The Closer You Get

By Dr. Karen Garza


In many communities across the country, there is a disconnect between how business, political, and community leaders perceive the quality of their local public schools and the reality of what’s happening in classrooms and schools every day. We often hear community leaders express frustration about the continuing financial needs of their schools, yet in many cases, they don’t have sufficient knowledge and understanding of how these critical resources are being used to benefit young people—and ultimately, how this investment contributes to the long-term health and economic success of the community.

As a school superintendent, I made it a priority to invite community and business leaders to visit schools in all corners of the district. This enabled key opinion leaders to see for themselves the innovative educational experiences being provided for students. In addition, community leaders were given the opportunity to meaningfully interact with students, and without exception, they left this experience amazed and impressed. As I like to say, the closer you get, the better we look.

School leaders are charged with the enormous responsibility of caring for the education and overall well-being of children. They are the stewards of a community’s greatest asset—its young people and its schools. This responsibility is even more critical today as we work to prepare all students to be lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century. 

How might we strengthen the connection between our schools and the overall community, while also considering a new vision for our schools?

Every school system is unique, but they are all connected by a shared aspiration: that all students have an educational experience that prepares them for success in college, in careers, and in life. Now more than ever, that experience must not only provide for the acquisition of rigorous academic content, but it must also be more intentional about fostering critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and other 21st century skills and habits of mind that our young people need to navigate and thrive in this complex, rapidly changing world. 

Many school systems across the country have engaged the larger community in developing a Portrait of a Graduate, a collective vision that articulates the community’s aspirations for their young people. Locally developed, but globally positioned, the Portrait of a Graduate serves as a North Star for system transformation. Providing strategic direction for the redesign of the overall educational experience for students, this collective vision reinvigorates and re-engages students, teachers, and community stakeholders.

As school leaders, it is important to ask ourselves: 
  • What are the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that our community has for our young people?  
  • What are the skills and habits of mind that our children need for success in this rapidly changing and complex world?  
  • What are the implications for the learning experiences we provide in our school systems?

Battelle for Kids and EdLeader21 have joined forces to make 21st century learning a reality for all students. Together, we are inviting education leaders to join with us around a shared goal that: 

By 2021, 21 percent of school systems across the U.S. are engaging with their communities to develop and implement a Portrait of a Graduate.     

In partnership with school systems, communities, and other like-minded organizations, Battelle for Kids and EdLeader21 want to efffect a tipping point in this country that creates positive momentum toward transforming educational opportunities for all students to be lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century. We encourage you to join with us and begin the process of developing your district’s Portrait of a Graduate.

The shifting education policy landscape presents a unique opportunity to recapture the national narrative, re-engage our communities, and inspire a renewed sense of optimism in our nation’s public schools. Yes, the closer the community gets to our schools, the better we look. But, more importantly, the closer our community gets to our schools, the better we are!

Dr. Karen Garza is President and CEO of Battelle for Kids. Connect with her on Twitter at @KGarzaBFK