by Mark Kostin
When I was a graduate student in the early 1990s pursuing an educational leadership and policy degree, I was introduced by my adviser to a unique (at least, to me) community involvement process. Each year a few high schools would reach out to the university’s extension service, of which I was a part, and ask our team to run a community event. Invariably about fifty members of the community would show up and, after a few welcoming remarks from the principal, we would take over and split folks into groups of ten and use a facilitative group process (these days, we might refer to this as a small group discussion with a protocol and norms) and asked three questions:
- What is it that we want our students to know and do when they graduate from our school?
- How can the school support students to achieve these?
- What can community members do to help students?
In Toronto, where I taught, this kind of local involvement was new to me. I was impressed that fifty or more people showed up and genuinely participated in these sessions. Following these community forums, we would write a summary of the evening and share it with the school’s leaders. Two patterns emerged over time. First, regardless of the town we were in, the answers to the questions we asked were the same. Communities wanted their graduates to have solid communication skills, be good collaborators, exhibit curiosity, and have the stamina and skills to solve novel problems. Second, despite the positive turnout and buzz of these forums, the ideas generated by community members didn’t seem to go anywhere.
As I think about the necessary ingredients to transforming schools so that all students receive the supports and have the experiences necessary to be prepared for the post-secondary careers and continuing education and training of their choice, equitably and meaningfully engaging with all members of a school’s community is essential. While there might be no better way to initiate a dialogue with community members about what they want most for their graduates, the real promise—and the real work—of the Portrait of a Graduate must go deeper.
So here are three considerations to keep in mind as you start to engage in this work:
Meaningfully engage all stakeholders
If we insist on continuing to use the same recruitment, invitation, and engagement strategies, we will continue to engage the same limited group. This will result in a Portrait of a Graduate that represents only what a fraction of our community envisions and consequently only what a fraction of our community supports. Reach out directly to civic leaders, church leaders, and other leaders in the community. (Here are some tools to spark your thinking.) Meaningfully invest in developing relationships. Let go of the reflex to host meetings in your spaces and during times that are most convenient to you. And finally, listen. Really listen.
Adopt a curiosity mindset
Equitable community engagement doesn’t mean promoting an idea you want everyone to endorse. It means truly investing in developing a Portrait of a Graduate that represents the perspectives and dreams of all community members. Be prepared for push-back on preconceived ideas. Take the time to listen and to engage in dialogue. Adopting a curiosity mindset means truly being open to possibilities and to accepting that the best solutions emerge when we step outside our comfort zone and beyond what we believe we already know. Isn’t this what we want for our students?
If what gets measured is what matters most, then measure it
One of the reasons the initial energy and promise that emerges from community engagement around a Portrait of a Graduate fizzles is that we don’t think about how we can support, assess, and report on students’ emerging competency on the skills and concepts that make up our portrait. If we truly believe that these skills and concepts are important, then we need to build a framework that provides all students with regular opportunities to learn, practice, demonstrate, and reflect upon their emerging abilities. And we have to develop ways to assess them and provide meaningful and actionable feedback so students can grow and reach expectations. Assessing these transferable skills is hard work, but if we don’t assess them, then all of the time, energy, and hope invested in your Portrait of a Graduate will be for naught.
Let’s recognize that, like all successful transformation efforts, we must equitably engage stakeholders, be willing to listen and consider all ideas, and thoughtfully and consistently assess and report progress. Our students are depending on us.