Navigator Blog

Community Collaboration: Vineland Public Schools’ Path to a New Vision for Students

March 26, 2024

Laptops and folding chairs. Bottles of water and cookies. Typical sites you might find in a public meeting in a typical school district.

But a closer look reveals that the meeting itself is far from typical. This meeting is intended to transform the life of every student in Vineland Public Schools in New Jersey.

Beginning in October 2022, more than 50 stakeholders in this historic community – educators, business partners, parents, elected officials — set out to answer a question that seems impossible on its face: How does a community prepare its children for tomorrow, when “tomorrow” seems to change by the second?

Superintendent Alfonso Llano and his leadership team had been wrestling with this question for the 10,000+ students who attend Vineland. They reached out to Battelle for Kids for help, in this case to craft a Portrait of a Vineland Graduate, a vision for deeper learning for each child who passed through the doors of the district’s 16 schools.

“The inspiration [for this work] stemmed from our collective desire to shape a promising future for our school system,” said Gia Messore, Vineland’s public information officer for strategic communication and partnerships. “With the aim of formulating a fresh strategic plan and fostering a new vision, this initiative was born out of a strong commitment to unite our schools and empower our students.”

Jessica Harding, a senior director from Battelle for Kids, got the call to travel to south New Jersey. Harding, a long-time educator herself, was tasked with shepherding Vineland through Portrait creation. But first, district leaders would need to gather views of a lot of different people.

BFK’s design process gathers shared aspirations for students from a diverse group of stakeholders. Only by bringing together varied perspectives – as varied as the student body itself – does enduring educational change occur. Vineland sought and found more than four dozen stakeholders to provide input.

“We have four Portrait Design Team meetings,” Harding said. “The first meeting really sets the foundation for the Portrait. Why do we need one? What’s happening in the world? What do we need to be thinking about? These are competencies we want our students to have.”

Harding said the first meeting is intended to welcome people into the design process and introduce the idea of a “competency.”

“We ask, ‘What are your hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your students?’” she said. “All of the feedback is like, ‘I want my children to be able to communicate clearly.’ They start naming competencies without even realizing that they are naming competencies.”

In the end, the Vineland stakeholders believed so much in the importance of what they were doing that they stayed engaged through nearly nine months of work. The work was made even more meaningful by input from two teams of current Vineland students.

“I had two meetings, a morning meeting with students and an afternoon meeting,” Harding said. “And those morning meetings made me feel like I was a teacher back in the classroom with those kids. The kids had such a rich conversation. They added so much to the process.

“I always encourage superintendents and school leaders that are leading a project, ‘Listen to the (students).’ We are creating this Portrait of a Graduate — what they want should be considered. The kids really do know what they want.”

As these views were collected and a shared vision took shape, something fascinating happened.

“In our discussions following the completion of the portrait creation, our leadership team often discussed the power of collaborative input,” Messore said. “As we engaged in discussions and gathered insights from students, educators, parents, and community members, we discovered that their collective wisdom and diverse perspectives enriched the [Portrait] project in ways beyond what we anticipated.

“This helped reinforce the importance of inclusive decision-making and the transformative impact it can have on shaping a compelling vision for our school system.”

The design team created and refined six target competencies: Communication, Adaptability, Perseverance, Empathy, Responsibility, and Critical Thinking. Harding said it is not unusual for a design team to want more competencies in their Portrait, but more is not necessarily better.

“Remember, if you pick a large number of competencies, you also have to think about application. So don’t overwhelm yourself,” Harding said. “They sound good and they look good, but what you are committing to is delivering on each one of these competencies instructionally. When you walk into the classroom, I should be able to see these competencies in action in some way.”

The district began implementing its Portrait of a Graduate in the 2023-2024 school year, and Vineland school leaders know that this is when the true work begins.

“Our hope is that our staff will be able to incorporate the competencies into their already-existing curriculum/lesson plans,” Messore said. “Our administrative team came up with several projects and activities that students can participate in across all grade levels that will encourage application of the competencies in a fun and educational way.”

With Battelle for Kids’ Portrait of a Graduate process, Vineland Public Schools crafted a clear and unified vision that aims at creating graduates who are well-equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge, and character traits to succeed beyond the classroom.