Please Wait a Moment

35 Under 35: Valonia Walker, APR

Every other year, NSPRA's 35 Under 35 program recognizes school public relations professionals who are making a difference for their school districts or education-related employers. The sixth class of NSPRA's 35 Under 35 program is sponsored by Rhodes Branding.

Valonia Walker, APRValonia Walker, APR 
Chief Communications Officer
Hempstead (Texas) Independent School District

How many years have you worked in school PR?
8 years.

What have you found to be the most rewarding part about working in school PR?
The most rewarding part about working in school PR is shining a light on the wonderful work happening inside of schools. Schools and educators help build a foundation for students' lives beyond the classroom every single day. It is truly magical to highlight the work happening across my district and to increase the visibility of the impact education has on students.

What have you found to be the most challenging part about working in school PR? How do you approach those challenges?
I believe the most challenging part about working in school PR currently is watching the education field lose teachers, bus drivers and other important roles across the school organization. It is quite disheartening. However, one approach to this challenge is for communications professionals to pivot by working closely with HR departments to figure out how to best market, promote and sell education as a career. Considering that each year it is becoming much more difficult to attract and recruit, it is imperative that we continue to highlight all of the positive things happening in our districts.

What has been your most fulfilling professional experience thus far?
My most fulfilling professional experience has been producing a successful school district podcast from scratch with my former supervisor. In its first season, the podcast gained more than 100 subscribers. The support from my supervisor and host of the show gave me the autonomy to create something fresh and new and we did just that. This podcast not only helped me to create a space for educators, community members, and students to speak about themselves, their organizations and initiatives, but it also helped me grow as a professional. It pushed me to step out of my creative comfort zone and flourish in a new digital space. In our world of school public relations, we should always look for new ways to tell stories.

Are there any emerging trends in school public relations that excite you?
Yes. I think the surge in inviting students to take the lead in digital spaces across district social media platforms has proven to be successful. Giving students the opportunity to showcase their schools, district and community will take districts far because students are the center of our WHY.

Anisa Sullivan Jimenez

Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, APR
Director of Communications
Oconee County Schools
Watkinsville, Ga.

Alma Mater:

B.A. - Mississippi State University; MPA - University of Georgia

I believe school PR/communications is what I was born to do! One of the biggest decisions a parent can make is where to send their child to school, and it’s an honor to share with our parents the engaging work that their children are doing under the guidance of world-class teachers and leaders. On any given day, in any given school, there are many stories to be told and I take that charge seriously. As school communicators played a key role in COVID-19 communications, storytelling was more important than ever – not only did I share information with parents about our protocols, but I also made over 80 visits to schools last year and told a variety of stories about how students were thriving with both in-person and distance learning options. I also worked with principals to determine best mitigation practices and helped make those pervasive, because positive action must be the foundation of what we are ultimately communicating. School public relations is incredibly complex and I love that each day brings a new challenge.

My greatest school PR success was completing 11 nationally-innovative school communication audits using a process of research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. I am now in phase two of this project and am attending school council meetings to garner feedback from parents about school-level communication and how I can better support the work of their schools. One of the most significant findings is that as students take more ownership of their learning, they also take more ownership in parent communication. Therefore, next steps are to better prepare parents for this transition and to also determine best practices from exemplar teachers and coaches at the secondary level so we can strike the right balance with parents feeling informed and fostering student independence.

My greatest school PR challenge is overcoming rigidity. Like many PR professionals, I am detail-oriented and a self-described perfectionist. It’s a blessing and a curse to see when something is one pixel off, but the greatest challenge I have faced in my 13 years in this field is to learn to be more flexible. I might have an aversion to Comic Sans or Curlz, but it’s not the end of the world if those are a font favorite elsewhere. What’s more important is the bigger picture – staff and parents feeling well-informed and students growing and learning in positive school cultures. Instead of telling someone their website isn’t formatted properly, I now make a 2-3 minute screencast if I think there’s a quick tutorial I can offer to provide ongoing professional learning. By being much more flexible, I have deepened relationships and become better at supporting the most important job that occurs in our school system: teaching.

My favorite part of my job is the relationships. I often say that there is no substitute for showing up, and that’s why I make so many school visits each year. From getting to hold a gorgeous monarch butterfly to watching a vibrant student musical to seeing 3-D printing in action from engineering students, I have witnessed countless unique opportunities, and these experiences are just a small piece of what our students get to take part in each and every day. If I didn’t take the time to form relationships, I wouldn’t know that what students value is knowing that the photos I take may show up in their yearbooks. I wouldn’t know the myriad of annual activities that teachers do across our schools because I wouldn’t have witnessed them firsthand. I wouldn’t know about the families of our principals or what they believe makes their school unique. All of that is invaluable because at the end of the day and at the end of this career, relationships are what will remain – both professionally and personally.

The communication tool I use the most is Canva! I would be a brand ambassador if they asked! I am not very mathematically-minded and it can be challenging for someone with an eye for good design – but not an eye for rulers and gridlines – to be a graphic designer. However, Canva has made it possible and I am able to create aesthetically-pleasing graphics with short turn-around times. I have trained communication ambassadors at our schools how to use it as well. Right after Canva, the tool I most use is iMovie. I am completely self-taught in videography and using iMovie and Canva together has made me someone who can add “videographer” to their list of expertise.