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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

The JCPS Backpack for Success: Transforming the Student Experience

A few years ago, I was superintendent in a much smaller Kentucky district when I realized that, despite the plans we announced as students crossed the stage at graduation, many were leaving with a diploma in hand whose value was undefined at best. As a result, we educators began asking ourselves, “What does our diploma mean?”

Although we could quickly articulate what we hoped our high school diploma represented, in reality the best we could consistently say was that students had served their time and earned an average of at least a D minus. We knew then that we had to begin thinking differently about our work. It made sense to start by deciding what skills we wanted students to have when they graduated. We started making a list, the Danville Diploma, and it became our foundation for change.

After that experience, realizing how powerful it was to create what many now call a graduate profile, I was convinced this was where schools and districts had to begin – by deciding what skills and knowledge were most essential to students’ success, and then working to create the day-to-day experiences in the classrooms that would lead to those outcomes.

The superintendent and I met with school and district leaders, school staffs, and community and business leaders and asked them, while looking at a picture of a child they loved, to list the skills they wanted that child to have when they graduated. In other words, we would ask, “If that child came to school with a backpack that they would carry long after graduation, what would you want us to be sure we put inside?”

Each group created a very similar list – empathy, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, collaboration, and perseverance were especially common. We collected the lists and literally counted the words to determine which skills seemed most important to our district and the larger community. This was the start of what would become our five key Success Skills.

We knew we couldn’t stop there, however. Creating the graduate profile was easy. It was the next three questions we asked in those conversations that were especially revealing and critical:

  • If we know these are the skills we want our students to have when they graduate, what kinds of experiences do they need to develop those skills?
  • When and where, in your school, do kids have the chance to get these experiences?
  • Do ALL students have those opportunities?

In almost every case, the answer to the final question was no. Certainly, some students got to go to Robotics after school, but only those with transportation. Some students got to take part in activities like building life-size boats from cardboard, creating podcasts, and designing self-sustaining communities, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case for most.

Much more common was that only students who were on track academically in schools in certain zip codes got to take part in those kinds of rich learning experiences. Students who were behind were often spending most of their time on basic tasks while missing out on the most fun and engaging kinds of learning. We had an equity problem.

Neither my superintendent nor I can remember the moment when we decided we wanted each student to have a virtual backpack, but we knew it had to happen. If we truly wanted our newly created graduate profile to leverage the changes we had to make, we had to bring it to life.

We decided that every year each student would need to collect evidence of their learning toward each of the five Backpack Success Skills. We wanted them to have to make a case, or defense, that they were ready for the next step in their education. These defenses came during key transition points either from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, or high school to their post-secondary path. This meant almost 22,000 defenses had to take place in the next school year. Although many suggested that we start with a small number of schools the first year, we didn’t believe it was right for any students to miss out on what we knew could be transformative. Far too many students were already missing out on the best of learning experiences. This had to change.

Our teachers and leaders – and students – have been amazing. Early defenses are underway, and those fortunate enough to experience them so far as panelists are realizing our students are capable of so much more than they might have otherwise thought possible. The power of having a 10 year old stand in front of a group of almost 20 district leaders, as one did in January, and share her artifacts, making a case that she was equipped for middle school, is like nothing I can describe. She was as polished and poised as any adult. A young professional in the making whose mom and sister shared later that she was extremely shy. They were simply in awe.

We have a long way to go. Our Backpack is exposing vast differences in the expectations for our students from school to school. It is also exposing that our students are capable of so much more than we realized, and that test scores, although important, are part of a much, much bigger picture.

If we want our students to leave us with those skills we collectively identified, the day-to-day experiences have to change. As one especially insightful third grader said last summer when he learned about the Backpack, “Worksheets won’t be good artifacts.” We know tremendous shifts have to be made, and we know it won’t be easy. We also know that making these changes is simply not a choice if we are sincere in preparing our students for successful futures. In Jefferson County, we believe there is nothing more important than that.

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