Take your public-facing school web site to 2.0 with Drupal

Today, we discussed the potential for Drupal to serve as the back-end of a public-facing school web site. Only a few examples exist out there, yet Drupal continues to gain acceptance as an extremely capable system that is ready for prime-time. Twelve of us shared frustrations with commercial school web site companies who were difficult to work with or insufficiently responsive with new features. To my pleasure, I found that many of my colleagues at this meeting were thinking along the same lines. We know how to evaluate and adopt commercial software. How does one evaluate and adopt open-source software?

We have created a series of tests to determine the potential of Drupal to serve as the platform for the next version of Catlin Gabel’s public-facing web site. Drupal continues to pass each one. This month, I had two successful meetings with Kitty, our web site content editor, and James, the creator of the current web site and thoughtful strategist on school web site design and implementation. I have found to my pleasure that this group working together is far wiser than I could ever be on my own. Now, we are working together to move this project forward.

We held two meetings in the last month to consider next steps for the public-facing web site and think about the strengths and weaknesses of Drupal to meet these needs. We need to move to a new web site platform in order to meet demand for features such as electronic newsletters and podcasts and to better manage the burgeoning volume of content that we would like to display on the site. The Drupal founders, from the early on, appear to have understood the exponentially increasing nature of information. All content units (nodes) are functionally equivalent, flowing through the site like water as the site administrator sets up guides to expose them in particular ways. You classify — not compartmentalize — content, which enables people to find items much more easily.

I am also trying out a conceptual model to seek buy-in from critical stakeholders for this project. One may summarize the model as follows.

Tinker: Over the past year, I have built five CMS sites for different purposes, giving me a taste of content management platforms and eventually Drupal in particular. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Research: I have gone looking through Drupal modules and documentation looking for solutions to functionality I will need to replicate on the new site.

Solicit Expert: We plan to invite a Drupal consultant to give us feedback on the proposed plan and potentially serve as an “on-call” expert when we need help with the tricker components. We trust in our ability to find a Drupal consultant willing to do this, considering that we contract for time & materials for other pieces of our infrastructure, and open-source consultants may be friendlier than most to being collaborators on a site rather than building the whole thing.

Buy-In: I have built a Drupal clone of some parts of our current web site. Many people judge a web site first by its looks, and this helps take the graphic design out of the consideration of the back-end platform. It helps gain valuable feedback on the viability of the new platform. It also includes the most frequent contributors in the process at an early point.

two web sites
Which one is the Drupal site?

Design: Assuming that the site passes the other tests, we will then undertake the design in earnest. We will need to spend much time thinking about how best to replicate current site functionality in Drupal. Trying to keep project scope within manageable limits, we will defer considerations of changing the site architecture or graphic design to next year. This will require a much broader consultation within the school community.

Develop: actual configuration of Drupal and additional programming if needed.

Train: Properly prepare site editors for the new editing interface and assist regular users with any aspects that may work differently than before.

Launch: Off with the old, on with the new! I’m unsure whether this will require much external publicity, since we are not changing the look and feel at this time. Internally, we will want to make the transition to the new editing platform as easy as possible especially for those users who only post occasionally.

Your thoughts on this plan?


  1. Phil Bliss says:

    Just thought you might be interested in taking a look at a recent career school site we built, http://www.westervelt.x2ide

    We have also completed two best practices studies on Drupal vs other CMS’s.

    Finally we expect to complete a recommended Drupal configuration for schools (2 levels) by the end of this month.

  2. Robert Douglass says:

    Another example: http://kgszugweg.de/

    It’s in German, but it is a Drupal site for an elementary school done by HornCologne.

  3. R. Trevor says:

    I’m the webmaster for an elementary school in Oakland, CA. I’ve been playing with Drupal as a potential replacement for the current static website. I’ve made some initial progress, but I’m a bit daunted by all the modules and configuration possibilities, not to mention the theming possibilities. I’m curious if you’ve gone forward with Drupal and, if so, what types of functionality you have included.

  4. Richard says:

    Dear R. Trevor,

    Sorry for the delay in my reply. Yes, that is what Drupal is all about. I can say that the learning curve is worth it — once you get a hang of which modules people commonly use and for what purposes, you will find yourself in command of an extremely powerful community web site system.

    We are prepared to proceed with Drupal as the platform of choice, but we are still having conversations about what purposes we want the web site to serve and what exact features it will have. I don’t think we’ll actually begin development until next academic year, at this point.