City schools half visible on the Web

Many lack a site online despite 21st-century goals

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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Web design is a signature course at Media Communications Technology High School in West Roxbury. Using equipment donated by Turner Broadcasting, students produce public service announcements that can be posted on the Internet.

But the six-year-old school lacks a 21st-century showcase for this work: a website of its own.

As Mayor Thomas M. Menino harnesses technology to revolutionize the way city government interacts with residents, many schools communicate from within their red-brick walls as though the boom never arrived. About half of the city’s 134 public schools do not have websites, more than a decade after Boston became one of the first big cities in the nation to wire all its schools to the World Wide Web.

Across the country, school websites have reinvigorated newsletters and report cards, stitching together an intimate tapestry of pictures, videos, and blogs highlighting a school’s accomplishments, academic programs, or upcoming events, as well as providing students and parents secured-access to grades, attendance rates, and other data, educators and parents say.

In this age of Googling, a captivating website can be a gold mine in wooing private donors, top-notch teachers, or students and families hunting for a school, they say.

“Some schools have these flashy websites that will obviously attract parents to their school, and there are some like ours that have nothing,’’ said Kenny Jervis, a parent at the Roger Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, which is planning a website for this fall. “We’ve been designated an innovation school, but we don’t have the innovation.’’

Lack of money or someone to maintain the sites have been preventing many schools from launching official domains in cyberspace. Tight resources also challenge schools that do have websites, creating uneven quality.

Some schools aggressively post updates and provide password-protected access, while other sites are neglected.

The most recent blog posting at Another Course to College, a nationally recognized high school in Brighton, congratulates the class of 2009 on its graduation.

By contrast, a news ticker runs at the top of the site for Odyssey High School in South Boston. On the site for TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, a video clip from President Obama’s recent visit takes up half its home page.

“It’s a travesty we don’t have a website to feature our students’ work,’’ said Rudolph Weekes, headmaster at Media Communications Technology High.

It was not that way until two years ago. The school had its own site then, but Weekes shut it down because of technological glitches. The website had been heavily promoted, and many students and teachers still wear lanyards featuring the domain’s name.

Weekes said the school is designing a new website, but the effort has stalled as the school prepares to merge with another high school.

While the School Department leaves it to the discretion of each school to run a website, the department provides basic information — such as MCAS scores, mission statements, and hours of operationabout every school on its website. In the future, the district hopes to make available, through password access, student grades, attendance rates, and other academic information.

This year, the department considered creating a standardized website for each school as part of a recent relaunch of the department’s site, but decided against it because some schools have developed top-notch sites, said Lee McGuire, the district’s chief communications officer.

“Schools want to have an identity,’’ McGuire said. “Principals want to make sure communities see their schools as an individual culture. We try to support schools to build out something like this and push their brand forward.’’

Despite the website divide, school district officials emphasize that the Internet is humming in schools across the city. Each day, thousands of students conduct research or take online courses in computer labs or on laptops. Some teachers spice up lectures by calling up relevant websites and even running news clips on their high-tech white boards.

Across the nation, specialists say many schools have yet to develop their own digital footprint, although they appear to be commonplace among schools in the suburbs of Boston.

“You would think all schools would have them, but they don’t,’’ said Joyce Epstein, director of Johns Hopkins University’s National Network of Partnership Schools, which trains educators on developing family and community involvement. “I think the real issue is not just setting up the website, but keeping it up to date. It’s a big task.’’

Another concern among schools, she said, is a digital divide among students, with some coming from households with several computers and others from dwellings with none.

In Boston, less than 40 percent of households in some parts of East Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury have high-speed Internet connections, according to a 2009 city-sponsored telephone survey of residents in those areas.

Whether that lack of Internet access dissuades some principals from investing in websites is unclear. Schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods appear less likely to have a website than schools in other neighborhoods, according to a Globe review.

Every year, though, a handful of schools, regardless of neighborhood, launches websites.

The Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, an elementary school in Hyde Park, unveiled two websites this year: one for students, parents, and community members and another for staff, where they file their weekly lesson plans.

“We are trying to go paperless,’’ said Maudlin Wright, the Greenwood’s principal, noting that parents will soon be surveyed to determine how many have access to the Web either at home or nearby community centers or libraries. “A lot more people are using the Web, even on telephones.’’

For now, the school sends notices home the traditional way: In a student’s backpack, an information relay that does not always reach parents.

To keep websites buzzing, Boston schools rely on volunteers — technologically skilled teachers, parents, or students — to post updates.

But in most cases, the schools are always looking for an extra hand. The North End’s Eliot K-8 School, which started a site last fall, recently posted this plea: “Needed Web Savvy Parents and Writers.’’

“It’s the modern-day phone tree,’’ said Matthew Black, the parent who runs the website and builds digital prototypes professionally. “It’s nice to have a common place to go to for a bulletin.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at