Sturdy backpacks stocked with school supplies are synonymous with the start of a new school year. In Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools, that backpack theme is being used to usher in a new initiative aimed at increasing learning and equipping students for success in college, careers, and citizenship in the 21st century.

When classes resume in August, the state’s largest school district officially will launch its Backpack of Success Skills program. Designed to ensure that graduates leave Jefferson County schools equipped with “a virtual backpack” of key skills and experiences necessary for success in a rapidly changing world, the program is part of a multiprong plan to transform and advance the 101,000-student school system. (In May, the Jefferson board of education voted to appeal a recommendation by the Kentucky Department of Education to place the district under state management.)

Five skills identified for the Jefferson backpack include being an effective communicator, emerging innovator, prepared and resilient learner, globally and culturally competent citizen, and productive collaborator. These skills emerged from conversations with educators, administrators, parents, students, and community and business leaders, says Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman.

Drawing from those suggestions — while also emphasizing the mastery of academic content — Jefferson has crafted a portrait of what it wants for its graduates. From there, it plans to “work backwards to build the systems and experiences most likely to produce that outcome,” Coleman says. “The Backpack of Success Skills is our graduate profile.”

Profile as Tool

Designing a graduate profile — turning to community partners for help envisioning the key skills, attributes, or competencies, and then tying them into the curriculum — is not new.

What is new is a growing movement to make a profile or portrait of a 21st century graduate into a tool that can help school leaders transform educational opportunities for all children, not just those students in a handful of innovative and forward-thinking school districts, says Karen Garza, executive director of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based education consulting nonprofit.

When done well, defining a vision for a school system’s graduates serves as a North Star for a district’s overall work and provides a framework, Garza says. “In the absence of having it, sometimes the initiatives in a district seem random and not connected. This helps create some coherence to the focus of the district.”

In partnership with the professional learning community EdLeader21, “our goal is to accelerate the scaling of this across the United States,” she says. Portrait of a Graduate programs “present an exciting opportunity for people to step back and really spend some time re-envisioning what they want for their children in their communities.”

Coleman led such an effort when she previously served as superintendent of Kentucky’s Danville Independent Schools. The 1,900-student district continues to use project-based learning and performance-based assessments to meet the goals of its 10-point graduate profile, dubbed the Danville Diploma. “Students knew they were going to have to demonstrate where they were in terms of these competencies,” she says. “It changed everything. It took us far above the turbulence of simply focusing on test scores.”

Research around future workforce needs and the connection to 21st century teaching and learning “is tightly aligned,” says Garza, the former superintendent of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools. “Any time we’ve done this work in communities, it really resonates with the business community. It resonates with all of the constituents, but most specifically the business community.”

It resonates with Cheakita Webster, human resources manager for the Louisville, Kentucky-based packaging machinery company Lantech. Call them soft skills or life skills, it’s those “human interaction skills,” in conjunction with solid literacy and numeracy skills, that the company seeks in potential employees, says Webster. “It’s what makes us successful. Those are all important.”

Through Lantech’s role as a partner with the Academies of Louisville (Jefferson County Schools’ recently launched small learning communities focused on careers and industries), Webster participated in the Backpack of Success Skills community strategy session.

“We may not know exactly what the jobs 20 years out are, but we know we need folks who can work together in a team environment, and we know we need young folks who can communicate,” says Jefferson County School Board Chair Diane Porter. “Those two skills will never go away.”

21st Century Skills

To illustrate the value of 21st century learning, EdLeader21’s Ken Kay offers a comparison of two students: Student A has been trained to be proficient in math, science, English, and social studies. Student B has been trained to be proficient in content mastery, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and other abilities that have been identified by education researchers as “21st century” skills.

Everyone wants student B, but we’re stuck in the student A model, he says. Graduates like student A made good factory workers in the 1950s, but the 21st century workplace needs students who have skills like student B, he says.

Recent reports highlight this need, including:

The National Association of Colleges and Employers “Job Outlook 2018” survey. When employers were asked which attributes — beyond a strong GPA — were of most value, respondents put problem-solving and the ability to work in teams jointly at the top of the list for the second consecutive year. Written communication, leadership, and a strong work ethic were also highly valued.

The Pew Research Center’s 2017 “The Future of Jobs and Job Training.” Among 1,400 technologists, scholars, strategic thinkers, and education leaders surveyed, “soft” and “human” skills were cited by most respondents as crucial for survival in the age of artificial intelligence and robotics.

The PayScale “2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report.” Of the 64,000 workplace managers surveyed, 60 percent said new college graduate hires lacked critical-thinking and problem-solving skills; 56 percent cited lack of attention to detail; 44 percent pointed to a lack of leadership qualities; 36 percent cited lower-than-needed interpersonal and teamwork skills.

Battelle and EdLeader21 have set a goal to have 21 percent of the nation’s school districts adopt a Portrait of a Graduate by 2021.

