It took only a few days, but School Superintendent Steven L. Walts already has applied to Prince William County one of the strategies he used at his previous school district in Greece, N.Y.
Since mid-July, his communications staff, led by another former Greece school official who has since been hired here, has been flooding the district's Web site with feature articles and photographs about the new superintendent and school events. It's part of an attempt to persuade parents, staff and students to keep checking the home page routinely for positive stories about the school system and any vital alerts that officials want to disseminate quickly.
So far, the Web site, at www.pwcs.edu, has posted numerous articles, the majority of which have served as a tool to introduce the county's first new schools chief in 18 years. "82 Schools in 82 Days" was the first piece, about Walts's attempt to visit all 82 schools in the first 82 days of the school year, but it also described new all-day kindergarten initiatives at Title I elementary schools and at five other schools that do not have high percentages of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Other stories -- in some cases just a few paragraphs long -- have been about the superintendent's visit to another school, or to the Governor's Conference on Education in Richmond. In photos, Walts is seen holding a child in his lap during a summer-school class, shaking hands with a staff member and talking to a School Board member. The most recent article is about Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets leading the pledge of allegiance at a recent luncheon.
For years, the school Web site, like many other school district home pages across the country, has typically offered links to news releases about upcoming events and school closures, School Board agendas and other basic information in a straightforward format.
Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, school districts still employ this technique. Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun list several links to news releases, but do not splash an article smack in the center of the home page as Prince William now does.
"We want it to be fresh enough, so it wouldn't be static, so folks know that when they come on the Web site they'll get a new piece of information," said Keith Imon, the schools' new chief communications officer. Imon served in the same position in Greece. "One of the things I heard frequently in Greece was that [parents say], 'If it looks the same every time I come on, I am not coming back to it,' " he said.
Andy Grunig, manager of communications for the Rockville-based National School Public Relations Association, said he is not certain whether a majority of school districts nationwide have adopted such an approach, but thinks that some school districts are merely trying to be more transparent and publish stories that otherwise may not attract the attention of the school district's local media.
John Campbell, a Woodbridge parent who has had one son graduate from the school system recently and has two more sons still attending, said the revamped Web site will be most useful for parents new to the school system, not system veterans such as himself.
"This does look complete and easy to read. It should be important for everyone," he said. "But we've done this and repeated it so many times that we know the events that occur during the year."
In the future, Imon said, the Web site may take on the form of a Web log or include a forum for people to respond to stories or jot down their thoughts on various issues. He also said he wants the Web site to allow people to subscribe to an e-mail service tailored to their needs, whether, for instance, they want news only about elementary schools or all schools in a single geographic location.
He even is entertaining the idea of offering "podcasts" -- audio recordings posted online that people can download on their iPod music player.
"This is just an opportunity for us to see what we can do to make the site better," Imon said, adding that he believed the site was excellent before the changes. The new features "will modernize how people get their information. I know folks here are excited about it."