NGLC asked five school and district sites how they answered this essential question: How might we redesign teaching and learning to ensure all students have high-quality learning experiences that help them continuously develop the competencies in our Portrait of a Graduate? Their unique approaches to align teaching and learning to their vision of student success can be a catalyst to transform learning in schools and districts all across the U.S.

Explore the rich multimedia stories of The Portrait of a Graduate in Practice at Bullitt County Public Schools in Kentucky, Lindsay Unified School District in California, Northern Cass School District in North Dakota, Da Vinci Schools in California, and Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin. The stories feature first-hand narratives—written and audio—from nearly 50 learners, teachers, school and district leaders, and more.

Table of Contents

Immerse yourself in colorful imagery, real student work, teacher tools, and a multitude of voices and perspectives to see how each community’s unique vision of student success comes to life in their schools.

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What Is a Portrait of a Graduate?

A Portrait of a Graduate is a school or district’s collective vision for student success.

Also known as a Graduate Profile, Portrait of a Learner, Habits of Success, Lifelong Learning Standards, and other expressions, this vision describes the skills and competencies that a community agrees its young people need to thrive in learning, work, and life. NGLC’s MyWays Student Success Framework synthesizes these 21st-century competencies around four domains: Content Knowledge, Creative Know How, Habits of Success, and Wayfinding Abilities.

Today’s students face an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world as they are doing the work of growing up. Widening opportunity gaps and changing job markets demand far different skills and knowledge than were ever needed before. We are finding that the college and career readiness that K-12 schools traditionally provide is not enough to equitably prepare our youth for the extraordinary opportunities for learning, work, and life that this time of accelerating change offers.

Portrait of a Graduate Examples

Many schools and districts display their vision of student success in a poster. This visual becomes an easily recognizable and understandable expression of the skills and abilities a successful graduate possesses. See these examples from the five Portrait of a Graduate in Practice sites and then read on to find out what happens after they put up the poster!

Portrait of a Graduate examples

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Bullitt County Public Schools, Kentucky

Moving Forward Together

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The BCPS Graduate Profile

Empathy for learners and what they need in a society that is evolving and changing is the reason Bullitt County Public Schools is “moving forward” to transform learning. The Graduate Profile represents the “community’s plan for how to move forward together to make sure that our kids were best equipped to succeed when they graduated high school,” says superintendent Jesse Bacon.

Learner Profile Skills and Competencies

Effective Communicator, Innovative Problem Solver, Mastery Learner, Self-Directed Navigator, Productive Collaborator, Community Contributor

Creating Change, Bullitt-Style

BCPS educators are empowered as innovators who “Bullitt-ize” new learning designs and classroom practices by adapting them to align with the strengths and values of their community. Change is both intentional and organic, with professional learning cohorts driving both kinds of change. The goal is universal and equitable access to powerful learning that supports students to develop the competencies in the Graduate Profile.

New Learning Designs for Success

Experiential learning, such as project-based learning and authentic, real-world tasks, is on the rise. Learning and assessment are shifting to give students the agency to own more of their learning journey and have a voice in how they demonstrate their learning. In the story, instructional coach Beau Kaelin and math teacher Kim Ludwig describe the changes in mindset and practice that they have made, and how students have responded.

Lessons Learned

Building a culture of innovation and improvement requires explicit messaging and modeling that failure is a natural and expected part of growth.

Bringing about transformative change—and building the capacity to sustain those changes—cannot be hurried or forced.

The support of stakeholders in the wider community comes from true engagement and listening, not asking for approval of something already decided.

Move Forward with BCPS

Read the story and listen to this 8-minute podcast where math teacher Kim Ludwig and a learner in her class describe a project where students designed an amusement park fountain and demonstrated their understanding of both Algebra 2 concepts and Graduate Profile competencies in the process.

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Lindsay Unified School District, California

Learners at the Center

LUSD POG Cover

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The LUSD Strategic Design

Adopted in 2007, the LUSD Strategic Design defines shared values; a vision for curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and success for learners that includes Lifelong Learning Standards. As superintendent Tom Rooney explains, the Lifelong Learning Standards express what learners “need to know, understand, and be like in order to thrive.”

Lifelong Learning Standards

Quality Producer & Resource Manager; Culturally Aware Person; Responsible Global Citizen; Caring and Compassionate Person; Civic-Minded Person; Well-Balanced Person; Self-Directed, Lifelong Learner

Creating Change, Lindsay Unified-Style

Putting learners first is a major shift for new teachers, known at LUSD as learning facilitators. It requires personalization and flexibility, giving up ownership, and meeting learners where they are even if the content is outside of the grade-level. The district has set up its own pipeline for recruiting, hiring, and supporting learning facilitators, and relies heavily on coaching that encourages a growth mindset to support them.

New Learning Designs for Success

LUSD is a competency-based, personalized learning district that puts learners first. Because the Lifelong Learning Standards require active and ongoing cultivation of skills, they are embedded throughout the curriculum starting in the earliest grades. Learning facilitators are encouraged to integrate the Lifelong Learning Standards with academic learning, facilitated by the tech-enabled performance-based system. In the story, several teachers describe how they have developed this practice over time.

