Our sad School District website and why ‘Hyack the Web’ matters

Today I planned to take my kids up to Ready, Set, Learn at Tweedsmuir Elementary. Alas, I was led astray by bad information on an undated (and apparently stale) PDF on the School District website. I'm picking on the school district today, but this problem is endemic to New Westminster institutions.

Today I planned to take my kids up to Ready, Set, Learn at Tweedsmuir Elementary. Ready, Set, Learn is a provincial preschool orientation program for three-year-olds and their parents to begin connecting future students with the schools they will attend in Kindergarten.

Alas, I was led astray by an undated (and apparently stale) PDF – the only information I could find online which said the program would start at 1:45pm. I discovered at 1:40 when I called the school to confirm that the start time was in fact 1pm and it was just then ending. A second look at the PDF made it clear that the dates didn’t match, and I figured out that it was an old file. I looked for a current version on the SD40 website but found nothing about the program.

As in the ‘programs of choice’ registration fiasco, in which I discovered that I am two years late to register my two-year-old for Early French Immersion or Montessori, the problem is fundamentally one of poor communication with parents. An ad in the Record and a few notices on corkboards around town just aren’t enough. For efficiency, convenience and best overall accessibility, information like this needs to be online, where Google and everyone who uses it can find it.

Take a moment and go look at our School District website:


It’s obvious that it’s been cobbled together by someone off the side of her desk with little to no support. I pity whoever it is who manages this page. It looks like it’s built either by hand-coding the HTML or with a clunky desktop program like FrontPage. Either way it’s got to be time-consuming to update and manage.

New Westminster’s school district might not have the budget of Burnaby, Coquitlam or even Maple Ridge, but even Mission has a decent website with relatively easy to find information for parents.

There’s just no excuse for a website like this anymore. There are lots of free, open-source content management systems all with free and low-cost templates to dress them up. Our website uses WordPress, which costs us nothing but web hosting fees. WordPress would be an unusual choice for a school district site, but as many businesses have found, it doesn’t have to be used for blogging. It can be used to help manage more conventional websites as well. Our WordPress template and all our plugins were free. If no one on staff has the skills to set it up, hire someone to set it up and train a staff person to maintain. If money is too tight even for that, hire a freaking intern. I bet half of NWSS could build a better website.

I’m picking on the school district today, but this problem is endemic to New Westminster institutions. Word-of-mouth is the primary source of information on how things work in this town. But when you’re relatively new here, or segueing into a new phase of life (in this case, parenting soon-to-be school-aged children) it can be almost impossible to find this stuff out in time.

Improving the way New Westminster represents itself online is a vital step to improving how we are perceived beyond our borders. It’s one of the reasons we at Tenth to the Fraser are putting so much of our time and energy into this project, and why we chose our tagline: Hyack the Web.

“Hyack” means “quickly, quickly” or “hurry up” in the Chinook language:

Hyak was a potent word-of-all-trades in the old Chinook Jargon. As an imperative verb, it meant hurry up or get a move on. As an adjective and adverb it was perhaps the most widely-known Chinook Jargon word on our west coast. Hyak! Quick!

– Casselman’s Canadian Words

Hurry up, New West – get online already. Make us proud.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.


  1. Oh, sorry you missed out. That website made me almost cry last week when I went looking for the same information about Ready Set Learn. Luckily I remembered the correct date from the flyer I had seen at the library so when I saw a different date on the PDF I just assumed it was wrong. Because the website is so wrong. With the frames and the scrolling ticker tape thing. Ugh. Hyack! indeed.

  2. Also, totally agree that the way information is relayed in NW is very small town word of mouth and I do so appreciate the work you and T2F are doing. This place is now my go-to for neighbourhood related information.

  3. That is probably one of the ugliest website I have ever seen, even by 1999 standards.

    Indeed, technology is something all levels of governance in this city need to catch up on. The fact we spend $60,000 on a new City website and it STILL doesn't have RSS feeds which actually work right. Let alone all the new customizable mailing lists to help push information out to citizens which were promised in one presentation I attended over a year ago. And to top it all off, it's a closed system with annual maintenance fees – as you say in this post, WordPress, Drupal, free, open source enterprise class systems.

    The small City of North Vancouver has online videos of council meetings going back to 2003. Even things like getting the City Pages on to the website I'm learning is a very manual process inside the city, someone has to put them there rather than having an automated process when its produced to automatically post it.

