How 3 districts harness the power of graduate profiles

Educators incorporate hands-on activities, service learning and other elements into college and career initiatives
By: | September 19, 2019
Students develop many of the skills in Brown County Schools' graduate profile running their own manufacturing/marketing/design business, which is called Eagle Manufacturing.Students develop many of the skills in Brown County Schools' graduate profile running their own manufacturing/marketing/design business, which is called Eagle Manufacturing.

An increasing number of district leaders are creating highly detailed graduate profiles to ensure their schools are teaching the soft skills students need for success after completing high school. 

These graduate profiles inform instruction by laying out the academic and social-emotional skills students must develop in each grade on the path to college and careers. Here’s how three districts are incorporating hands-on activities, service learning, student voice and other elements into their profiles of well-rounded graduates.

‘Passion projects’ drive graduate profiles

When leaders at Fleming County Schools in Kentucky heard from local employers that the district’s students weren’t always prepared for the workforce, they teamed up with community members to sketch out a profile of the ideal graduate.

In 2018, they embedded into instruction eight essential “indicators”: communication, creativity, growth, problem-solving, purpose, self-discipline, service and teamwork. The educators also mapped out how students at each grade level would develop these skills on their way to college and careers.

Watch DATV: How graduate profiles pave paths to the future

“It’s a focus on student growth using the metric of life,” Superintendent Brian Creasman says. “It’s not a focus on a score on a particular assessment.”

“Passion projects” that students create in each grade anchor the initiative. For instance, one group of students started a beekeeping project after convincing the local government to overturn an ordinance that prohibited the practice. Another group adopted a local reservoir and cleaned up an adjacent park.

Students spend at least 20% of the school week working on passion projects, and eventually present them to parents and community members. Along the way, students earn badges for mastering each of the indicators in the district’s graduate profile.

A student at Fleming County Schools in Kentucky shows of a passion project that was a built as part of the district's graduate profile initiative.

A student at Fleming County Schools in Kentucky shows off a passion project that was built as part of the district’s graduate profile initiative.

“These indicators are every bit as important as the content,” says Michelle Hunt, the chief academic officer. “Our teachers work diligently to infuse these indicators into all lessons because they will give our kids an edge as they graduate.”

The projects have led to increased attendance and even brought more parents into the schools to participate in the learning process. It’s a personalized learning approach that, while adhering to state standards, is driven by each child’s interests rather than by technology, Creasman says.

“It’s not about a standardized curriculum; it’s a curriculum based on individual students,” he says. “We need to make sure learning is relevant to every student—no matter if their interest is to become a priest or a tattoo artist.”

Knowing what comes next

Leaders of rural Brown County Schools in Indiana experienced a big surprise during the year they spent developing a graduate profile with local business leaders, Superintendent Laura Hammack says.

“We expected industry to want specific skill sets in place so our graduates would be ready to pick up the job on day one—but that’s not it,” Hammack says. “Industry is very interested in having employees who are willing to be trained.”

Brown County’s profile consists of five competencies demanded by local employers: communication, engagement, innovation, social and emotional wellness, and work ethic. These characteristics include showing up to work on time, being able to work on a team and solve problems, and passing drug tests, she says.

More from DA: Can we prepare students for yet-to-be-created jobs?

District educators are now developing “exemplars” that represent the five key competencies in each grade. Teachers in earlier grades, for example, will focus on communication and creativity. Younger students will also begin experimenting with technology to determine what platforms to use to demonstrate that they have grasped the content.

“If they are presenting on a book study, they can turn what would have been an old-fashioned book report into a highly interactive PowerPoint presentation,” Hammack says. “Or, they could use apps to cartoon the story.”

Ultimately, Brown County educators envision these competencies charting each student’s path after graduation. “We want to make sure we don’t have any students sitting at graduation and not knowing what’s next,” Hammack says.

Teaching soft skills in music and science

Diversity and inclusion are driving forces behind the Profile of a Graduate initiative launched at Glenbard Township High School District 87 near Chicago, says Melissa Creech, the director of instructional technology.

Building the profile began with a communitywide survey that gathered feedback from about 1,000 students, staff members, educators, community members and others. District leaders then convened a Portrait of a Graduate committee consisting of about 65 stakeholders from inside and outside the school system.

More from DA: How students coded a path to expanded learning

The district established six competencies: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, embracing diversity and self-empowerment. Educators then built rubrics spelling out how each of these competencies would be taught and assessed.

“It tells us, for example, what thinking critically looks like in social studies, and what creativity looks like in science,” Creech says. “If I walk into a music class, it tells me that the students are self-empowered.”

Throughout the process, administrators have prioritized gathering input from students. “Student voice was so important to have,” she says.

“To hear our students talk about what they think they need for their futures was really powerful.”