PODCAST: Ready, Set, Graduate

What do today’s graduates need in order to succeed and thrive? One school district is taking a hard look at itself to answer that question and make sure its students are ready for the world.


I’m Sarah Earle and this is Reaching Higher New Hampshire’s podcast, School Talk. Graduation season is upon us with all its effervescent optimism, and this year’s mood feels especially celebratory considering how much our schools and students have been through over the past 15 months. So what do today’s graduates look like? What opportunities and challenges lie ahead and how can they be prepared for them?

Carisa Corrow runs Educating for Good, a Penacook-based consulting service for schools, and she’s been working for more than a year with the Franklin School District on its Portrait of a Graduate program. She joined me to chat about the vision the Franklin community has mapped out for its young people and how it plans to make that vision a reality. 

In a nutshell, what does the Portrait of a Graduate program entail?

So the Portrait of a Graduate is really a process, where a community comes together and answers the question ‘what do we want our students to know and be able to do by the time they leave our schools?’ And to answer that in lots of different ways from different stakeholders and perspectives, and to put all that together and look for themes and understand what the community’s hopes are in general, and then use that to guide programming and guide policy and guide curriculum and instruction and really thinking about transforming the school in a way that will be meaningful to the community and students and set the students up for success. 

I understand that schools qualify for the program based on metrics that indicate need, and I think Franklin is one of the school districts in the state that often gets talked about in terms of its struggles. It was one of the original districts to sue the state over the way it funds schools, and, since the funding formula has changed very little in the decades since, it still faces budget crunches that pit tax equity against educational adequacy year after year. But I want to start by asking you what you love about Franklin. You began your teaching career there, and you’ve now spent well over a year working closely with educators, students, city leaders, and community members. What do you love? What do you wish more people knew about Franklin? 

I don’t know that I’m the best person to answer that really, because there’s lots of folks that have such great deep stories about this community. My grandmother and my great grandparents are actually from Franklin, and probably more generations than that. My grandmother is actually a graduate from this high school, ‘44. She died when I was 6, and we were very close. There’s this special thing about the school. For me personally that’s kind of a special thing. And then of course, my first two years teaching here are very special times for me because I learned so much about working with kids who are living in poverty and thinking about their hopes and their goals and their barriers and really thinking about their humanity and not leaving them behind. So that was a really special time for me, and we had the school store, so all of that’s really special. 

But there’s something special about the folks in the community that you can really feel when you come and talk to them. I’ve been talking to folks all over — transfer station, the Elks Club, in line waiting for their meals, the farmers’ market, we went down to the Mayor’s Drug Taskforce — so we’ve been all over, right? And when you talk to folks, they love this community. They love it. People know each other here. It’s about 8,000 citizens, and they know each other, and I think that’s really special. 

One of my favorite things about Franklin, and I’m so glad they’re able to do a little bit of it this year, is the class day parade. And I’ve never seen it in another school district in New Hampshire, but maybe it exists. 

What is it? 

They bring the whole student body, K-12, and the littles go first, and the middle school, and the high school graduates in their caps and gowns come last. It’s just like a really awesome community display. Because of COVID they have to change it a little bit this year, but next year I’m sure it will come back in full. 

But it’s really just a special community. I do think that there are people who live here that could speak more to that. 

Right. And I will. We’ve been working together over the past few months, and there’s more stories to tell for sure, so we’ll be doing that. …So what have you learned through this process and what do you think the school community has learned about itself? It’s a pretty intense, deep dive. What have you learned? 

I think one of the things that I’ve learned that I’m really going to take away from this in a lot of different places, is that no matter who you ask, they all have similar hopes for students. We know that in New Hampshire there’s a lot of politics, and it’s pretty purple, say, but regardless of who I talk to, folks want the best for the kids. They want kids to be happy. A lot of conversation around mental health, and feeling satisfied with the job you have. So being able to have a job that you love is really important to the folks I talk to. Wanting students to be able to navigate the world, whether it’s thinking about opening a bank account or changing a tire or budgeting or cooking. Those kinds of things were really important. And it didn’t matter who you talked to, those were the kinds of things that came up. Old, young, I didn’t ask folks their political affiliation, but assuming that it’s a mixed bag when you go to all these different places and talk to folks. And so that’s one thing that I really took away from this is that people when you just talk about kids, they have the same hopes, in general, for kids in the community, which was really … hopeful.

That’s great. Can you tell me a little bit more about what the — I guess you have kind of a working portrait now. Can you tell me a little more about what it is, what it looks like, and then how it kind of shows what people want for their young people, for their graduates?

We talked to about 400 folks, and that includes students, teachers, alumni, community members. So we have about 400 pieces of raw data. And some of those conversations were deep conversations, and some were three minute conversations with folks. And so we looked at that, we have a working team that looked at that information and came up with some themes from what they saw. And then we looked at some different models from across the country and which ones connected with what the community was seeing. And we came up with six commitments, and these six commitments really form the Portrait of a Graduate. We took for example “commitment to learning,” and we thought “what does that look like?” So we have a statement about what that looks like. And then, “what are the skills that students demonstrate if they have a commitment to learning?” And so we came up with those, and then it’s really about whittling down and wordsmithing and those kinds of things. And one of the things that we thought was, we don’t want to say “these are the skills” but “skills such as…” We don’t want to say, “these are absolute, this is set in stone, that these are the only ways you can demonstrate a commitment to learning or community or resourcefulness.” But “here are some examples.” And from there we could start to think about what changes we need to make in school.

So what changes do need to happen for that portrait to become a reality, and do you see challenges that the school community may face in getting there? 

Besides funding? Because that’s an issue in the whole state. 

