Designs on the Future

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Hired to create websites for local businesses, high school students are building uptheir online portfolios while gaining a glimpse of the world that awaits them.

Designs on the Future

A REAL PRO LJShopping.Net,
shown here, was designed by a
Bronx high schooler.

AT MANY SCHOOLS, THE SCOPE of the technologyprogram is too limited to showcase the full extent ofstudents' tech savvy. Solution? Simply widen the boundaries:Take the program out past the restraints of the classroom,the firewall, and the campus gates and apply students' technologyskills to real-world chores, affording them authenticlearning experiences while also providing valuable servicesto the community.

One way that schools are achieving this kind of win-win is by offering area businesses the opportunity to have their websites designed for free by high school technology students. Businesses save hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars that would have been spent hiring a professional web designer, while students gain invaluable experience working with clients and can begin building online portfolios that they can then present to prospective employers.

"It's one more thing they can show an employer or a recruiter to show the kind of work they have done," says Jonathan Hendrickson, web design teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, NY.

Reality Check

Albert Frates

High school student
Albert Frates

ALBERT FRATES HAD ONE ASSIGNMENT in his advanced technologycourse this past year: rebuild his school's website.

"It was pretty much my grade for the class," says the junior at Payette High School in Idaho. "I started from nothing, since the school's server crashed and took the site with it."

Frates finished the job, but soon ran up against the real-world lesson all good designers must learn: Get everyone's input before completing a project.

"We had the site up a month ago and transitioned to a new server, but [every department] wants something different," he says. "So now I have to go through meetings to find out what everyone wants and build that into the design."

It was merely a temporary, ultimately instructive setback for Frates, who has used his talent with computers, software development, and graphic design to create a number of sites professionally, including one (www.hoopstrength.com, still under construction) that uses 3-D modeling and animation to demonstrate strength and conditioning exercises for basketball players.

Frates, who was the only Payette freshman in the 2006-2007 school year to be admitted into the school's advanced tech class, started taking on such projects on his own to augment his portfolio. "My teacher saw what I was doing, liked what he saw, and asked me to create a draft of a school site," he says.

He enters school this fall having to take Payette's website back to the drawing board. "I hope to have it completed by the end of the school year.We'll see."

Four years ago, for example, at Missouri's Nixa High School, the technology students-- who at the time numbered four-- were tasked with simply maintaining the school district's website, says J. Zachary Rantz, the school's technology teacher. They then progressed to building sites from the ground up.

"They started designing different pages," Rantz says. "At first they just built the high school site, and it then became a school board directive that all schools have their own sites. Gradually, our students took over more and more."

The technology program grew in popularity, to the point where Rantz now teaches two separate technology classes. The advanced students continue to work on the district sites, while the Technology 1 kids are putting their knowledge of HTML and Adobe's Dreamweaver to work outside the school.

"I decided the kids needed a real-world project, so I asked local businesses if they wanted a site done for them," Rantz says. Response was great, with about 100 businesses enlisting the students' services. "We could only take 20, so we took the first 20 that responded and went from there."

And what businesses needed ran the gamut, from cleaning up an existing site to having one built from scratch. In the latter instances, Rantz says, "students had to guide companies through buying an address, finding a hosting partner, and designing the site."

Students created sites for businesses ranging from hair salons to a custom cabinet shop-- they even built a site for a Christian rock band, Rantz says. They began the design process by sitting down with the clients, determining their needs, and sketching a preliminary outline last November. They then got to the business of constructing the sites in January. Once the work was completed, the clients reviewed the websites, and not always favorably, introducing the students to a measure of real-world rejection.

"Some of the clients loved their site and some of the clients said, 'No, you need to change it,'" Rantz says. "Either the design was good, but it was not what the client was looking for, or it was what the client thought they wanted, but when they saw it actually designed they decided it really wasn't what they needed.

"I knew some clients would not be happy with their sites because that's life. It's what the students are going to have to deal with in the real world."

Learning to deal with the real world is also a developing component of Hendrickson's web design class at Kennedy High in the Bronx. Constructing a website for a local business is not a required part of the coursework, but the more advanced students are encouraged to take on such a project to help strengthen their portfolios.

"It wouldn't make much sense for the students to not do anything with the web design skills they learn," Hendrickson says. "We try to provide side jobs and work sites, but we can't provide enough work for all of the students. It's in their best interest to find that work on their own."

A few enterprising students have followed through and successfully drummed up web design work for themselves. DeshiSmile.com and DeshiProfile.com-- which both cater to Bangladeshi Americans-- LJShopping.Net, and the website for the Caribbean Business Network were all designed, or are in the process of being designed, by recent Kennedy High graduates. All the work of building the sites is done right in Hendrickson's classroom.

Hendrickson's web design course is a part of the school's successful digital communications program, which enters its third year this fall. "It's very interesting to see what we've done in two years and where we've taken the kids," Hendrickson says. "They may not have a computer at home, and now they're working on PCs and Macs and switching between the two with no problem. And they're working with programs that people usually don't learn until college. It's pretty amazing."

In the new school year, apart from any projects they land on their own, Hendrickson says his students will be crafting websites for a few outside clients with which the school has newly contracted.

Word is getting out to local businesses that his students are available, but Hendrickson says the school's promotional efforts need to be more aggressive. The main obstacle his students face, he explains, is companies' reluctance to take a chance on trusting design work to a high school student.

bytesize

The student-built Nixa High School (MO) website canbe viewed here.

"Some people hear the phrase 'high school students' and are a little turned off-- heck, when I think of high school students I think of immature kids," he says, laughing. To help students with the business end, next year JFK is folding the web design course into a larger class called Virtual Enterprise, which will combine the instruction of technical skills with entrepreneurial skills.

"Some students who graduated last year developed logos and created business cards and websites for their own companies," Hendrickson says, "basically branding themselves. That's something a lot of students don't think about right out of high school."

He adds that laying on the business savvy will complement the superior technology skills the students have acquired through the program. "Companies don't see the work they are doing: design, coding, upkeep. For some sites, the kids do it all."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York City.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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