Lessons Learned

Focusing exclusively on academic achievement led to necessary and significant improvements for LUSD learners, but many people did not see early on the powerful role Lifelong Learning Standards could play in their learning transformation.

Involve learners when creating a portrait of a graduate or lifelong learning standards. Ask parents in your community what they want for their kids.

Embark on Lifelong Learning with LUSD

Read the story. With the first podcast below, listen to three learners describe how they are becoming self-directed, lifelong learners. And then listen to the superintendent explain why Lifelong Learning Standards matter for all learners.

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Northern Cass School District, North Dakota

Supporting Learners to Achieve Greatness

NCSD POG Cover

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The NCSD Portrait of a Learner

After first developing a Portrait of a Graduate without learners at the table, the district co-created the Northern Cass Portrait of a Learner with learners. According to superintendent Cory Steiner, parents are unequivocal in their support of the current portrait’s skills as “the most important outcomes for ensuring their kids can be happy, healthy, fulfilled human beings.”

Portrait of a Learner Skills and Competencies

Accountability, Communication, Adaptability, Learner’s Mindset, Leadership

Creating Change, Northern Cass-Style

Changing the district’s learning model was prompted by the desire to create a school system that values every individual learner for who they are and gives them the time they need. With an ambitious vision for complete systems transformation, NCSD began with flexibility around pace and have been incorporating additional learning innovations over time. Adult learning is personalized with freedom to take risks, to engage in a personalized professional learning plan, and to collaborate and support collective capacity building.

New Learning Designs for Success

NCSD embraces a personalized, competency-based system, with flexible pacing, standards-based grading, and learner agency. Educators are encouraged to intentionally address Portrait of a Learner competencies as they teach the priority standards for their courses. In the story, teachers describe how real-world experiences provide relevant opportunities to observe and practice Portrait of a Learner skills, and they share how the senior capstone presentations and the eighth grade gateway course are designed so students can reflect on the portrait.

Lessons Learned

Design with learners, not for them. If you miss an opportunity to include learners, take a step back to move forward with them.

Portrait of a Learner competencies like Adaptability and Learner’s Mindset apply to the adults as well as the learners.

Continuous improvement comes from always trying new activities and new methods. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. That’s how we grow our practice and become great at what we do.

This work is really difficult, but other communities are doing this work too. Find your partners and work together to help each other.

Achieve Greatness with NCSD

Read the story. Listen to seniors talk about how a course has prepared them for future success with the first podcast below. And then hear from three educators for their perspectives on personalized learning, real-world connections, and relevance.

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Da Vinci Schools, California

Re-Imagining “School”

Da Vinci POG Cover

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The DV Schools Future-Ready Skills for a Modern World

The Da Vinci Signature Programs and Practices establish a common identity across the innovative approaches used at each of the network’s schools to develop future-ready skills. Two DV schools are highlighted in the story. DV Connect High School’s Habits of Heart and Mind list a set of capabilities and dispositions for their learners. The DV RISE Graduate Profile skills integrate academic and social-emotional learning so students know who they want to be, where they want to go, and how to take on the world around them.

Learner Profile Skills and Competencies

DV Connect Habits of Heart and Mind: Quality, Empathy, Equity, Agency, Collaboration, Accountability
DV RISE Graduate Profile: Effective Communicator, Tactful Collaborator, Skilled Problem-Solver, Critical Thinker, Empowered Citizen

Creating Change, Da Vinci-Style

As a community of innovators, all schools in the DV network are united by a shared mission that is both visionary and human-centered. Each school is empowered to organize time, space, and staff in ways that will best support their learners to reach success on their chosen pathways. They are reinventing school structures and outdated systems of learning in order to solve the college completion crisis, the misalignment between education and workforce, and the challenge of preparing students for the modern world. In the story, Da Vinci leaders note that continuous change can be challenging but they are committed to responding to learners’ needs.

New Learning Designs for Success

The primary learning model in all DV schools is defined by “Signature Practices:” project-based with public demonstrations of learning; a people-first culture; partnerships with industry, higher education, and community organizations; and transparency to serve as a model for on-campus, hybrid, and remote learning from preschool to college to career.

  • Da Vinci Connect’s high school is a hybrid early college experience, emphasizing social-emotional learning, real-world learning, and wrap-around supports. “We want to prepare our kids for all possible outcomes, and we talk openly about how content is maybe 50 percent of what we teach kids,” explains executive director Michelle Rainey.
  • Da Vinci RISE was designed with and for youth experiencing homelessness, foster care, housing instability, the juvenile justice system, and populations considered transient. This independent study hybrid school works with every student to create a personalized learning plan to navigate through an interdisciplinary, competency-based learning model.

Lessons Learned

Signature practices don’t have to be implemented all at once. Do it slowly and bite off a piece at a time. Embedding the Graduate Profile in advisory is a good place to start.

Traditional school systems are created to keep people away from the people who make the decisions. Do the opposite. Center student voices and solicit community voice in everything you do.