Calling it an “audacious goal,” Garza says it’s “necessary to draw attention to this important work. Every school in the United States should work to have their collective vision for the students in their community.”

The partners also have created a website with how-to-guides, videos, blogs, research, and recommended reading about graduate profiles and the “4 Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, or what Kay calls the “basic-building blocks of a 21st century education.”

Local Values Reflected

The 4 Cs must be customized to “reflect the language, concepts, and goals of individual communities,” Kay says. With that in mind, some school districts settle on a graduate profile 10 items deep. Where one deems compassion an essential skill, another may opt for healthy living.

That was the case for Virginia Beach City Public Schools when it set out to develop its Graduate Profile in conjunction with its strategic plan, Compass to 2020. Among the eight competencies identified, being “Balanced” is defined as “making healthy choices to achieve well-being and create a well-rounded educational experience.”

“In our community, there are a lot of conversations about the need to make sure that students are healthy and leading an emotionally and academically well-balanced life,” Superintendent Aaron Spence says. That’s illustrated by the school board’s recent decision to eliminate class ranking for graduating seniors out of concern it feeds into “an unhealthy imbalance,” Spence says.

Discussions focused on students’ pursuit of weighted academic credit and high grade-point-averages over academic growth and pursuing their passions and interests. 

The Graduate Profile helps inspire and guide the district “when thinking about our strategic work,” Spence says. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Will the things we’re doing, will the activities we’re engaged in as a leadership group, lead to the outcomes we’ve expressed in the Graduate Profile?”

In Washington’s Everett Public Schools, what started with the 4 Cs grew to six 21st century skills necessary for being “college, career, and life ready,” including Citizenship (respectfully and positively impact others; active involvement in community, national and/or global issues) and Growth Mindset (working through challenges showing tenacity, perseverance, resilience, self-regulation, and self-advocacy).

The district does not formally use the term “profile of a graduate,” but during think tank sessions with an array of interested parties, “We asked the same question: ‘What does it mean to be a successful Everett Public Schools graduate?” says Peter Scott, associate superintendent. Afterwards he says the challenge was: “How do we grow these, teach these, and then measure these?”

Everett School Board member Pam LeSesne praises the district for focusing on how best to integrate the selected skills into teaching plans, “not just layering them on top.”

There must be “intentional leveraging” of the skills and attributes into the district’s instructional work, Scott says.  “What really drives this work is it must be authentic, and with that comes opportunities for deeper learning.”

Transforming Potential

Because Jefferson’s backpack initiative outlines the skills and knowledge that students need to acquire, requires students to show evidence of development in each of these areas each year, and will measure “transition readiness” on a regular basis, Coleman believes it holds the potential to transform teaching and learning in the large, urban district.

Students will make presentations at key transition periods — the end of fifth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade — demonstrating the acquisition of skills and their readiness to move on to the next grade. They will be able to upload, store, and access evidence of those skills —   including photos, videos, reports, essays, and test results — on a digital platform.

These presentations “lead to great conversations about where in your schools do students have the chance to really cultivate the skills you want them to have?” she says. “And does every child get that opportunity,” not just those who participate in select programs, such as robotics club or accelerated classes?

Too often, that answer is no, Coleman says, so the demonstration component requires that schools ensure that deep, rich learning opportunities are in place for every student. “It’s a great leveler for equity and for meaningful learning experiences. Worksheets are not going to be good evidence in the backpack.”

Not every school with a “profile of a graduate” program opts for a demonstration requirement. “We decided if we build our curriculum well enough, if we create a learning environment in the classroom that supports the goals of our strategic plan—high expectations, multiple pathways, and social and emotional development — that by default we are creating opportunities for kids to demonstrate the attributes throughout their high school experience,” says Don Robertson, chief strategy and innovation officer for Virginia Beach City schools.

Come this fall, the district is introducing elementary and middle school students to the Graduate Profile initially introduced to high school students, and making sure all students are demonstrating and mastering the skills needed to be future ready.

In anticipation of the graduate profile rollout in Jefferson County, several schools got on board early, staging defense presentations and exhibitions last spring. Some even began personalizing their Backpacks of Success Skills with “signature items” or competencies. Think about a backpack with three main compartments, Coleman says: one for literacy and numeracy, one for success skills like communication and collaboration, and one for skills or qualities that speak to an individual school.

At Dunn Elementary, the personalization effort took some work, says Principal Tracy Barber. Early suggestions for the school’s signature items included, “studying spelling words, putting names on the right side of paper, things like that,” Barber says. “We had to stop and ask, ‘Are these the really important goals and issues for us?’ It took a shift in thinking to think big.”

In the end, Dunn teachers and school leadership decided to add a virtual compass to their virtual backpacks. “Critical Thinker” is placed at the center of the compass, surrounded by a circle of other skills — communicator, self-directed learner, collaborator, and academic learner — all essential for students preparing to take “the hike of life.”

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