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Building a Stronger Social Community at School: Forget Facebook, Let the Students Run the Snapchat

By Kate Stringer | October 3, 2016

Photo: Humans of Loara Instagram
Creating a stronger school community isn’t just something that happens during the day in the classroom or after school on the ballfield. Sometimes it happens overnight on a smartphone.
That’s what students Gabriela Mariscal and Katherine Pham envisioned when they created Humans of Loara, an Instagram account that tells the stories of students at Loara High School in Anaheim, Calif. Maybe, they thought, if students heard more stories about the struggles faced by their classmates — stories about what it’s like to grow up in poverty, fight cancer, endure body shaming — they could then create a kinder culture to lift up the school’s 2,500 kids.
Three quarters of teens now have access to a smartphone, and 71 percent report regularly using more than one social media network, according to the Pew Research Center. As mobile use of such secondary social platforms as Snapchat and Instagram has surged in popularity among younger students, many school administrators have found themselves scrambling to find new ways of reaching and communicating with their students.
This means thinking more broadly than just Facebook or Twitter — and thinking more creatively about how to create social media messages that will resonate with the community. In fact, in recent years many schools have started turning the keys over to the kids, and allowing students themselves to build social campaigns for their peers.
Nowhere is this shift more apparent than on Instagram — a middle ground of sorts for today’s teenagers. The current generation of teens sees Facebook as the platform for their parents, instead preferring Instagram (27 percent of teenagers list this as their top platform) or Snapchat (28 percent). Twitter and Facebook come in roughly 10 percentage points behind them in popularity, according to a survey by research firm Piper Jaffray.
Given the trends, many schools that once prioritized Facebook messages are now looking to catch up — and while Snapchat is still a bit new and strange, Instagram has become the meet-in-the middle platform, understandable and accessible to students, parents and administrators alike.
In California, the original creators of Humans of Loara have graduated, but they passed off the tradition to five younger students. The campaign’s accounts now have 1,100 Instagram and 1,400 Facebook followers. It is expanding its reach this year with Tumblr and YouTube. And the account moderator, Activities Director Paul Chylinski, sees the potential for the account’s message to have international reach, especially during a time when the millennial generation gets negative press.
“Our feeling is [Humans of Loara] shows the human side of kids so people outside of school and education get a better feel of what high school kids are doing and what they’re about so they don’t assume,” he said.
The students running the account have a gift for getting their peers to share honestly on social media.
“I have struggled with myself because I feel like I don’t live up to society’s expectations. I see so many pretty girls at school, and I just don’t feel like I can compare to them,” Valeria Zinzun said in a post. “Although, there are many pretty girls, I do understand that I do have my own beauty.”
Student Jorge Sanchez shared his experience in coming out about his sexuality to his friends and family.
“I have to admit, I wasn’t completely comfortable with who I was at first because now, the secret I had been keeping for 15 years, was out in the open. But, I learned to be happy with myself and I learned to love myself for who I was,” the post reads.
These posts both received a lot of engagement from students – upwards of 100 likes on each and dozens of comments, mostly filled with heart emojis and acronyms for love:
 

"I came to the United States at the age of two from Egypt and just like anyone's parents who came here, they wanted the best for their child. My parents enrolled me in school, and taught me English, just so I could have a better life and education. Well, I succeeded in all grade levels and now it is my last year in high school. I started off school online, which was kind of difficult, so I wanted to attend public school, here at Loara. Here, I was able to take the classes I wanted, and get help from my teachers face-to-face. Because of this, I passed my classes with flying colors. So far, school has been great and I can't wait to graduate. I can't wait to work even harder and fulfill my dreams. I hope to one day earn an Associate's Degree in Graphic Design and start a family." Nermin Salem, Class of 2016

A photo posted by Humans of Loara High School (@humansofloara) on

 

Schools from outside the state, and outside the country, have reached out asking for advice on starting similar social media platforms. One example: The group #ICANHELP, which assists schools in fighting negativity on social media platforms, often uses Loara as an example of best practices.
But Humans of Loara is only one of the school body’s many social media handles. Schools rarely have just one Instagram or Twitter account anymore, educators say; every club or class can create its own and can then use the feed as a place for announcements and recognition.
“It’s more rare that a group wouldn’t have [a social media account],” said Melanie Wong, activities director at California’s West Covina High School, located 25 miles north of Loara.
 
