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Wisconsin Districts Collaborate on Web Development

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Even in the face of increasing budgetary pressures, school districts are compelled to make more information available to parents and regulators. That’s why seven school districts in Southeast Wisconsin have worked together on a Web development project that helped combine resources and meet state requirements by putting information at the disposal of parents and students. The seven districts worked with Northwoods Software Development Inc. (www.northwoodsoft.com) to implement the Northwoods Content Management System (CMS), which empowers nontechnical personnel to create and maintain Web sites. Individual school sites have been going live with the newly developed CMS-driven system since January.

Getting Started

When the first teacher and school Web pages expanded quickly in the 1990s, the energy and talents of many of our Wauwatosa School District teachers led the way. As recognition of the Internet’s power as a communication tool grew, the demand for teacher Web pages with more information also increased. Thus, we determined that a uniform navigational system would contribute to our Web-communication efforts. We also came to realize that instructing and supporting the nearly 600 members of the Wauwatosa teaching staff in HTML would prove problematic. It wasn’t long before coming to the conclusion that we needed a system to manage our growing Web presence and provide a means by which nontechnical staff could create Web pages.

Content management systems were just then entering the lexicon of the World Wide Web community. We were fortunate to have an excellent partnership with Northwoods Software. They had previously assisted us in developing our district’s intranet, a primitive kind of CMS. This intranet proved to be so successful for improving our business practices that we again turned to Northwoods Software with our teacher Web page management dilemma: How to manage a potential Web site of thousands of pages created by hundreds of different authors.

Tosa Teacher Web (online at http://tw.wauwatosa.k12.wi.us) was born from this collaboration. It is a Web portal aimed at the whole Wauwatosa community, including parents and students. Tosa Teacher Web delivered an important new method of communication for teachers and parents. Publishing with a CMS was so low-tech that within one year an estimated 85% of our staff had individual Web pages published. But by 2002, two years after Tosa Teacher Web was launched, a technology-charged pilot group of teachers, including myself, had determined that new features which Northwoods Software had built into its CMS framework were greatly desirable. In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act and the accompanying state regulations required school districts to provide public access to district data and teachers’ credentials, among other things. The Web seemed like the perfect medium to meet those requirements.

Unable to obtain funds for a full-blown development project, I went to my peers at other districts to explore the idea of sharing the cost. Wauwatosa demonstrated its intranet and Tosa Teacher Web to other area districts to great reviews. So, together with the technology coordinator of the Greenfield School District, Cherie Finnie, we recruited six other districts - Arrowhead, Hartland-Lakeside, Merton, Whitefish Bay and New Berlin, together with Greenfield and Wauwatosa - to share the cost of CMS development. The initial plan was to form a consortium of as many districts as possible, but with seven participants the cost of CMS development came down to about $8,000 per district. This included development costs and three years of hosting.

Seven-Headed Monster

While the initial goal was 10 districts, working with seven was enough of a challenge for developers from Northwoods Software. As the diverse needs of the different districts became apparent, mission creep caused the scope of the project to expand. “Initially, we were to come up with the same navigational headings for all the districts - the same navigational scheme,” says Donna Smith, library media specialist with the Arrowhead School District. “We weren’t able to do that very well because the composition of our districts varies. [For instance], our district is just a high school, while Wauwatosa has some high schools plus middle schools and grade schools.”

Easy creation of PDFs was also an important part of the project, according to Finnie. “The PDF converter was a key feature [because] it takes a Word, Excel or PowerPoint [document] and asks if you want to turn it into a PDF,” she says. “This feature alone is a huge cost and training savings for our districts.”

Expansion Led to Postponement

The expansion of the project’s scope led to the completion date being postponed. We started working together in May 2003 and wanted to be ready to train our staff in the CMS by August. It soon became apparent that our summer rollout wasn’t practical given project creep, so we moved the date back to September and then to January. It was difficult for everyone involved, but it was also a terrific learning experience. We have a much more personalized product and a stronger commitment to future combined projects because of it. Good technology coordinators know there is much more to implementing software than removing the shrink-wrapped box. The process itself can be a sea-changing experience for a district - a way to implement new ways of thinking such as data-driven decision-making and standards-based education.

Next Project Pending

Among the many lessons learned from the CMS project was that working with a consortium presents unique challenges for a programming team. We also learned that these lessons can be used to inform additional development projects, including the WIePortfolio.org system currently under development by the Wauwatosa School District. Our superintendent, Dr. Robert Slotterback, encouraged us to pursue a software solution that would address the requirements of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Chapter PI 34 rules, which require teachers and administrators to demonstrate professional standards in key areas. He asked us for an electronic system that would be of use to more than just our own school district.

Working together with Northwoods Software, we came up with a way to use the CMS to help K-12 districts comply with the Chapter PI 34 rules and show that they had met the tough professional state standards of Wisconsin. Wauwatosa’s online portfolio system is available, for example, only to the portfolio’s primary user (the educator) and his or her mentor and/or supervisor. This CMS-driven electronic portfolio will contain an educator’s credentials, license, artifacts, philosophy of education, and other data in an attractive and easy-to-navigate interface without the user needing to know HTML- or Web-editing programs. The goal of the WIePortfolio.org project is to provide a tool that school districts can use to attract, retain and track the best educators, while also fulfilling state licensing mandates.

When WIePortfolio.org went into final development this fall, the lessons of the joint CMS project were brought to bear. The most significant difference will likely be the appointment of a single individual to manage the project and serve as a liaison with the programmers.

- Keith Murphy, Wauwatosa S.D.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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