Streams

The First Marking Period Is Over. How Did SchoolBook Do?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 - 12:41 PM

Today, SchoolBook turns three months old. In digital time, that is an eternity. Yet in the specific task of creating a new Web site — and building community, audience and engagement, which are crucial to our site's success — we are just getting started.

But we are impatient. Every day we are assessing the site, discussing tweaks and larger changes, and testing the experience against our expectations. If we were issuing ourselves a progress report, SchoolBook so far has probably earned a ... well, you tell us.

Our goal is to create a hub of activity around schools and education issues in New York City. One of SchoolBook's "godfathers," Brian Hamman, an editor on the interactive journalism team at The Times, often refers to our tricycle approach: SchoolBook is news and information; it is data and the tools to search them; and it is community — a place to exchange information and ideas and share news and insights.

We have had some successful rides on the tricycle already. Tens of thousands of people — more each week — are reading posts that break news and explore trends in schools. Thousands are using our Find + Compare tool and visiting the individual pages we have created for every school. More and more are starting to post news and information to those pages. More people are liking us on Facebook (almost 2,500 so far), re-tweeting us and responding to our queries.

As we continue to roll our shiny new tricycle forward, here are a few of the ways that we hope to improve it. We would love to hear more suggestions from you, as well (see below).

1. Make the site more intuitive, so it is easier for users to mine the vast array of up-to-date data that we have for 1,700 public schools in the city. If you use our Find + Compare tool, click around liberally and go back and forth between pages, you will see a trove of information. We know we need to make it simpler for people to access it.

2. Add more information to our pages for the city's 800 private and parochial schools. Much less data are publicly available for them, and what are there are not always in a form that easily feeds into a database. But we will do more in the coming months to make those pages relevant sources of information for parents and students.

3. Improve the school pages and the experience of posting to them. Those pages have tremendous potential; we see them as school-based wikis, where every member of the community can add information, coloring between the lines of test scores and other data points. (Principals, if you have not done so already, the SchoolBook questionnaire is an ideal way to start sharing information about your school, like this. If you would like access to the survey questions.) We encourage you to post something in Start a Conversation -- and then let us know how it went.

4. Improve the conversation experience. This appears to be the most controversial piece of SchoolBook, based on reader e-mail, and we view it as an ongoing experiment.

We do think that requiring commenters to log in through Facebook, thereby putting a name to their remarks, has elevated the level of conversation, and has allowed users to express themselves in more depth (though sometimes in too much depth; some comments are way too long).

But some users object to the requirement — and many clearly do not understand what logging in through Facebook means. We will soon have a new screen explaining it, but the larger issue is worthy of discussion and will be explored further in a future post.

Meanwhile, even as we press ahead, we are proud of where we have been: providing news, information and opinion posts — 400 so far — about school choice, pedagogical practices, news developments, and student and school achievement.

Those posts have come from a variety of contributors: teachers, parents, principals, students, administrators and other community contributors — and of course, from the professional journalists at WNYC and The New York Times.

We have worked hard to explore the tough issues facing schools and educators today — but also to share some of the good things that are going on in schools and classrooms.

Like this (my favorite so far): "High Fives, 56 Times," about "mail-out day" at the Bronx Prep Charter School, an annual event in which seniors, many wearing sweatshirts with the name of the school of their choice, march together to the local post office to drop off their college applications, to cheers and applause from classmates.

An alert by the school, followed by the sharing on Flickr of some wonderful photos (join our group), combined with an infusion of journalism, produced a short post that not only brought a smile to many faces, but also showed how the new media buzzword of "user-generated content" can result in a valid journalistic report.

We like it so much we are running the photo again, at the top of this post.

Thanks for the many kind words and constructive criticism that we have received so far. We are committed to making this site even better, and we thank you in advance for your ideas and your interest.

The second marking period now begins.

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