5 Suggestions for Leaders


Developing a Portrait of a 21st Century Graduate

Posted on September 6, 2018 by Dan Domenech   
Originally posted on Dan Domenech Blog

By Aaron Spence, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, and Ken Kay, EdLeader21

Some of the most exciting and impactful work happening in school systems across the country is around the development of a Portrait of a Graduate, a collective vision articulating a community’s aspirations for all students. We have observed a growing energy and interest in the Portrait of a Graduate among superintendents and other district leaders nationwide. In fact, the cover story of the August 2018 issue of American School Board Journal featured the stories of school systems that are implementing a Portrait of a Graduate.

As more school systems explore the development of a Portrait of a Graduate, we wanted to share 5 lessons we have learned in working with leaders of districts aspiring to prepare their students for 21st century challenges.

  1. The Portrait of a Graduate must be locally developed. Every school system’s Portrait will be unique, reflecting the shared vision of its community. This is not a cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits-all” strategy. For example, some communities have included personal responsibility as an essential component of their Portrait of a Graduate, while others have made global citizenship a focus in preparing graduates for the 21st century. In Virginia Beach, we included the idea of balance in our portrait because of our community’s interest in ensuring that our students live well-balanced lives. Every community must discover the language and the competencies that are important to them.

  2. Engage a diverse group of community stakeholders—including parents and families, students, educators, higher education faculty, faith-based leaders, policymakers, and other community leaders—in the process of developing a Portrait of a Graduate. Many school systems have engaged a community advisory group of key stakeholders in a months-long process to reach consensus. The best advisory groups have strong representation from the business community, including leaders from the local chamber of commerce, workforce development organizations, trade associations, and HR directors from local organizations who can explain what they look for in hiring. Parents who are members of the 21st century workforce can provide important insight for educators and others about what future jobs will require from our students. Students play a key role in these advisory groups, bringing a unique perspective that can help to anchor discussions in what is best for kids.

  3. The Portrait of a Graduate is not just another initiative. It serves as the North Star for system transformation. Every part of the school system, and every decision made—from the school board’s strategic plan, to curriculum, budget, technology, and human resources—should be aligned to the Portrait of a Graduate and working toward making it a reality for every student (as well as for the adults in the system). In particular, consider how the system is supporting the professional learning needs of educators to design and implement 21st century learning experiences, and how the Portrait impacts the culture and policies of the district.

  4. View your Portrait of a Graduate through an equity lens to ensure ALL students have access to a 21st century education. As district and school leaders, we must challenge ourselves to create the environment, processes, and support structures necessary to give every child, in every classroom, the opportunity to engage in 21st century learning experiences. An equity audit can help leaders identify, for example, why some students are getting opportunities to cultivate creativity while others are not. Then, you can begin to address the root causes of this disparity and eliminate it.

  5. All stakeholders in a community should have input on what competencies are included in your Portrait, but educators—including teachers, principals, and other support staff—must own the process of implementing it. Educators are the experts on what classroom practices can bring the dreams and aspirations of the community’s Portrait of a Graduate to life for all students in the system.

    Every community is unique, but we all aspire for our kids to grow up to become happy, healthy, and productive adults. We need to challenge our communities to bring education into the 21st century, and the Portrait of a Graduate process is a great way to start that journey.

    Does your district have a Portrait of a Graduate? Visit PortraitofaGraduate.org to learn more and access resources to begin the journey in your school system.

Aaron Spence is superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Connect with him at Aaron.Spence@vbschools.com or on Twitter at @BeachSupe.

Ken Kay is CEO of EdLeader21, a network of Battelle for Kids, which includes nearly 200 member school systems from across the country. Connect with him at kkay@edleader21.org or on Twitter at @kenkay21.