Preparing Today's Learners for Tomorrow's Opportunities

By Dr. Phil Downs, Superintendent, Southwest Allen County Schools

For nearly twenty years education in the United States had been narrowly defined around standardized tests. During the 2014-15 school year, Southwest Allen County Schools (SACS) invited students, parents, educators, and community leaders to participate in a series of public meetings on “The Role of Public Schools in the 21st Century.” It was clear to us that they wanted a more holistic experience for our students. In response, our School Board adopted a mission statement, beliefs statement, and graduate outcomes that reflected a collective vision that articulates our community’s aspirations for all SACS students.
SACSPortraitSmallMost recently, SACS evolved our graduate outcomes into a Portrait of a Graduate to further engage our community and align our teaching and learning with our mission and vision. The Portrait is a visual representation of the skills, characteristics, and attributes we hope our learners will possess as they enter life after their school careers. Graduates of SACS will be:
  • Critical Thinkers,
  • Creative Thinkers,
  • Communicators,
  • Collaborators,
  • Citizens, and
  • Resilient Problem Solvers

We began the Portrait development process by selecting famous quotes for each characteristic that allowed a greater understanding of the terms. Then, we had educators brainstorm and whittle down a series of “I Can” statements for each outcome which educators and parents saw as healthy adult behaviors, and which could be used to prompt students to self-reflect. Care was given to ensure the “I Can” statements were sophisticated enough for high school seniors yet conceptually accessible for kindergartners. 

We have already seen a number of independent experiments in the application of our Portrait of a Graduate. For example, a group of teachers is developing a Google Drive-based portfolio system to track growth in the Portrait characteristics. Another group has finished an alignment of our high school advisory program around our “I Can” statements. Teachers are also customizing sections of 4Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity) rubrics developed by EdLeader21, a network of Battelle for Kids, and adding them to existing assignments to promote targeted self-reflection. And there are many other examples. These piloted experiments show the power of a Portrait of a Graduate to promote innovation within a common framework toward a common goal.

Through our Portrait of a Graduate, we have found that common, clearly-defined, yet accessible language for students makes a cohesive, K-12 program possible. We have also found the story of our graduates does create a shared purpose for us all. The Portrait of a Graduate provides a conversation the entire community—schools, businesses, churches, and youth organizations—can join. It is a tangible, purposeful structure which pairs beautifully with our academic content. 
This entire process has allowed Southwest Allen County to grow a conversation from what we wanted our public schools to be in the 21st century into a framework for raising children reflected in the characteristics in our Portrait of a Graduate. Our Portrait is a process to develop productive, happy, self-sufficient citizens who use their knowledge for the good of all. We believe this conversation will continue to grow and help us do a better job of "Preparing Today’s Learners for Tomorrow’s Opportunities.”

PhilDownsCroppedDr. Phil Downs is Superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He also serves on the Advisory Committee for EdLeader21, a professional learning community of education leaders committed to building 21st century education systems for every student.
 In 2017, EdLeader21 became a national network of Battelle for Kids. Connect with Superintendent Downs on Twitter at @Drphildowns. 

Visit to view Southwest Allen County Schools’ Portrait of a Graduate and other Portraits from school systems across the country.