should have high-speed Internet access, however, either through a DSL line or a cable connection. Neither is available in Brooks' neighborhood, so she's been making do with her dial-up connection. The experience has been frustrating because the connection is so slow, she says.
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Secure a domain name and a host. If you don't already have a domain name and a server to host your site, then talk with your school technology coordinator about the best option for your PTO. These may include a fee-based web hosting service; your school district's own server; a community organization that's willing to give you space on its server; or a free service, such as Weebly or Google Sites.
Before settling on a host, decide as a group what you want your site to achieve. If your intent is to post basic information, such as events and a meeting schedule, and you have little desire to get fancy with your site, consider a free service or your school server. If you'd like to get more out of your site, then a web hosting company is probably a good investment.
A web hosting service will give you the most flexibility, and you'll have a better shot at securing a domain name that's easy to remember and reflects the name of your parent group (such as www.cloughpto.org for the Henry P. Clough School PTO, in Mendon, Mass.). But as long as you have a link somewhere to your school's website, users will be able to find you online, no matter how indecipherable your web address.
The Jamie McGee Elementary School PTO in Bolingbrook, Ill., is planning to turn its site into a dynamic, interactive communication tool by moving it from the school server to an external host. The site will feature a bulletin board, which will allow parents and board members to leave messages for one another online. It will also have the capability to accept online registrations for PTO events and will allow users to order school supplies and spiritwear online. McGee PTO President Michael Bielski, who designs websites through his firm TheBielskiBunch.com, expects to pay less than $100 annually for a hosting service and domain registration.
Bielski has another compelling reason to take the PTO site off the school's server. After agreeing to host the parent group's site, the school administration had second thoughts when it realized the group needed access to the district's server. By then, the PTO site was live, but the group was unable to update it. The information quickly grew stale. "They never really envisioned us putting a site up there that we'd want to keep working with. They thought it would just be a page," Bielski says.
Before accepting space on a school or community server, find out about restrictions. And keep in mind that if their server goes down, you're out of business until it's back up. If you use a free web hosting service, make sure your school server will link to it. Brooks was surprised when, after she labored to create the Kyrock Elementary PTO site on Yahoo’s GeoCities service, she learned that nobody could access it because her district's server had blocked the server that hosted the site.
Creating the Site and Adding Content
As a parent group with a lot of information to share, you'll have no difficulty filling your website. The trick is to keep the content meaningful, useful, and fun while presenting it in a way that is easy to read and navigate.