Trying to plan a spring trip with your family and not sure when vacation falls at your child's D.C. public school? Wondering whether you need to pack a bag lunch or if there is something acceptable on the cafeteria fare at your daughter's Montgomery County middle school today? Looking for which high school your son will attend if you buy that new house you're eyeing in Fairfax County?
If you have a computer and Internet access, you can find the answer to all three questions with just a few quick clicks.
Public school systems, and even many individual schools, now have their own Web sites, providing everything from school rules and lunch menus to scores on standardized tests, job opportunities and school board meeting summaries and agendas.
Every school system in the Washington area has a Web site, save for the tiny Falls Church district. And growing numbers of individual schools also maintain a presence on the Web, thanks to a corporate partner, a few computer-whiz students or a dedicated teacher or two. Most school sites are linked to their school system's Web page, and the Web pages of specific Maryland and Virginia school systems can be found on the sites maintained by those states' departments of education.
The sites vary widely in quality. Some are updated regularly, while information on others is months or years old. A growing number have fancy graphics and state-of-the-art video links, but many are still little more than electronic postings of directories and memos. Taken as a whole, however, they are a new frontier in a school system's ability to communicate with parents and the wider community.
That frontier can have rough patches. Just ask Jill Kurtz, who maintains the Fairfax schools Web site and was deluged with complaints when the server was down one day last winter and she could not post the announcement that schools would open late because of a snowstorm. "We were just flooded by e-mails from people who had bookmarked the page, and were wondering why on earth they were hearing it on TV and radio without seeing it," Kurtz says.
When she first started as curator of the Web site three years ago, Kurtz had thought weather-related announcements would remain the province of television and radio. People tune in while eating breakfast or driving to work, she reasoned. Why would they look on their computers for the information, when it scrolls almost incessantly across the TV screen? But then people began asking for it. It was an early lesson in how this new medium could be used, which is to say in almost any way imaginable.
Alexandria school system posts its capital budget, so parents can see when repairs are planned to schools their children attend. Several jurisdictions publish school lunch menus and job openings, and a growing number of individual school sites have created alumni pages with directories of graduates and reunion information. Prince George's County has a parents section with information on scholarships, grading policies and the student code of conduct. The District describes promotion guidelines. Montgomery County students can use the site to register for the science fair. The tiny Manassas Park district posts practical information like bus schedules, as well as whimsical snapshots of elementary and middle school classroom activities, such as the fluffy cloud mobiles made in Miss Kales's fourth-grade class at Conner Elementary School.
Kurtz has posted so much useful information on the Fairfax site -- from registration to school locations and special programs -- that the office of community relations has reduced its snail-mail output by more than 75 percent. Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech logged on to learn more about the school system when he applied for the job in 1997 and was impressed by what he saw.
The Web is also a perfect repository for that increasingly popular measure of school achievement: standardized test scores. Virginia's School Performance Report Cards, featuring test scores, teacher credentials, student demographics, and attendance and discipline statistics, are available on the state Web site. Arlington posts that information for its schools on its Web page. The state of Maryland's site allows viewers to compare scores in a particular school to the district and state averages.
The District's site features only limited test data, and has had trouble even with that, posting Scholastic Assessment Test scores last school year that were more than 100 points lower than the actual scores. The school system has been promising since last winter to post comprehensive information from the school-by-school profiles it has published in paper form. But the data is currently available only through a link the school system provides from its site to the Web site of The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com), which also lists school report cards from other jurisdictions.
Although several sites provide links to other educational Web pages -- Montgomery County, for example, lists hundreds of field trip opportunities and related lesson plans in the Washington area -- the sites by and large lack the interactivity that is common on commercial Web sites. There are no bulletin or message boards, for example, where parents or students can chat and compare notes on the latest school board decision. A promising-sounding "Homework Hotline" on Montgomery's site turns out to list only the phone-in number for a service provided on the local cable station -- although some Montgomery schools are experimenting with posting homework assignments on the Web.
David Kreisberg, who maintains the Montgomery school system's site, says the lack of interactivity is intentional, and has to do with legal liability and maintaining control. Similarly, he said, school administrators are asked to be careful when they provide links to other Web sites, to ensure that those sites don't contain material you might not want your own school-age child to read.
Fairfax County recently launched a feature that allows users to type in their address or point and click on a map and see which school their child will attend. Kreisberg said Montgomery is on the verge of doing the same. Combined with the school profiles, the feature is ideal for people moving into the area for the first time or moving from one jurisdiction to another.
But the sites are also about having fun, those managing them say. Kreisberg highlights the best Montgomery school sites on the county's Web page, and rewards those that he thinks are especially cool by placing a sunglasses icon next to their name. The sunglasses have become a badge of accomplishment. Kreisberg regularly hears from student pagemakers as soon as they post a new feature on their sites, hoping he will like the new item and give it a pair of shades.
"It's like the gold star on the kindergarten kid's paper," Kreisberg said. "We call them `the coveted sunglasses award.' "
Debbi Wilgoren covers District schools for The Post's Metro section.
Web sites for public school systems in the Washington area:
District of Columbia www.k12.dc.us
State of Virginia www.pen.k12.va.us
Manassas City www.manassas.k12.va.us
Manassas Park www.pen.k12.va.us./Div/Manassas-Park/index.html
Prince William www.pwcs.edu
State of Maryland www.msde.state.md.us
Anne Arundel www.aacps.org
Prince George's www.pgcps.org
St. Mary's www.smcps.k12.md.us