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Portrait of a Graduate Story

Vision. Beliefs. Mission.

We’ve all seen them — colorful posters, opening statements on the website, meaningful prose reflecting lofty aspirations.  Nearly every district across every state has posted its vision, its beliefs and its mission statement. It’s an expectation. In fact, when we read them, we give them a smile and nod of appreciation, and then go on our way – even if it’s our home district.

But what can breathe life into these hopes, dreams, and words on a page?  Imagine for a moment what it would be like if all district stakeholders – students, teachers, leaders, parents, and the community –  helped shape that vision and then used it as the district North Star. Let’s tell you a story about one such district. . . 

Yuma Union High School District #70 on the southern border of Arizona has long promoted a powerful mission statement: “Every student - college, career, and community prepared.”  Nearly every member of the administrative team and teaching staff can recite that statement. Even many of the students can, as well.  The Mission’s promise has been Yuma Union’s visible branding: the heading on many documents, hallway banners, and signage in front of schools. Each year, the Superintendent’s “Welcome” message on the website explains expectations for the district and her personal commitment to this mission. This year, she signed off with “Fiery Proud” – again indicating the unwavering commitment from the top.  

Commitment to learners has been – and will continue to be – the pulse of this district.

But just what does this mission look like for learners?  Saying it another way: “As a student, how will I know if I am college-ready, career-ready, or community-ready?”   “What are the markers and guideposts along the way?”  “What does it look like?”  “Can somebody help?”  

Working with the Center for the Future of Arizona and KnowledgeWorks to transform to a personalized, competency-based learning system, Yuma Union’s  leaders recognized early the need for a “North Star” document that would answer those learners’ questions. A document that would enable all learners to know just how “ready” they are for their future. A document to be known as the Portrait of a Yuma Union Graduate. 

The rationale was simple: if we want learners to develop the agency to guide their own learning, then they need a road map to know where they start the journey and to know when they’ve arrived.  Sure, we have the academic standards that identify content, concepts, and processes learners have to master. But those content standards aren’t the only “life-ready” attributes.  

In fact, some would argue that they aren’t as important as other universal life-skills.  

So how did Yuma Union create their North Star? Let’s take a look at this district’s strategic moves and processes along the way.  

In 2019,  Yuma Union High School District #70 committed to transform the district to a system of Personalized, Competency-based Learning. As the PCBL work spread across campuses and indicated systems needs, the Superintendent created a new position - the Director of Strategic Projects. The Director’s role would be to guide, lead, communicate, and advise all areas of the PCBL transformation. The Director’s first major task was to develop the district Portrait of a Graduate (PoG). That assignment was like building a plane while you’re  flying it!  In other words, simultaneously do all the day-to-day work for PCBL systems transformation AND develop PoG processes to determine the attributes the Yuma community expects in its graduates. 

The Director never worked in isolation. He collaborated with the three other members of the district Teaching and Learning (T&L) team - sharing ideas, getting feedback, and developing processes. That collaboration served as a check-and-adjust barometer every step of the way. 

Seeking Community Input 
The team created a Google survey to poll all stakeholder groups inside and outside the district. Using the characteristics from the Gallup Strengths-finder work, survey participants evaluated 22 attributes as Essential, Desirable, or Not Important.  Of the 4,000 surveys emailed to administration, staff, students, parents and community stakeholders, the team received over 1,060 responses across all stakeholder groups.   

After studying the data, the T&L team developed a protocol for Round Two, a protocol which had participants cluster the Essential and Desirable attributes into themes.  The T&L team practiced using the protocol, refined the instrument, then piloted the process with the Executive Leadership team from the District Office. Both groups’ suggestions and results enabled further refinement of the process. Over 500 volunteers including teachers, parents, and community members were invited to the stakeholder meetings to participate in Round Two.  By the end of the series of stakeholder meetings in April 2022, the participants had identified key themes and attributes. But the input process wasn’t complete yet. In April 2022, over 300 students from across the six campuses participated in the same protocol. 

At the end of these community-wide meetings, the District Data Director worked with the T&L team to sort the data into spreadsheets that clearly identified those attributes the Yuma Union community valued most.  After much discussion, the T&L team named the top six attributes based on that data: Self-Aware Learner, Resilient Learner, Communicator, Critical Thinker, Collaborator, and Empathetic Learner. 

Oftentimes, a district believes it’s finished at this point and can post a lovely, glossy poster that features its targeted life skills. Not the case in Yuma Union. Remember that the commitment was always to make this a valued tool for the LEARNERS.

Developing the Competencies 
Creating the full Portrait required a meeting of the minds and much more collaboration. The Director of Strategic Projects invited all teachers to participate in the next level of the work. The district provided funds to pay 38 teacher volunteers 25 hours each to write/ create a usable PoG.  Guided by two KnowledgeWorks coaches, the 38 volunteers broke into Attribute teams and started working the first week of Summer break.  They expanded the six identified attributes by researching and defining each attribute, identifying key competencies within the attribute, and creating developmental continuum for each competency. Each Attribute team wrote the descriptions of behaviors / dispositions for each competency in learner-friendly language to ensure the usability of the document. All of the writers agreed that this couldn’t become just a poster on the wall. Each team organized the document in three bands: Grades 9-10, Grades 11-12, and Post-Secondary. (In some districts, those band titles could correlate with Developing, Proficient, Extending or similar indicators of growth and progress.)  

By the Thursday of the first week in June, each writing team completed its task. They then reviewed other teams’ work, provided feedback, discussed and defended, and captured ideas on how the document could be used in the schoolhouse. In July, nine members of the writing teams edited the full document for alignment, grammar, and clarity – never shifting or changing intent of the authors. They also created powerpoint presentations for multiple audiences – explaining the Why and the What of the Portrait of a Graduate.  Once the editing team was satisfied with the product, the Director ensured the final document had a place to live on the district site. 

While the editing team was working, the district Graphics communication specialist began designing drafts of the public-facing documents. Rounds of feedback from multiple internal groups improved the visuals and brought the Yuma context to life on the page by adding  famous landmarks like the Ocean to Ocean highway bridge.  

The Roll Out 
In August, the Director began the roll out process with district leaders, district office staff, principals and building administrators. Helping leaders understand the role of the PoG as a learning tool  was critical to the success of the project.  In September, Principals rolled out the PoG to their teachers using the resources provided, then helped staff share the Portrait with their students. Meanwhile, the Director held informational meetings with local organizations, business leaders, and parent groups to share the document and enlist support.  The Director and team shared the Portrait of a Yuma Union Graduate with the district’s elected Governing Board during a study session in September 2022 at the request of the Superintendent. 

In the words of the Associate Superintendent, this first year is all about awareness and understanding. The district’s goal is for learners and teachers to get comfortable with the Portrait and its competencies. Teachers will design lessons/ units and incorporate appropriate competencies in their design. Learners will use the Portrait to identify where they are and reflect on what they need to learn/ do before graduation. Families and community members will learn about the Portrait and consider how they might support it in their work.  By the end of 2022-2023, the district leaders expect ideas to bubble up from staff and students that will define how the Portrait becomes an integral part of their assessment and reporting systems. In 2023-2024, the Portrait will be a viable means for learners to direct, demonstrate, and document their growth – “college, career, and community ready!”