The site aims to increase communication and understanding among parents, teachers, administrators and students. As many school websites are rudimentary and infrequently updated, SchoolBook’s creators hope to fill a gaping hole. It creates a page for each of NYC’s 2,500 public, charter and private schools with student population information, community discussion threads and more.
“In conversations with parents, principals and teachers, we kept hearing how fragmented the conversation was,” said Tyson Evans, an assistant editor on The Times‘s interactive news desk who helped develop the project. “We’re hoping they’ll see this as kind of a place to explore.”
If it’s numbers SchoolBook users are looking to explore, they’ll have plenty to discover. The site’s extensive database is comprised of information from thousands of public records from numerous sources, including city and state departments and non-profit organizations, Evans said. Much of the information was already housed in internal search and reporting tools for Times journalists built by Robert Gebeloff, a computer assisted reporter who specializes in education.
The challenge for SchoolBook, like many numbers-driven reports, was how to present the information in a useful and easy-to-understand way. Evans said he and his team wanted the site to provide more overall context than a tool that produces charts and visualizations. They chose to standardize the data and group scores into three categories: performance, satisfaction and diversity.
SchoolBook’s developers created custom software for the site with Ruby on Rails and were ambitious about writing data validators and imports. This will help ease the process of updating the database when schools come out with new information.
Some may argue SchoolBook is ranking schools based on scores. Gebeloff wrote an extensive guide to the site’s methodology, in which he says, “What we have not done, quite purposely, is grade or rate schools.”
The numbers are only part of the story. It’s the site’s ambitions for building community around education as an entity that sets it apart. Users are asked to log in with Facebook, an experiment The Times wanted to try to out with a standalone site. “We’re curious about the next phase of web identity,” Evans said.
It will be interesting to see how this affects conversation, especially as education can be a sensitive topic. With the controversy about how students and teachers should interact on Facebook, the single sign-in method will likely see challenges and complaints.
Participants can contribute on individual school pages in three ways: ask a question, post content (photos, student newspaper articles, etc.) or suggest an idea. This could be particularly useful for parents considering a new school for their student. If the school has an active community page where the user feels comfortable contributing, it may shed light on whether it’s a good fit.
The Times and WNYC worked with a handful of schools when brainstorming for the site. Evans expects those communities will lead the charge on SchoolBook and it will grow from there.
“We have ideas for how conversations will work but we’ll ultimately be learning from how the community uses it,” Evans said. “The more activity we can see at individual schools, the more we’ll be convinced it was the right project.”
Times and WNYC education reporters will be regularly updating the site with original articles, discussion threads and aggregated news posts from local sources GothamSchools and Inside Schools. Mary Ann Giordano, the site’s editor, will manage content from contributing writers, which may include teacher diaries, Evans said. The news and community aspects of the site were built on WordPress.
Overall, SchoolBook is leading the way in building community around the topic of education. Though projects like The Opportunity Gap from ProPublica and The Washington Post‘s D.C. Schools Scorecard were pioneers in data collection and presentation, they do little to bring readers together to share content and engage in debate. As Evans said, the purpose SchoolBook provides is up to its users — but it’s the site’s empowerment of its community members that will give people a reason to visit.