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John Best positions his video camera to prepare to create the next "#ibelieveinSCS" video.

John Best positions his video camera to prepare to create the next "#ibelieveinSCS” video.

Caroline Bauman

Meet the man on a mission to brighten the image of Shelby County Schools

While leaders of Shelby County Schools have sought to hire a marketing director to improve the beleaguered district’s image, Memphian John Best has jumpstarted the process on his own under the hashtag #ibelieveinSCS.

An unlikely social media aficionado, Best works as a broadcast communications specialist for the district. However, social media is not in his job description, and he shepherds the #ibelieveinSCS campaign independent of his job.

He came up with the idea after a series of news reports about student violence last spring, including a video of Northwest Prep Academy students beating a man at a Crosstown gas station. Further tarnishing the district’s image were low student test scores and decreasing student enrollment due to competition with charter schools and the creation of six suburban school districts.

“I remember seeing someone quoted in the news, saying, ‘I believe in SCS,'” Best said. “I thought, bingo! That’s a hashtag. So I started putting it out there and got a big response.”

At almost 7 feet tall, Best is a former professional basketball player for the New Jersey Nets and international teams. With his booming voice, he spent six years as a security officer at Hamilton High School in Memphis.

But, surprisingly, Best most wants his voice to be heard on social media. He spends his off time in the evenings and on weekends creating videos of parents, teachers and students who explain why they believe in Shelby County Schools.

Best describes his campaign as a grassroots effort to encourages district students, parents and employees to tell their stories on camera, which he shares on his personal Twitter feed and Facebook page. So far, he’s created more than 30 videos that have amassed more than 42,000 views.

“I’m transitioning now to giving a voice to parents and students more of a spotlight,” Best said. “I want to get the morale boosted around here by reaching students and their parents where they are. Schools have to know the power of social media and use it.”

Marketing public school districts through social media is a relatively new but significant development as schools increasingly compete for students and government dollars, said Joel Gagne, CEO of a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm that works with dozens of school districts nationally to bolster their image.

“I’m convinced that if schools want to improve their image with taxpayers, they must begin to use social media,” Gagne said in a Forbes article, adding that the benefits are great for “traditional” public schools that join the conversation.

Best said the #ibelieveinSCS campaign has provided a public platform for positive conversations with parents and students about Shelby County Schools. One launch factor was to remind Shelby County residents to keep district schools as an option when considering where to go. This fall, administrators expect the 109,000-student district will lose another 2,657 students to charter schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

“Our school district has had so much negative news that people can totally disregard it if that’s all they pay attention to,” Best said. “I just wanted people to know that there are great stories here. Hey, we believe in our teams. We believe in our blues music. We believe in our barbeque. Why can’t we believe in our public school system?”

District spokesman Christian Ross said Best’s grassroots campaign feels authentic and that’s why it’s gaining traction.

“As a district, we want to see it build on its own without taking it over,” Ross said. “But it’s been awesome to see teachers, parents and even students share the videos and use the hashtag. Engaging students on social media is something we strive to do, but it can feel forced.”

Best’s most recent video features Candace Grisham, a Central High School graduate who just finished her freshman year at Vanderbilt University. Grisham’s video garnered more than 1,800 views and dozens of shares on Facebook within hours of publication, the most Best has seen.

Grisham said she had seen Best’s hashtag used on social media and watched some of the videos. She reached out to Best to record a video because she had been a student in Memphis public schools her whole life and saw this as an opportunity to share her story.

“It’s awesome for school districts to engage students on social media, because you know we’re always looking at our phones,” Grisham said. “SCS can get a lot of bad press, and there is a lot of work to be done. Can a hashtag fix everything? Maybe not. But it gets the students in on the conversation, and that’s a necessary step forward.”