    Hyack the web indeed. If one of our goals for economic development is attracting high tech businesses to New West, all civic institutions should certainly understand technology themselves.

  4. I just took a look at the website. It's actually embarrassing. If the school district doesn't have the money for someone to build and maintain a website though, what is the solution? With tight unions i doubt they would even let someone voluntarily update it.

    By the way, 10th to the Fraser is also my 'go to' source for neighbourhood news – this site is truly invaluable. THANK YOU!

  5. Their website never ceases to amaze me with its utterly horrid design. Having to trudge through it only to find out that some things don't even exist anymore and those that do were updated years in the past is really, really, REALLY annoying.

    One might say, "but they don't have the money". Well, neither do half the other districts in the lower mainland, yet they've managed to at least bring themselves somewhere within the current decade's design and accessibility standards. I can't say I would hold much confidence in a school district that is stuck back in the 90's when it comes to keeping parents, students, and potential parents/students informed. It may cost some money, but it can also create confidence in one's school district, and if the district wants to draw people in to their district, they need to make their website accessible to people considering moving to or taking courses in New Westminster; word of mouth isn't enough.

  6. Apparently it’s not just a one-day thing? The secretary at Tweeds told me it’s on for several weeks, and the next session is March 18 at 1pm. So we’ll try again then. It’s still crazy – nothing on the flyer I saw to indicate it was more than a one-day drop-in either!

  7. Exactly! The SD40 and the NWPR website make me insane. I don’t do much without consulting the internets these days: my time is simply too precious with a toddler in tow and four sifferent jobs. Briana, your calendar of events has become my source of stuff to do these days. The official websites are a waste.

  8. @Emma there is an entire high school full of kids who probably would die to get some credit for the redevelopment and deployment of a new simple, open source based website. These are kids who don’t know what the world is like without the Internet! They teach computers in high school- couldn’t it be a work experience / practicum thing? I wonder if it’s because the powers that be at the school board still think this dang thing called the intarweb is just a silly fad. 🙂

  9. ‘Dress up’ our school grounds and programs instead, I say. : )

    Pre-school days were definately a bit confusing, I recall. 3 years into it, I now get an abundance of information coming from my son’s school, keeping me up-to-date on everything. (and then some) As well, many notes coming home from the school distric It gets easier, hang in there.

    Pretty soon you’ll get baseball info, soccer, updates on public meetings, may day, newsletter, traffic updates…eek…I find so much info in my sons backpack. (reminds me, I need to check todays pile)

    Good luck getting all the info you need.


  10. The large institution is 'up' with electronic communication methods. It's just not up to standards.

    I agree that there is lots of paper. (I can hear the trees crying from my computer chair.) Unfortunately, not all households have the internet available and maybe don't even have a computer. It's impossible to become completely paper free, I think.

    I suppose, rather than complaining on public forums, we could simply make a call and request that important information be put up on the appropriate websites. This would be more helpful to New West's future parents. I'll be starting the pre-school stuff again in a few years, with my second lil one and look forward to an easy transition.

    Less ranting on blogs, I say, and more finding solutions! In fact, I think that will be my daily blog/rant. ; )


  11. The district website has been a topic of discussion among parents with school age children as well as at school board meetings. Good observation Brianna, that the site is put together off the side of one person's desk, someone with an already large workload. It does need attention, but I believe the obstacle is budget and the propriety of having students do the work gets tricky. I believe it is still on the district's radar but it keeps getting bumped by more pressing, time-sensitive issues. Anyway, JP's mom is right about New West being a great place to live, and, overall, special needs children do just fine here. In the larger special needs community, regarding school districts, New West is actually rated pretty good. As for information dissemination, word of mouth is pretty good but isn't enough, nor is the paper notices enough when it comes to ESL families, but that's a whole other issue.

  12. Yes, the school district website is absolutely appalling.

    My favourite, though, is the council minute/agendas, etc, which are clearly produced in some word processing software (I'd guess Word), then printed, scanned in as a PDF, and put online. I always wonder whether the fact that this process makes them unsearchable is regarded by the city as a bug or a feature…

    Meanwhile other cities are actually making the raw data that the city has available online, and the general public are creating useful applications using it. Very sad.

