one-man brand

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
John Best positions his video camera to prepare to create the next "#ibelieveinSCS" video.

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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede