Superintendent John B. Gordon III calls himself an “edu-tainer” when asked to describe his style of communication. The leader of Virginia’s Suffolk Public Schools is a motivational speaker and former basketball coach and player who says he thrives under the pressure of the spotlight as he endeavors to spread a positive message about his students and his schools.
This has become even more important in the face of the political divisiveness—and worse—that is intruding on his classrooms. “Every school division has individuals who are there just to create drama, and Suffolk is not immune—we’ve had people make racist comments, we have people right now being extremely homophobic and offensive to transgender students,” says Gordon, who was recently named a Superintendent to Watch by the National School Public Relations Association.
“I’m not the type of person who just allows people to say negative things about the school division or about staff or students.”
Gordon has deployed social media—Facebook and Instagram, in particular—to keep the community informed and engaged in Suffolk Public Schools’ achievements and activities. For the last few years, he’s been meeting his constituents where they are by hosting Facebook Live sessions. He hosts them about four times a year to get important information to parents. “I let them know when there’s a major decision that’s going to be made,” he explains. “We try to make sure that our school community is informed of everything that’s going on. If there’s some drama at a school board meeting, sometimes I will clarify an issue.”
When he was hired in 2019, Suffolk Public Schools’ lone Instagram follower was its own community engagement officer. As of this week, the district has more than 2,500 Instagram followers. For all of Suffolk’s social media channels, Gordon and his team keep metrics to track new followers and engagement, awarding themselves 10 points if a tweet or Instagram post is shared, 7 points for a comment and 3 points for a like. This system also helps determine the best time to post based on when a message is most likely to be seen and shared.
Gordon has also hired a social media specialist position to keep the messaging consistent and create catchy hashtags, among engagement-driven tasks.”When we have our convocations, I tell everybody, ‘Right now, at this moment, I need to you to put up #SPSCreatesAchievers, post something, just put it out there,'” he says. “Then 10 minutes later, we’re trending and I share that as an example to let them know their voice, collectively, gets out there.”
Suffolk Public Schools’ bestseller and other goals
Suffolk Public Schools may be among the few districts in the country that has published its own book. Five students and several department heads helped write Suffolk’s edition of STEM Century: It Takes a Village to Raise a 21st-Century Graduate, which dropped in July and was released with 21stCentEd, an online curriculum provider.
The book—which has become a top seller in Amazon’s professional learning, STEM education and science for kids categories—covers the district’s creation of maker spaces and its career-focused experiential learning programs, among other topics. A documentary chronicling the process of writing the book is due in November.
Gordon is also focused on ensuring all of Suffolk’s schools are accredited, which has only happened twice since 2010 (once while Gordon was superintendent). At the moment, 18 of its 19 buildings are accredited and the final building’s status is under appeal. “It impacts the fact that people are spewing all this negativity about school division, but our kids are doing well,” he points out.
Students in the class of 2023 earned $34.3 million in scholarships and he struck a deal with Nike to provide all athletic apparel down to the elementary level. The revenue has helped launch an esports team and fund upgrades of facilities that have propelled some of Suffolk’s more traditional athletic teams to state championships. He is also rebuilding a middle school in one of the district’s least affluent neighborhoods.
“The city I live in, we have plenty of money, but it hasn’t always been invested in public schools,” he says. “It took me coming in with my loud mouth to ask the question, ‘Why not?'”
Gordon’s biggest concern for his district is the increasingly antagonistic political environment, which has pulled some of the focus away from what’s best for students. “I actually have school board members who are working against the school division,” he concludes. “My job would be so much easier if you had people who believed in our kids. They don’t—they make it all about the adults.”