Re-Imagine School with DV

Read the story for in-depth interviews with leaders of Da Vinci Institute, DV Connect, and DV RISE. Then hear directly from learners in the podcasts below. First, listen to a DV Connect learner and her principal discuss how the school prepares learners for success in the modern world. Next, hear a DV RISE learner share what it’s like to be seen as family as she is “rising to success.”

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Kettle Moraine School District, Wisconsin

Pushing the Boundaries of Learning


KMSD POG Cover

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The KMSD Graduate Profile

Building on the Kettle Moraine School Board’s longtime focus on “academic excellence, citizenship, and personal development,” the Kettle Moraine Graduate Profile provides a common goal that unifies a diverse community dispersed across 90 square miles and 10 municipalities. This vision for success defines the core outcomes for all learners, no matter which high school program or learning pathway they choose. The KMSD community is currently updating the Graduate Profile to reflect its importance at all grade levels.

Learner Profile Skills and Competencies

Continuous Learner, Communicator, Collaborator, Creative & Critical Thinker, Engaged Citizen, Self-Directed & Resilient Individual

Creating Change, Kettle Moraine-Style

Kettle Moraine embraces a flat and distributed leadership model that supports pockets of innovation and empowers individuals and teams to move quickly and be responsive to the needs of learners. Micro-credentialing provides autonomy in professional development to explore passions, and instructional coaching helps scale learning innovations that are working by making connections, encouraging collaboration, and leveraging the strengths of educators in their community.

New Learning Designs for Success

Superintendent Stephen Plum explains, “The Graduate Profile... is your vehicle. This is how you see the world.” As such, the Graduate Profile provides focus, relevance, and agency for the district’s personalized learning model. The learning design features student goal setting paired with evidence of growth, personalized learning plans, learner agency, and real-world learning and impact. Although it initially “lived” in advisory, in the story, educators describe their work to apply a disciplinary lens to each skill at all grade levels.

Lessons Learned

Students have grand goals for their lives, and we need to prepare them for more than content mastery, which they can accomplish simply by looking things up on the internet.

A district culture of creativity, flexibility, collaboration, and agency creates the conditions needed to achieve the promise of the Graduate Profile.

People are afraid of messing up, but you have to feel empowered to try new things and figure out how to make them work, for students’ sake.

Push the Boundaries of Learning with KMSD

Read the story and listen to the 8-minute podcast below where two KMSD learners describe some of the learning experiences that are preparing them as leaders who are making an impact on their world.


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What to Look for in the Stories: Portrait of a Graduate Themes

When you explore the multimedia stories and podcasts, look for the unique approach that each site is taking related to these themes.

Community Engagement

All five school/district sites worked directly with community members to create their Portrait of a Graduate. The people we interviewed repeated over and over how important it is to bring teachers, students, parents, local employers, and community partners together as early as possible. As a result, the skills and competencies prioritized by each Portrait of a Graduate distinctly reflects what each community wants and needs for their young people when they graduate high school. In turn, the portrait expresses a distinct mission and vision for their school/district.

Redesigning Learning at All Levels

A Portrait of a Graduate is focused on graduates and educators typically start applying the skills and competencies in them to the high school years. But districts are also rethinking elementary school and middle school, making sense of the Portrait of a Graduate from preschool on up. The stories describe tools like grade-level indicators and a continuum of skills and learning experiences that engage even the youngest learners in their Portrait of a Graduate competencies.

Redefining Equity in Learning

Each student and each school community is distinct, with its own background, history, and culture. The five school/district sites are using their Portrait of a Graduate to "design at the margins." For example, they are redefining student success in a culturally-responsive way and developing learning experiences that recognize the strengths of all students, meeting their needs and helping their unique gifts and talents shine.

Student Work that Showcases Portrait of a Graduate Competencies

The stories and podcasts showcase many, many examples of actual student work that demonstrates Portrait of a Graduate competencies. The five school/district sites are reframing assessment in light of skills and competencies that are hard to measure in traditional standardized tests. Look for projects and performance assessments that help both learners and educators understand whether the learners will have these skills by the time they graduate. Listen to first-hand accounts by learners in the podcasts!

Teaching to the Test Portrait

What is it like for teachers when their school/district adopts a Portrait of a Graduate? In our interviews, teachers shared how they have changed their instruction and what student learning now looks like in their classes. When the vision of student success becomes broader than proficiency on state tests and end-of-course exams, teachers must make significant instructional shifts, so professional learning and support in the five school/district sites has changed as well. Look for tools teachers have created, lesson and project designs, and the challenges as well as the joys of "teaching to the Portrait." Also look for aspects of their school culture that supports innovation and learning redesign.

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Activate Your Vision of Student Success

Developing a Portrait of a Graduate with broad community involvement is a significant step, but it's only the beginning. Just as important is what comes next.

It is our hope that as you explore these stories, you gain inspiration and practical strategies to work on what’s next for your school community.

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The Portrait of a Graduate in Practice was developed by Next Generation Learning Challenges with funding provided by the Barr Foundation. NGLC extends our appreciation to Amanda Avallone and Stefanie Blouin for their contributions to this project.

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