  13. JP's Mom: I know that once my kids actually get into school there will be lots of flyers that I will find at the bottom of their backpacks, covered in squished banana and PB&J but I'm surprised you think that's an adequate level of communication with parents. Not to mention that it doesn't help parents of preschoolers at all! The gaps in information for me and other moms with kids under six are not insignificant. Every time I meet a mom in my neighbourhood with a baby I tell her now about the extremely early queuing for EFI/Montessori. I am annoyed when I can't find information I'm looking for, but I am angry when this lack will impact my children.

    As for your comment about the futility of ranting on blogs … I have spoken to folks at the school district about the website and suggested they change it. They are fully aware that it needs to be done. What is missing in my opinion is adequate public pressure to make that happen. Ranting on blogs alone may not do much, but it is one small thing I can do to chivvy them along. I also wanted to use the site as just one example of inadequate web communication throughout New West.

    Besides: it's my blog and I can rant if I want to! 😉

    Of course, JP's Mom, if you want to take a turn on the soapbox, we do accept guest posts …

  14. That is really unfortunate. i also had a look at the site, as we were contemplating a move to NW. But it made me sad and frustrated. It makes it harder for any parent, but especially for parents of children with special needs who need support. I found little to no information about those issues on the site. I have to say, it scared me off a little. Pretty poor.
    Perhaps they need a few parents to phone them up and complain!!

  15. If they are going to have a web presence at all, it needs to be useful. If they can't keep it updated or at least remove the non-applicable and outdated stuff, then they should have a blank page with "for info about any of the programs, please call" and then a long list of phone numbers. If they don't want to deal with being online, then they need to stop doing it half-arsedly. It's the misinformation that has people ranting on blogs. Sure the design is suck as well, but its the wrong info on the official website that just gets my goat.

    @anonymous – I knew the second I suggested that a student do the work someone would say it wasn't likely. 🙂 What is it with that? Douglas College did the same thing when I was student there and paid some ridiculous amount of cash to some random company to have the swirly quadruple D changed into a pointy triangle, despite the fact that they had only the year before triumphantly launched the Print Futures Program which had us all designing wordmarks and logos in our first semester.

  16. @JP’s mom:

    Lots of information, but also lots of paper. Paper that might not get recycled and paper that costs money to buy. If there’s that many notes coming home, that quickly becomes a large budgetary item. Electrons are practically free.

    Its 2010, for any large institution not to be up with electronic communication methods is just not acceptable.

  17. To Buffy,

    I just noticed that you already gave the advice using the telephone as a tool here…good idea!

    New Westminster is a wonderful place to live, IMO. I do hope a website wouldn’t turn you off of making a move here. I truly love this little town. I love the way it has kept a small town feel, while it is surrounded by such large cities.

    I have a few friends with special needs children, and they have been very happy with the support they get from the community, Fraser Health and the school system. Just an FYI.

    Good luck with your decision.

  18. Hi Jen,

    I am not at all tech-savvy and so I cannot comment knowledgeably on the complexities of any kind of web-site construction but, if I were to guess, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the site accommodates more than public info., that the private access component might be the sticking point to engaging the help of talented students or well-intended public-sufferers … er, I mean public users of the site. At any rate, that is what I would speculate to be the reason but maybe if you write the school district board, you could receive a more informed and comprehensive answer. Sorry for the lame response.

  19. Good discussion! I think anonymous's defence of the School district is self fulfilling. We must realize that the majority of directors have been on the board far to long and do nothing for the improvement of communication or openess.

    Since Jim Goring, Casey Cook were elected, and Lisa Grahan re-elected, we have had more openess, exposure of excessive past spending and conflict resoloution resulting from long term nepotism. The real reason things do not get done in this school District is conflicting control by the very unions our board of directors are members of. (Sort of like the fox guarding the chicken coop)

    If you want students to design the website, best to appoint students of union members and it will happen!

    Voice New Westminster has been aware of these inadequacies since formed. They ran six candidates to resolve many of the issues still troubling the district. The paultry turn out at election time and the excessive financial and union support, made sure status quo prevailed… with exception of Jim, Casey and Lisa.

    There will be an opportunity to resolve these issues at the next election. So get out and vote…………or suck it up!

    We may even get a high school out of it

  20. My comments are confirmed by several articles in Saturday’s Record.
    A must read…… the worst thing is, we have been reading it for 20 years.

  21. I looked at the code. It is Frontpage. Being static, I downloaded the entire site which weighed in at about 8683 files, and around 1.38GB. Everything under the sun is in there… “%20” filenames, WMV videos, dozens and dozens of PDFs etc.

    So yeah, it needs help. That might be a back-burner project for me.

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