Well, that’s obviously a piece of it, so feel free to talk about that. 

So, part of the work is not just to develop a portrait but to develop an action plan. We worked with the leadership team, administrative team, to think about where the school’s been in the last five years, what’s happening now, and then the hope for the future. So we did some of that visioning a little bit, connecting to the portrait and the language of the portrait. And then we asked ourselves, “what conditions need to exist for that to happen?” Not just like, “what do we need to implement?” but “what conditions need to exist?” 

We created this metaphor of a rock wall, sort of a New England rock wall, and you know that there’s so much underneath the ground on the foundation of these rock walls. Feet down, three, four, five feet down. The foundation that we think needs to exist for the portrait to become operational and to really be embedded is community relationship and communication, and also professional development. 

And so, thinking about those two as foundational pieces, we need those in place first in order for us to move on some of those other things like portfolio or a senior project, as an example, that we really have personalized learning that’s meaningful and not ad hoc. So those are the conditions that need to be in place. A lot of it for professional development — and this is not just in Franklin, so I think that’s important to know — is about mindsets and what school could look like. A lot of times when we’re thinking about redesigns or how school could be different, we’re thinking about our own experiences and we’re building on those experiences, so it’s almost limited by our own imaginations or our own experiences. 

And so, that professional development is really about allowing folks to design and play. And so next year that’s what our action plan is about: a year of joyful play. So to play around with the language and really think about what it means: where we’re already doing it, what we need to do, and how could we do it differently? Just be able to imagine. 

You spoke with me earlier about how the Portrait of a Graduate program kind of begins with the end in mind, and so I wanted to talk just briefly about assessment. We’ve been hearing a lot about assessment lately, partly because of the way COVID has underscored and amplified the challenges and shortcomings of effective and equitable assessment, and I know it’s also an area of expertise for you. How does the Portrait of a Graduate program inform the work of — you spoke earlier about meaningful learning — how does the program inform meaningful assessments? 

One of the questions that we asked, and we actually asked this at a school board meeting. We had a special meeting last week, and we did some play around the language. It was not like a regular school board meeting where folks were sitting down. We were moving around, having conversations. And one of the questions we asked was, “what evidence will you accept that students have demonstrated these skills?” And to really think about what students should be creating and what teachers should be looking at. And nowhere on that was standardized tests. Not one person, I’m looking for the standardized test score. 

But they did have other types of evidence, including portfolios and essays and presentations and working with different community members and having conversations. There’s a lot of different evidence you can collect. And so once we have that conversation about evidence, then assessment will change, right? Because now we’re looking for things that are sort of non-traditional pieces of evidence. And that’s sort of the promise of it is, of the Portrait is, “what skills do we want students to demonstrate?” “What evidence are we going to accept?” And then, the community should say, “okay we’re going to deliver on this promise. You deliver on your promise, we’ll deliver on our promise.” Right? The funding and the support. It’s not just about funding. There are all different ways a community can support its school. Mentorships, job shadows, internships, field-based learning, all of those different ways. So we need to think broadly and think more creatively about assessment and how students can demonstrate their skills and understanding.

How do you ensure that, or at least try to ensure that all of this work that the Portrait of a Graduate program is doing isn’t derailed by lack of funding? 

I think it would be really great for you to be able to talk to the superintendent, and even Jule Finley, the curriculum coordinator, because they’ve realized that your Portrait of a Graduate is part of your strategic plan. That’s the end goal, right? And Franklin has had a pretty good strategic plan since 2018. And it’s not just that they’ve had a strategic plan but that they revisit it often. It’s not like something they write and put on a wall and say, “here, it’s done.” So I think that’s unusual for some school districts. And then, this year, they have a committee that meets as part of the school district, and they’ve embedded the Portrait work into that strategic plan. And so I’m actually quite confident, whether or not Franklin gets specific additional funding, I’m confident Portrait of a Graduate work is going to be a driving force in the district whether or not they get additional funding for implementation. 

Tell me specifically about the work you’ve done with young people — current students, recent graduates, and former students who have left the school system for various reasons. How did you get students to engage in the work and what are the most valuable things you learned from them? 

Well the pandemic was certainly a barrier to connecting with students, but I was able to connect with students who were not necessarily successful here. Mostly I connected with them through the My Turn program, which supports students in employment. I connected with them and interviewed them. I did three or four really long interviews with students just to get their perspective on what worked and what didn’t work for them. 

And I think that, this isn’t necessarily information that was new to me, but more validating, is that students know, and they can tell you what’s working and not working for them, and it’s really important to get that feedback in the moment rather than waiting for post-graduation to say, “oh, what didn’t work for you?” But you know when a student doesn’t have their requirements met after ninth grade that something’s not right, and they can tell you what’s not right, right there. You can get that feedback right away. And sometimes it’s something that the school can support, right? If it’s something like, “hey, I can’t get here in time. How can you help me navigate my life so I can get to school?” or “I need food.” Or whatever, those kinds of things. But there’s other things that, once they’re in here, “well, school’s boring.” Or, “I don’t like the lessons. They’re not responsive to my needs or interests.” 

So you can have those conversations to make those changes in real time before they get to their senior year, or their fourth year in high school, where they’re undercredited. So students know. And that’s again, not just Franklin. That’s all schools. Just ask your kiddos, and they’ll tell you. They can tell you. They’ll tell you in elementary school. And they’re really good at it too. They know what they need. 

Thanks again to Carisa Corrow for joining me today. Stay tuned in the coming months for a closer look at the work the Franklin School District is doing on its Portrait of a Graduate program. School Talk is produced by our intern, Henry Lavoie. To stay up-to-date on education news, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.