“Fliers and posters just don’t cut it anymore,” said Lindsey Charron, who teaches and directs the social media accounts at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, Calif. Charron created the accounts at her school, but she says they are mostly student-run by ASB leaders. Still, she moderates what they post and directs students to include as many of their classmates as possible in the photos.
Charron also serves as the public information coordinator for the California Association of Directors of Activities, which, among other things, teaches educators how to model appropriate social media use for students. While Charron guesses that the majority of accounts are student-driven, she said advisers still discuss how much access students should have.
“Don’t try to handle everything” is Charron’s advice, though she’s quick to emphasize that monitoring posts is crucial. “Don’t try to do everything yourself. Reach out to a student who’s passionate about it. They’ll come up with more exciting posts.”
 
Social media is also a place to engage with alumni. Back at Loara High School, Chylinski created a winter wish list, where he posted items students needed during the holiday season. Alumni responded with nearly $5,000 in cash and gift donations for the students.
‘Snapping’ the big picture
Meanwhile, managing an Instagram account at the district level requires a different approach than at the school level. Individual schools lean toward specificity and cultivating their small community. But districts need to market themselves to keep pace with the competition, said Denise Landman, director of marketing for Miami-Dade Public Schools.
“[Social media has] been around for a while, but school districts using it and using it more aggressively is a couple of years in the making,” Landman said.
Miami-Dade is the fourth-largest district in the country. Its Instagram account has 7,600 followers. Its Facebook account has 9,000 Likes, and its Twitter has 25,000 followers.
Miami’s Instagram account posts district-wide successes. A scroll through the account shows a photo of SAT scores increasing, a reminder about FAFSA deadlines and applications for magnet schools. But it also serves as an amplifier for the work of its individual schools, such as a video post of a mural painting at a middle school and a picture of spirit week at a high school.
 

What time is it? @FAFSA time! Applications are now being accepted for financial aid #CollegeReady

A photo posted by Miami-Dade Schools (@miamischools) on

 
Landman said the Instagram account is specifically targeted toward students, while the Facebook page is targeted toward parents.
Though it’s often hard to use social media to point to tangible results, Landman said an effort this year to advertise magnet schools on Instagram helped fill many open seats at those schools.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished on social overall, but there’s always room for more followers, more engagement,” Landman said.
Sometimes schools are hesitant to join social media because of fears of handling negative posts or comments, educators say. Landman calls social media a “double-edged sword” because it gives the community immediate access to the district but can also be a place for negativity. Still, the district as a public entity has an obligation to respond to all concerns, Landman said.
Building a school — one Like at a time
The Instagram account for Circle City Prep existed before the school building did. That’s because founder and head of school Megan Murphy is using the account to market for a K-8 charter school she’s creating in Indianapolis.
The account must be localized enough to attract families in the neighborhood and large enough to attract donors.
With the help of an intern and community engagement coordinator, Murphy has created Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. On Instagram, Murphy tries to format posts in a storytelling model. The account follows community organizations — and people who follow those community organizations. Popular hashtags are attached to posts, like #enrolltoday or #beafounder.
Murphy estimates she uses social for 10 percent of marketing efforts. As important as online communities have become, they can’t replace reaching parents in person through canvassing, attending festivals, sitting outside grocery stores and partnering with local preschools.
Although Murphy said she can’t directly correlate school enrollment with parents who’ve seen the social accounts, she said making the brand name as visible as possible helps build trust in the community.
“It’s a relationship-driven strategy,” she said. “No one is going to trust a 5-year-old with someone we don’t know.”
Potential teachers have also found the account. When Murphy posted a photo of education books, both for introductory readers and educators, a soon-to-be-licensed teacher commented, asking for more information about the school’s curriculum.
 
“It’s about being flexible, being innovative and being creative,” Murphy said of the team’s approach to social.
Just like the approach to running a school.
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