Once upon a time, schools communicated with parents by sending a note home with their children.
But not anymore.
Though websites long ago replaced the backpack dispatch and the bulletin board post, districts are continually polishing their Internet presence -- and sometimes spending tens of thousands of dollars annually -- with website redesigns and strategic graphics tweaks.
Industry experts say districts are recognizing that up-to-the-minute communication has become crucial, even when talking about such things as lunch menus, student grade access, homework assignments, calendars and athletic schedules.
And one district has used its digital front door as a portal to raise extra money to pay for salaries and school supplies. Its website helps bring in about $250,000 a year.
"Redesign comes in when expectations and trends change, and schools now are more competitive," said Bonnie Leedy of School Webmasters, an Arizona-based school website design and maintenance firm.
Three Tarrant County districts recently debuted websites that were redesigned with the help of template platforms furnished by professional content management companies. The districts pay a yearly fee for technical support.
They say it is money well-spent.
The Northwest district pays Schoolwires, a content management firm, $16,575 annually for site support including Web hosting, e-alerts, photo galleries and surveys. Northwest's communications department is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of the website.
Northwest launched its redesigned website in September. Every department page and each of the district's 23 campus sites were made over.
"Parents are our No. 1 audience, and we wanted every site to have a similar look and feel so parents with children at different campuses could navigate all sites easily," said Lesley Weaver, district communications director. "We wanted everything to match the district's brand, and then we launched it all one morning,"
The Grapevine-Colleyville district's streamlined website went online Dec. 16, the day before winter break began. The district has a contract with Schoolwires for Web hosting, e-alerts, forms and surveys, photo galleries, site search, online payments and training; this year's was $19,359.
"For the design update we did in December, we paid $250 to purchase a template from Schoolwires, and Region XI assisted us with design modifications," district spokeswoman Megan Overman said. The Region XI Education Service Center, a state agency serving schools in Tarrant and nine other counties, is an intermediary with many schools that use Schoolwires.
The Crowley district entered a shared-services agreement with Dallas County schools and others for SchoolFusion, a provider similar to Schoolwires. Crowley pays $28,000 a year for the subscription. The redesigned websites for the district and its 23 schools debuted in the spring.
"It's very user-friendly; if you can get on Facebook or send an e-mail, then you can use it," district spokesman Anthony Kirchner said. Information entered on the district site can be automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.
"People have really responded to the social media option," Kirchner said. "We think it's necessary for getting communication out. Parents, students and teachers expect that."
Though redesigns are eye-catching, webmasters agree that site visitors are just looking for information -- fast. The state also requires districts to have certain items on their websites, including district performance records and budgets.
In the Arlington district, administrators like to keep the look of the website familiar while improving the infrastructure.
"I try to keep the focus on usability," said Bruce Barrs, the district's webmaster for the last 12 years.
His current challenge is finding the best program to deliver the rapidly increasing amount of video on Arlington's site. The site has student handbooks, codes of conduct, employee manuals and legally required lengthy reports and postings, which add up to thousands of pages, Barrs said. The Arlington district has 73 schools and almost 64,000 students.
The Carroll district's wide-ranging Web approach includes several sites in addition to the district's home site. A cooperative site with Southlake, MySouthlakeNews.com, circulates news from the 7,710-student district with the city's news, and Carrollbudget.com deals exclusively with the district's financial matters.
The district's communications and marketing department maintains the sites and does not use an outside management company for Web design.
Carroll's marketing and sponsorship agreements raise almost $250,000 each year and are primarily presented through the district sites. The dollar figure represents in-kind services and cost-saving arrangements with businesses and corporate sponsors in addition to extensive Web advertising and other promotional activities, including stadium signs and concessions.
As with colleges and universities, Carroll's corporate sponsors pay for the right to use the Carroll Dragons logo; advertise on district buses, the stadium scoreboard and gym signs; and have a presence on the district's Web pages and business directory.
The promotions earn extra income for the district's general fund to help defray the cost of such things as school supplies, salaries and utilities. The income is not subject to state recapture laws.
Ultimately, the success of any school site is in its page views, and site administrators keep that goal in mind with everything they do.
"You have to think like a parent," said Rick Herrin, Carroll's video webmaster.
It works: In October, Carroll's website had 230,078 page views.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657