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Pasco leads way as school districts explore social media

Mitchell High assistant principal Jessica Schultz posts an Instagram picture of student Alberto Garcia working in class Thursday.
Mitchell High assistant principal Jessica Schultz posts an Instagram picture of student Alberto Garcia working in class Thursday.
Published Nov. 3, 2013

When she opened her Twitter account for work in early 2012, Jessica Schultz was an anomaly in Pasco County schools.

District officials remained wary of how to step into the online world beyond static websites. Educators' virtual presence was suspect, amid fears of potential consequences such as inappropriate student contact.

It was clear to the Mitchell High School assistant principal, though, that if she really wanted to communicate with the texting, tweeting teens in her hallways, she'd have to take the plunge.

"Those are the avenues that they use … to let people know what's going on," said Schultz, who admits to a strong attachment to her iPhone and its apps.

Over the past 11 months, the Pasco School District has gotten social media religion. Twitter is tops, with YouTube and Facebook right behind.

Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson, who routinely breaks from meetings to tweet photos, has led the charge. Her effort gained steam after the district was caught off guard by social media attacks following a student suicide last December. She has cajoled and persuaded district employees at all levels to embrace what she simply calls "the present."

"I don't think you can stop it," Larson said.

Pasco's effort has won the attention and praise of Twitter executives, who have deemed it "#amazing." It also has come to set the pace for Tampa Bay area school districts still feeling their way through the social media world.

Hernando officials, slow to catch on, have suggested they need to follow Pasco's example. Hillsborough leaders have left the decision up to individual schools, neither pushing nor prohibiting participation.

Pinellas schools, meanwhile, have taken a decidedly hands-off approach. The district dabbled with Twitter and Facebook in late 2010. Neither has seen any activity since January 2012. Most Pinellas schools haven't gone that far.

District lawyers warned against it.

"We have to maintain, archive and keep confidential, especially student records," Pinellas board attorney David Koperski said. By using public social media, "we are losing control of our legal obligations not only to keep them over a certain period of time, but also to keep them confidential."

The Pinellas School Board adopted a policy in 2011 making clear that online social media is not an acceptable form of communication for its employees.

Officials are looking for ways to overcome the hurdles. For now, though, they feel comfortable that district email and privately operated programs such as Moodle will suffice.

"It isn't like we don't have good communication," board member Linda Lerner said. "There are many ways to communicate with students within the means that are allowed under the policy."

She said the district needs to improve its websites, though.

Hernando County leaders also worried about legal issues when talking last summer about leaving the social media sidelines. Technology director Melissa Harts advised that other districts succeeded, and so could Hernando.

"We have had conversations with several surrounding districts who have used it successfully, one being our neighboring district Pasco," Harts said. "We are ready to mirror what they have done and they have given us permission to do so."

Taking a "solo effort" isolated from the rest of society carries risks, said Adam Renfro, a writer for Getting Smart, a blog about digital learning.

"The message (students) get is, this is less relevant in our lives because it does not resemble our lives," said Renfro, who also works for North Carolina Public Virtual School. "There are these very powerful computers that are in their pockets that can do amazing things. … You walk into the Twitter school and they go, 'Okay, these people get me.' "

Hillsborough County schools have relied on proprietary programs such as Edsby and Edline to share assignments and messages with students and parents. Some have been slow to adopt the mainstream venues like Twitter, though.

When they make the move, many district leaders look to Plant High School principal Rob Nelson for advice. Nelson has come to depend on Twitter. He uses it to let his school and South Tampa followers know football scores, announce the seniors' graduation date, inform the public when the school's phone lines are down and more.

"The principal's job is on the go," Nelson said. "It's an easy way to send out information."

He has encouraged clubs and teachers to get on Twitter, and will teach anyone how. When he sees Plant-related tweets from others, he likes the ability to simply retweet them.

"Will it be the in thing forever? Who knows?" Nelson said. "But right now, it is the best way to get information … about Plant High."

Pasco's Sunlake High is another ardent adopter. Principal Steve Williams aimed to create a buzz, and improve the school's esteem, by establishing an active Twitter persona.

Williams takes "selfies" with students and has set up a series of hashtag keywords for the school.

"I encourage parents and kids to follow me," Williams said. "They felt like someone was willing to speak their language."

That's important to junior Taylor Seals.

"The principal is so student-friendly," she said. "He's more hip with the kids. He has a good way."

Some educators have raised concerns that communicating with students in such a forum could lead to problems, such as accusations of inappropriate contact or just the impression of appearing too close.

Knowing such issues might arise offers schools the opportunity to teach students how to best use the sites, Renfro said.

"Some of the things they do on social media can affect them for years," he said.

To avoid problems, Schultz initially refused to respond to student tweets. She'd viewed Twitter as one-way communication.

Lately, she has changed her tune.

After tweeting the score at a recent JV football game, Schultz received a student response: "I think I'm smelling a win!" wrote Kiersten Schmidt.

Before, Schultz would not have commented. This time?

"Indeed! Go #Mustangs! #MustangsWin"

She still won't follow students who follow her feed, though.

"If you come from a position of fear, I can totally see how it can be hard," Schultz said. "You don't need to be afraid if you are doing the right thing."

Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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