How this superintendent is harnessing the power of social media for good

“I try to be everpresent,” is how Superintendent Brian Nichols describes his effort to stay connected and engaged with his students, staff and community at New Kent County Public Schools in Virginia. Facebook and Instagram are two of the most important tools he uses to document the achievements being made in his rural school division.

“I share my travels as I go—I highlight incredible kids and incredible community members, really leveraging social media for good, and just doing that across as many channels as I can,” says Nichols, who was recently named a Superintendent to Watch by the National School Public Relations Association. “It’s just capturing pictures and videos and commentary and sharing it through Instagram and Facebook and X.”

He’s just started to produce a series of podcasts with student interviews and plans to have up to 30 or 40 recorded before he begins sharing them so he can space them out over the school year. Superintendents and other leaders aiming to thrive online should adopt a similar content strategy—rather than putting a bunch of posts and photos up at once—so community members will see regular updates. Nichols and his team post in the morning and the afternoon, with the first message meant to be inspirational and to get students and staff “moving,” Nichols explains.

He also recommends keeping notebooks handy to jot down ideas for social media posts. “Some of it is spontaneous,” Nichols explains. “It builds a nice story but you should have a plan before you start—keep it simple, highlight great kids.”

It’s no surprise that he finds most of his social media mentors among New Kent County Public Schools’ 3,500 students, who spend a lot more time on Instagram and YouTube than on Facebook or the district’s website. Nichols does not use the wildly popular Snapchat or TikTok but he and his team try to craft messages to fit each channel.

Nichols, who calls himself “the worst selfie taker in the world,” also learns from his social media mistakes. One girl, for instance, recently told him that he wasn’t posting about females who are succeeding in male-dominated fields. “I’m in our career and technical education classes all the time so it made me target representation a little better and show that we have diverse kids in our engineering class and our EMT class,” he notes. “That’s just an interaction that started with social media, that made me more aware of how I post and the content that I choose.”

The key to his use of multiple social networks and his wider communications strategy is engaging with his students. His social media activity sparks lots of conversation with his students. “It creates deeper connections,” he points out. “I have very strong relationships with our kids. When kids see me, they call me by name—I have 3,500 kids and I’m getting to where I can call them by name.”

New Kent County Public Schools’ 3 pathways

Rural New Kenty County, located between Richmond and the urban areas beyond historic Williamsburg, is the fastest-growing country in all of Virginia. The increasing population has spurred Nichols and his team to expand college and career pathways, launch a NAVY ROTC program and add middle school sports, among other activities.

“We want every kid to walk across the graduation stage with a diploma plus something that helps them with the transition, that could be college credit so they can enroll post-secondary, career certification so they can be employed directly into a great career, or opportunities to enlist and serve their country,” he explains.

“We’re building out those three pathways and pulling them down to the middle school and doing the elementary work so kids know there are a lot of great opportunities out there that we’ll prepare them for.”

Nichols and his team are also laser-focused on proactive teacher retention and recruitment initiatives as his district contends with a national teacher shortage. New Kenty County Public Schools now has a teacher residency and grow-your-own programs for students and paraprofessionals. It also offers training for local professionals who want to switch careers and move into education.

“The biggest thing that keeps me up at night is our outcomes with kids. We have a very strong graduation rate, Our kids receive those diplomas but may not walk into something else. I don’t want that to be the culmination, I want that to be a transition point into something I want you to walk across the stage and into something.”