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Lights, Camera, Learning: How Circleville City Schools Used a Phased Approach to its Portrait Implementation

April 3, 2024

Upon taking the reins of Circleville City Schools (Ohio) three years ago, Dr. Kimberly Halley was tasked with starting an annual State of the Schools event. Little did she know that the event would quickly explode into a standing-room-only engagement, rolling out the red carpet and golden statues to rival “Barbenheimer” at the Oscars. 

In this instance, the A-listers aren’t Hollywood celebs. Instead, they are the 2,200 students Circleville serves in Central Ohio. 

As the district phased in the rollout and implementation of its new Portrait of a Circleville Tiger, evidence of student learning and Portrait competencies in practice were showcased in the fun and splashy event that drew in the community to experience.

Dr. Halley and her team shared the strategies they are leveraging in the four-phase implementation plan of their Portrait of a Circleville Tiger during a recent EdLeader21 Network Portrait to Practice virtual event.

Here are three key insights that have emerged from Circleville’s intentional and strategic implementation.

Insight #1 – Empower and support teacher leaders to spearhead the implementation of the Portrait across school buildings.

After the launch of the Portrait of a Circleville Tiger in March 2023, the district moved right into Phase 2 of its implementation plan. The “Awareness” phase did not last long – just March to September – but this was a critical point in the process to ensure staff understood why this shift to deeper learning was important and why education needs to change in order to better prepare students for an ever-evolving future.

“The goal of Phase 2 was that people would be able to say ‘Yes, I know we have a Portrait and I might be able to name one or two of the competencies.’ And that was really it. We just were trying to saturate them with why this was important, what 21st century education might look like, and why education needs to change,” said Dr. Halley. 

As the district team presented the Portrait at all three school buildings, they knew the next step was an important one. They needed to empower Lead Teachers and leverage their influence to get more teachers across the district to take action as they moved into Phase 3: Experimentation.

To improve the structure of their Lead Teacher program, Circleville wrote new job descriptions and set the expectation for teachers to take action. They did not expect instant results. The teachers were asked to choose just one of the five competencies to start with.

“We weren’t expecting teachers to completely transform their classroom instruction overnight,” said Dr. Halley. “But we did want them to choose one of the five Portrait competencies to begin wrapping their head around and start experimenting in their classroom, making some tweaks and changes.”

To support their Lead Teachers, Circleville held Teacher Leader Bootcamps in September and October. These sessions empowered the teachers to shift their practice in order to bring the Portrait to life in their classrooms. 

“One of the things that we continued to hear during that time was that this felt like it was something we were asking them to do outside of what they were already doing,” said Dr. Amy Boston, Senior Director of Teaching & Learning. “They couldn’t wrap their head around that this was part of what they were already doing, and that this was going to be embedded in the curriculum. We made it very intentional in trying to ensure them that deeper learning would occur as they were implementing their rigorous academic content.

“We wanted to drive home that we really weren’t asking them to go out and search for something new. We were trying to get them to examine the resources that they had and find places where they could showcase and highlight those competencies.”

“Coming from a principal leading the Lead Teachers, I think the most important part was having a plan to stick to,” said Jill Sims, Circleville Elementary School Principal. “Without a clear focus and a clear plan, there are so many things coming at you. But I think Dr. Halley’s intentionality about what our plan is and sticking to that plan is really what accelerated our movement.”

Insight #2 – Make communications and student voice a priority throughout the process, from Portrait design to implementation.

The Circleville team knew from the start of the process that communications was critical to the successful implementation of the Portrait of a Tiger. 

The district’s Director of Communications Darci Valentine created a plan to roll out the Portrait and keep it at the forefront of all district communications. This included plenty of visuals, such as t-shirts, graphics, pop-up banners, and school signage.

“It’s become that foundation of what we do is rooted in the Portrait,” said Sims. “The more it’s out in front of people, the more it becomes what we do and not just a thing. We’ve tried to be really intentional about the visuals so when you come into our school buildings, it’s very apparent what’s important to us here in Circleville City Schools.”

The district prioritized student voice throughout the Portrait design process and continued to leverage the strategy in the rollout and implementation. Valentine employs Media Arts student interns who create video content to convey the competencies in action. These videos are shared regularly with teachers and staff.

The student interns were also integral to the planning and execution of the district’s signature event, the State of the Schools – a community gathering that showcased student learning in an awards-show-style event befitting the Oscars.

Insight #3 – Celebrate and showcase student learning exemplars. 

Circleville hosted its 2024 State of the Schools on March 6. The third annual iteration of the event under Dr. Halley was unlike anything the district had ever hosted. From ball gowns and black ties to life-size Oscar statues to an awards ceremony, Circleville pulled out all the stops. 

The theme of the event was “Believe: A Student-Led Production” – a moniker that was chosen by students and promoted in this student-created movie trailer.

A standing-room-only crowd packed the auditorium to hear briefly from Dr. Halley, the Board president, and the district treasurer. But the real attraction of the night – the district’s true A-listers – were the students who demonstrated the Portrait of a Circleville Tiger in practice.

A total of 36 student groups were on hand in the gym for the Student Showcase where they talked to community attendees about their learning experiences. The showcase was representative of the full Circleville City Schools experience with nearly 200 students representing all grades from pre-K to 12.

Each presentation was judged according to a rubric and grand prize awards were given out for each of the five Portrait competencies. Dr. Halley tapped superintendent colleagues in the area to serve as guest judges, inviting them in the day before the event to assess each presentation in five-minute blocks.

The winners were announced by Board members and presented with a trophy on stage at the State of the Schools. The teacher for each of the winning groups received an extra personal day and a stipend for their classroom so that all students could celebrate.

With such an ambitious undertaking as it was to plan and execute the State of the Schools event, Circleville wanted to “celebrate what it hopes to perpetuate.”

And by inviting the public to this grand event, the district was able to show how education is changing and how the school district is making good on its commitment to equipping students with the skills they need to succeed in the future.

“I’m just encouraged by the work this team has done,” said Dr. Halley. “We set high goals for ourselves, and we just stayed really focused on the work.”

About Circleville’s Phased Approach

The four phases of Circleville’s implementation plan include:

  • Phase 1: Development
    • Create the Portrait of a Circleville Tiger
    • September 2021 – February 2023
  • Phase 2: Awareness
    • Create a common understanding of the five competencies
    • March 2023 – September 2023
  • Phase 3: Experimentation
    • Portrait to Practice – shift instruction in every classroom PreK-12
    • October 2023 – May 2024
  • Phase 4: Commitment
    • Student demonstrations and authentic experiences
    • Timeline TBD

Circleville is currently in Phase 3 of its plan. The first phase began in 2021, as the district embarked on the process of designing a Portrait of a Graduate. They quickly landed on the decision to create not just a Portrait of a Graduate, but of a Circleville Tiger. The Design Team wanted to ensure that all students from PreK-12 felt included in the Portrait.

The five competencies that the Design Team selected serve as the foundation for student experiences both inside and outside of the classroom: adaptability, communication, critical thinking, empathy, and perseverance.

The Portrait of a Circleville Tiger was unveiled at the district’s second annual State of Schools event in March 2023 – a precursor to the gala-style affair of 2024. As part of the launch, the Circleville High School Capstone Media Arts students created this video to help tell the story surrounding the district’s new vision.