One of the nation's most exciting and charismatic superintendents leads a district of just 850 students in rural Wisconsin — and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Recounting his 2011 pitch to the board of education in Wisconsin's Fall Creek School District to Education Dive earlier this year, Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo said, "I might not be the best superintendent you're going to hire, but I'm the loudest person on earth. So if there are good things going on here, people are gonna know about it."
In the eight years since, Sanfelippo has used social media and speaking opportunities at conferences to transform Fall Creek into a "rock star" district with a national following. At events like the Future of Education Technology Conference and National Principals Conference, attendees pack his sessions. Some even ask him how they can get Fall Creek Cricket swag.
"When it seemed everyone was afraid of social media and the negativity that it brought, Dr. Sanfelippo looked at it as just another way to spread the word about Fall Creek," Brock Wright, president of the Fall Creek Board of Education, said. "Was he worried about what could happen? Absolutely. But it was just too good of an opportunity to be able to share with the world essentially the good going on here."
Sanfelippo's approach to social media, and the success he's seen in embracing these platforms, provides a best-practices case study for public schools nationwide at a time when branding is more important than ever, given the amount of competition many districts are facing from school choice initiatives.
In its simplest form, his strategy boils down to three key points:
- Find your audience, find out where they are, find out where they live virtually.
- Build momentum.
- Celebrate kids.
In practice, his approach doesn't just promote the wins that occur between school walls to the broader community: It builds a culture that celebrates students and staff at all levels of the organization and extends a helping hand when needed.
At FETC, for example, he shared a story about a power blackout that affected most of the community except for the school. The gesture that everyone could store their food in the building’s fridges was enough to build trust, even though people ultimately only brought three bags of food.
"Dr. Sanfelippo has brought a sense of community to this district," Wright said. "When major decisions are made, input from students, staff and community are all listened to. Nobody feels like their opinions don’t matter."
Additionally, faculty and staff members are regularly recognized with "PTO Giveaway Days," in which they can receive a day off while administrators fill their shoes. This builds culture while providing an opportunity to demonstrate the selected employee's value through videos and photos on social media.
These posts are rife with opportunities to inject a bit of humor into the district's messaging. A little cheese — it is Wisconsin, after all — often goes a long way in announcements for things like snow days, as well. And Sanfelippo's kids aren't above getting in on the action, making the posts even more personable.
Naturally, the approach to these interactions mirrors his interpersonal approach with students, staff and families. At this year's FETC conference, Sanfelippo told attendees, "You have to understand that every interaction [in school] matters, because every interaction could be the one they talk about for the rest of their lives."
Educators, he continued, have to ensure they recognize the "moments of awe" always happening in their buildings and celebrate them, opening doors by calling parents to share positive stories about their children rather than just misbehavior. Recognizing people by name when you share their stories with the public and showing you're making the effort to see their perspective is also critical.
"His unwavering recognition of people within the district and community, no matter the size of the accomplishment, brings about a sense of cohesiveness," 7th grade ELA teacher Val Herman told Education Dive. "Having an administrator with such a passion for our children, families, staff and community members has created connectedness and trust ... We know we are blessed."