A district on on a mission for academic excellence
In 2015 a consolidation plan brought together Starkville and Oktibbeha County school districts – two very distinct districts, each with established identities and cultures. In 2017, a new superintendent, Dr. Eddie Peasant, began implementing a strategic plan designed to transform the district over the next five years. The plan addresses the many facets that are critical to educational excellence: student achievement, school culture, community engagement, and more. And at the heart of the plan is a spirited focus on the unified district’s mission and vision – one that’s being driven by clear and strategic communications.
Starkville Oktibbeha School District is a 10-school district operating in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. With its district headquarters in the town of Starkville, home of Mississippi State University and the Oktibbeha County Hospital Medical Center, Starkville Oktibbeha School District is the third largest employer in the county, and a vital and very visible part of the community fabric.
Navigate compliance and improve engagements
There were two major challenges confronting the school district. In the fall of 2017, the Starkville-Oktibbeha School District officials had received a formal complaint from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights informing the district its website did not meet the federal standard for website accessibility. Schools are required to have an ADA-compliant website to serve those individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities, and Starkville was among the thousands of U.S. school districts requiring website remediation to meet federal guidelines for ADA compliance.
Concurrent with this mandate from the Department of Education, the district’s public information officer and communication lead Nicole Thomas had already begun an audit of its current website to analyze what other aspects of their
“It [accessibility] changes the way you approach your website,” said Thomas. “When you start thinking about formatting content to meet these guidelines, you start examining what information is best for your website.”
district and school websites needed attention. Thomas discovered that the district’s websites were not adequately reflecting the image of the schools, staff and students of Starkville. Years prior, the district had begun a communications program with the mission of motivating students, staff and the entire Starkville school community, but the old website was not consistent with that mission.
“We weren’t telling our story as well as we could have,” said Thomas. “There was a lot happening, not the least of which was the consolidation of the two districts a couple years back…We also had just this exciting new partnership school with MSU (Mississippi State University), so we had a lot to communicate. There was a lot of great stuff happening, and our website wasn’t reflecting that. We needed a fresh new look.
In addition to accessibility and strategic communications needs, the web content management system (CMS) tools that website publishers were using to create and edit content were cumbersome. The lack of training resources and support for content managers served as barriers to empowering the district’s content contributors. The former CMS created obstacles resulting in stale, inaccurate or unorganized content.
New online communication strategy
Motivated initially by the OCR complaint, Thomas and school administrators charted a course to learn about website accessibility. Thomas tapped information about ADA-compliant websites from the Campus Suite Academy and put in place a plan to build a new website that not only satisfied accessibility laws, but one that looked professional and was easy for Starkville’s entire school community to use.
“We determined we needed to learn about website accessibility so we used the free resources from Campus Suite,” said Thomas. She and colleagues availed themselves of the School Website Accessibility Education Center and began working with the Campus Suite team to plan their new website. The complimentary learning materials included webinars, infographics, ebooks and guides.
The wake-up call from the OCR also signaled for Thomas a broader perspective on how a school website should work. “It [accessibility] changes the way you approach your website,” said Thomas. “When you start thinking about formatting content to meet these guidelines, you start examining what information is best for your website.”
In addition to helping the Starkville Oktibbeha School District create ADA-compliant websites, Campus Suite is also helping to keep them accessible. Both through ongoing training and support on how to create accessible content, the district opted for Campus Suite’s Website Accessibility Managed Service option, which includes ongoing monitoring, remediation, and training to keep websites compliant. “Accessibility is an ongoing process,” said Thomas, “It’s not like you wake up and everything is perfect and you’ll never have an issue again.”
Thomas and her colleagues looked at how their website content was organized, and used Campus Suite’s website architecture tools to lay out content hubs and optimize navigation. “A clean, nice design helps people be able to find what they’re looking for, whether they have a disability or not,” said Thomas. “People are coming to our site for a reason, and want to quickly and easily find the information they need.”
“We wanted a great-looking district site, but we also wanted to carry the branding through to all our schools,” said Thomas, who selected from one of the many themes in the Campus Suite theme library. The themes, while maintaining the basic color, logos and other branding mandates established, allow website administrators and authorized publishers to adjust layouts, design widgets, and content on a school-by-school basis.
In addition, Thomas finds the News feature on the district main page especially helpful, for it allows web publishers to share news and event content from the district site to targeted schools or every school. “From one dashboard, we can push information out precisely to the schools where it applies,” said Thomas. Parents get just the content that pertains to their school.
Navigate compliance and improve engagements
The Campus Suite website solution for Starkville Oktibbeha School District not only solved web accessibility issues, but put in place a communications foundation to help a school district going through tremendous change.
- Consolidating two very disparate districts created communications challenges that could be solved by a well-conceived and executed website. The Campus Suite launch process included a dedicated project manager and support that helped the district analyzed how web content was organized, how the school’s new persona was depicted, and how content would be managed going forward.
- The new website is a cornerstone for the district’s community relations, and hence enrollment recruiting. Home to MSU and the county’s medical center, Starkville experiences new families relocating to the area. “For a lot of people, their first stop is the school website,” said Thomas. “It (the website) does a very thorough job now of not only providing answers right away, but depicting our school brand – and the larger community – beautifully.”
- “It’s been met with rave reviews from parents, teachers, community, and now state level. In addition to being appealing graphically and easy to manage, it’s accessible for those with disabilities,” said Thomas.
- The new website comes just in time for the school to showcase the district’s Partnership School, an innovative project currently under construction that has the attention of educators and legislators from all over the state of Mississippi, The school will serve as a demonstration site for student teachers and faculty members in MSU’s College of Education.
- Apparently, educators are also noticing the school’s new website. Starkville-Oktihebba won accolades for best website in the 2018 MSPRA (Mississippi School Public Relations Association) Awards of Excellence Winners.