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 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.
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 PTO in Bolingbrook, Ill., turned its site into a dynamic, interactive communication tool by moving it from the school server to an external host. The site features a bulletin board, which allows parents and board members to leave messages for one another online. It also has the capability to accept online registrations for PTO events and allows users to order school supplies and spiritwear online. McGee PTO President Michael Bielski, who designs websites through his firm TheBielskiBunch.com, 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.
Recruit some outside help. If your Internet volunteer is not a skilled web developer, recruit someone who is. Ask a web-savvy teacher, parent, or even teenager to create templates and train your PTO webmaster to use them. Free web hosting services also tend to be user-friendly for inexperienced webmasters, providing simple templates to build pages.
Display the name of your group prominently on each page of your site. Colorful fonts work well for school sites, but make sure they are easy to read. If you have a logo for your group or your school, include that, as well.
Keep your homepage fresh by using it to showcase recent accomplishments and "breaking news." If you enjoyed record turnout at your first annual Family Fun Festival, post a brief article and photos on the homepage, where users will see it first. Top it off with a splashy headline. If your group sponsors an opera performance in the school cafeteria the next month, post pictures and a write-up. If you have room on your site, create a "Past Events" or archive page and move old articles and photos there. Also reserve a spot on the homepage for fundraising results and upcoming events.
Your website is the perfect place to integrate a volunteer management software system. A program like PTO Today's web-based Volunteer Manager can be linked in, allowing parents to review all of your volunteer opportunities and share interests and availability right online. If you don't use volunteer management software, at least link to the email address of your volunteer coordinator to make it easier for people to enlist.
Other, less newsy information can be accessed from the home page via a navigation bar. Sections may include:
About Us. Who you are and what you do may seem obvious to you, but not everyone knows what a parent group does. Brooks, who is now developing the website for the PTO of the Edmonson County 5th/6th Grade Center, where her son is a 5th grader, plans to include what her group is not. "Another feeling around here is that 'PTO' is another name for a clique," she says, explaining that she will post a "mythbusters" list which, among other things, states that "a PTO is…for everyone."
Board Members. Include titles, names, and contact information. If you're not comfortable including members' telephone numbers, email links will make it simple and convenient for users to reach individual members.
Meeting Schedule. Don't worry about posting a year's worth of meeting dates on your site. A simple "Third Thursday of every month, at 7:30 in the media center" will do.
Volunteer Acknowledgements. Your website is a great place to thank all of your volunteers by name.
Pictures. Photographs will draw users into the website and entice them to read about the events illustrated. If confidentiality is an issue, identify children only by first names and last initials or leave the names out entirely. Brooks runs all photos by school administrators, who keep a list of parents who have OK'd the publication of their children's photos.
If you have room, you might also want to include the following on your site:
Newsletters. The Highcrest Middle School PTO in Wilmette, Ill., decided to save $6,000 on annual printing costs by making its 25-page monthly newsletter available exclusively online. You may not be willing to give up your hard-copy newsletter, but it's easy enough to post an electronic version on your site, as well.
Meeting Minutes. Yes, some people do read these. It's a way to keep people informed who aren't able to attend a meeting.
Bylaws. Like minutes, posting bylaws provides a good resource for someone who wants to use them as a reference, even if they're not read in full each week.
Fun Stuff. The McGee Elementary parent group borrowed a running joke from David Letterman when it published the "Top 10 Reasons To Be Involved." (No. 7: "I like field trips, too!")
You might also create other reasons to visit your site. The Highcrest Middle School PTO sponsors after-school clubs during the year. Acceptance is on a first-come, first-served basis, and the clubs are so popular that not every child who signs up is guaranteed a spot. Soon after sign-ups are completed, the PTO posts on its site the names of the children who got in to each club.
When writing for the web, keep it short or break up your text with subheads. Reading online is uncomfortable for many people. Make it easier for them to find what they're looking for by marking key words in a bold or colored font.
Promoting Your Site
After putting so much effort into creating and maintaining your PTO site, you want to make sure people use it.
Advertise your web address on all notices that the PTO sends home. If your address is one of those headache-inducing strings of letters and characters, give out your school's web address instead and instruct parents to click on the PTO link. Or create a shorter web address that redirects automatically to the main web page.
Write an article about your website in the school or PTO newsletter. Include instructions on how to submit items. Ask that your web address be included in the school handbook. If the handbook has an entry for your parent group, put it there.
Ask your webmaster to give a presentation about the website at one or more PTO meetings. Maria Bettini-DeBoer, the webmaster for the Highcrest Middle School PTO, did this at her elementary school PTO's first meeting of the year, and she used the opportunity to ask parents to submit articles for the site.
Keeping It Going
As with everything else a PTO does, continuity is critical to the success of a website. A site with old information and broken links is about as useful as a mailbag with a tear in the bottom. Unless a transition plan is in place, the website will become frozen when the person in charge moves on to her child's new school. You'll lose your audience, and your group's image will suffer. A case in point: When Carmon Brooks left the Kyrock Elementary PTO board to become president of the Edmonson County 5th-6th Grade Center PTO, the website she had labored so hard to create withered away.
The Jamie McGee PTO has addressed this problem by putting the website in the hands of its three-person publicity committee. While one committee member maintains the site, the others provide the content. When the webmaster moves on, this guarantees that someone familiar with the demands of the website is prepared to take over.
The Highcrest Middle School PTO has made the webmaster a board position, ensuring that there is always one person involved with the PTO who is charged with keeping up the site. "It's key to make it a board position. Your responsibility for that job is to keep it maintained for the school year and to make sure it's turned over," says webmaster Bettini-DeBoer.
Despite the setback with Kyrock's PTO site, Brooks is focusing on the 5th-6th Grade Center parent group's web presence. Even if just a few parents use it, the effort will pay off, she says.
"Many parents work and have access to computers at work. If they can pull up a web page, it will really help. That way, they can come home and know what to talk with their children about," she says. "At the end of the day, if parents are still not involved, I will rest easier because I have tried everything to get them involved."