- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - Back in November, Principal John Shoup of Washington State’s Woodland High School received a message from a community member about a new Instagram account that had drawn his attention. Shoup got nervous.

“Generally when you get a message about social media from folks, you’re kind of afraid,” Shoup said recently. But then he took a look at the account in question, called “Woodland HS Stars” (stylized as @woodlandhsstars). What he saw amazed him.

The account, which now has more than 460 followers, highlights a different student each day. Each post has a photo of the student and an accompanying positive description of who the student is and what makes him or her special. The account is run anonymously and so far has highlighted about 110 of the school’s 650 students.

The page’s mission statement, displayed in the account’s description, is simple: “Every one of you is unique and beautiful, and we want to recognize you for all your awesomeness.”

Shoup said he felt like a proud parent when he found out what these students were doing. The account is run by three individuals, who rotate the duty of choosing a student, writing a description and posting it.

The account was started in October, said the founding student. All of the students chose to remain anonymous for this article.

“It kind of just came to me,” the founding student said. Using Instagram made it easy, because accounts don’t have to be linked to a specific identity and the format was better for posting profiles.

“It was initially because I wanted people to feel loved and noticed and like they were worth something, it wasn’t anything that made me do it,” they said. “I think high school is the age that kids are the most insecure so if you can in any way make them feel good about themselves and let them know they’re going to survive, that’s a good thing.”

About a week after the account’s creation, two other students wanted to join in. The three now take turns on who gets the responsibility of posting a profile for that day.

Each post is personalized. For example, one written for student Elena Neuenschwander reads: “You are SUCH a sweetheart. You’re very real and transparent. You’re also honest and have genuinely good intentions. You want what’s best for others and you’re as kind as can be. You also have great fashion sense. You’re so naturally beautiful and sweet, just how you are.”

Another written for senior Faith Witham praised her “air of grace and unrivaled poise… You always provide people with a fresh perspective and are so intuitive. You make a great friend, team player, and classmate.”

Shoup knows who the students behind the account are.

“They’re just great, great kids… they weren’t responding to anything other than their own human nature of wanting to be nice and genuine,” Shoup said.

The students actually approached him a couple of months into the project for his help: They were concerned that their scope was limited to their acquaintances, and they wanted to be more inclusive.

While the students would love to feature all 650 Woodland High School students, it’s not possible in a 180-day school year (they still haven’t decided if they’ll continue over the summer). Right now the focus has been profiling seniors before they graduate in June.

Each post takes quite a bit of work, too. The students work together to pick students to spotlight, and then begin their research on the chosen student.

“It really depends on the person, usually we observe them throughout the school day in the hallways or games or activities and in classes even,” said another student behind the account. “We notice their behavior and their interactions and with teachers and classmates.”

Social media helps too. The three use platforms like Facebook and Instagram to figure out a student’s interests and what they’re involved in. Then a post will be written, and the three will collaborate to edit and refine it before it’s released.

Preserving their anonymity is important to Shoup and the three students.

“If they knew who it was it would ruin the point,” said one student.

“We speak for everybody who notices the people in our school,” said another. “It’s coming from all of us, everyone who sees the good things that they’ve done.”

The third added that “it adds a lot to the sincerity behind it, it betters the experience.” If their identity was revealed, they said, it wouldn’t be as genuine.

Despite the account’s success, there isn’t any goal to use Instagram as part of any broader anti-bullying program in the school, Shoup said.

“We just want to let it sit in its pure intent right now,” he said.

Shoup and the three students want the project to continue. One of the three students is an upperclassman, which has made them think about who will carry on the responsibility of the account.

“When that upperclassman does graduate, we will privately and appropriately draft a new team member,” Shoup said. The upperclassman will then reveal his/her identity, but keep the others behind the account a secret.

The response from students who have been highlighted is overwhelmingly positive, Shoup said.

“In the hallways I can look at students say ‘Hey, you’re a Woodland Star today,’” Shoup said. It usually brings a smile to their faces, he said, but often they’ll follow up by trying to get him to reveal the identities behind the account.

Not every student responds, and not every student has an Instagram account. But Elena Neuenschwander, one of the featured students, saw the post and responded in a comment.

“Thank you so much for the heartwarming message!” Elena wrote. “(I don’t know) who you are but I wish there were more people like you. You made my night!”

Part of what makes the account work is that anonymity, Shoup said.

“It is genuine and is as pure as snow is white,” Shoup said. “There’s no hidden agenda other than being positive and uplifting. They want everyone to feel loved and accepted here at this school and love themselves.”


Information from: The Daily News, https://www.tdn.com

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