So You Designed a Profile of a Graduate, Now What?

Your district, with community input and participation, has recently completed your Profile of a Graduate, (sometimes also known as a Graduate Profile or Learner Profile) now what? The ‘now what’ question is essential. If this is not acted upon, then it will join other missed opportunities like mission statements that collect dust. The act of creating a shared vision for graduates serves as a starting point to define a learner-centered system. This is the North Star and sets the future aspiration for the work ahead.

The first step is to co-author a shared vision for graduates with your community stakeholders. From there, we recommend the following considerations as a way to make your vision a reality.  

Review and share out the Profile of a Graduate (POG) with the community at large and share that you will be setting a course to achieve this goal.

  • Share that you will update them on growth and next steps.
  • Plan on stakeholder events as ways to share and gather information and feedback.
  • Work with a communications team or department to make the POG accessible and on the website.
  • Share in the ownership of this work and enlist a team approach with distributive leadership.

Change Management. The learning culture of an organization has always been extremely important, but it is more critical than ever for our communities and districts. This work is at the forefront to build readiness for change and is a continuous process to revisit as opportunities for growth arise.

  • Driving from your collective commitment to understanding change, design intentional feedback loops and transparent pathways for stakeholders to learn, engage, and co-design.
  • Be clear and transparent with leadership teams to lead with their values, and to actively use these values and outcomes to make decisions, and create the conditions in which they can succeed.
  • Setting the culture for change and growth is essential. Lead with mindset and dispositions toward transformation and lay the groundwork for the path ahead. See toolkit for teachers.

Define success metrics that align with desired outcomes in your profile of a graduate. Review, revise, refine your data collection. Define an aligned assessment platform that supports growth and deeper learning. This will lead to cleaner data collection protocols.

  • Create student, educator, and community surveys that gather input on experiences aligned with your POG.
  • Create expectations for student learning exhibitions and demonstrations of learning to show their growth in the desired outcomes. This is true for all learners.
  • Ensure that the report cards or other reporting mechanisms include metrics that align with your POG in addition to grades or standards reporting. This may require you to seek out other learning management tools to meet this need.
  • Set goals and track leading measures such as student progress, school attendance, discipline referrals, and enrollment.
  • Design aligned performance assessments that will help build an assessment model.

Use your POG as a north star to guide your strategic plan. Your POG needs to be visible and used to guide your strategic priorities and what is no longer needed.

Design or revise your learning model. Is there a clear vision for what learning experiences students should be engaged in that align with your desired outcomes? Do your resources, guides and schedules reflect the learning that you aspire to see in all classrooms? Where is the learning model meeting the need and where is it falling short? Instructional models are most effective when this is co-created or codesigned with a mix of stakeholders.

  • Refine your teaching and learning model. After instructional needs have been determined, align these with professional learning, coaching, and evaluation.
  • Codesign opportunities to help educators create experiences aligned with your learning model. This will be an iterative process as related needs are revealed when refining instructional practices.
  • Review effective strategies in place, highlight them and support teachers to use them.
  • Build off of strengths and strong instructional practices already in place.
  • Review induction and evaluation to make space for educators to try new strategies and evolve their practices.

This is the North Star and sets the future aspiration for the work ahead.

Rebecca Midles and Katie Martin

Create transparent look fors across learning levels. These can be referred to as progressions, or rubrics – essentially competencies – that help guide a system to vertically plan for the acquisition of desired knowledge, skills, and mindsets to be supported for learners across the system. Representation of learning needs from across the system should be at the heart of this work.

  • Make the profile accessible and clear for grade levels or grade bands.
  • Use co-designed look fors to highlight what is work and aspirations, not just checklist
  • Reflective questions on process alongside look fors invite teachers to self-reflect and assess their strengths and their needs for professional learning.
  • Empower students to self-assess and capture evidence of their learning, growth, and next steps.

Build a professional learning system that aligns with your desired outcomes to validate what is working and support new areas of growth and expectations. This is most effective with representation from educators who are fluent in working with learners of varying levels and backgrounds.

  • Engage with teachers to design educator competencies that support the learning model that will help achieve the graduate profile.
  • Create personalized learning pathways with and for teachers to understand where they are and learn based on their needs, context, and goals. Consider micro-credentialing teachers as they develop competency in desired areas.
  • Consider hiring instructional coaches that are either trained or will be trained to coach, advise and support educators.
  • Ensure professional learning time that is consistent and agile to respond to the needs of the system as it grows. This requires additional time that is embedded into the system for teachers to meet, share, collaborate and grow their practice.
  • The system could invest in learning communities across their system for leaders, related providers, paraprofessionals, and other related staff members that serve student learning.

Demonstrate and highlight examples. You may be able to go see aligned instructional practices in action that are outside of your district, and we recommend this! As soon as you can set up local examples, do. These opportunities will support understanding and professional growth.

  • Set up opportunities for peers to observe one another. These classrooms can be referred to as demonstration classrooms or sites, that are simply demonstrating where they are in the journey to meeting a shared vision for graduates.
  • Give careful consideration to framing observations and practices for professional growth. Not all observations provide examples where everything is aligned.
  • Treasure systems and teachers who are open to sharing their practices, receiving feedback, and collaborating. This commitment is how networks are started.

Celebrate and share learning to scale at each step of the journey

As we work with systems leaders to align their aspirations of what we really want school to be with daily practices, it can be also overwhelming to think about so many things that need to shift. As you continue to grow and evolve, it is critical that you make time to acknowledge what’s working and build from where you are. When you are meeting with students, families, or colleagues, try to identify progress, growth, and positives for your team and others so we can all learn and grow along with you.

Need more? Or did you start the process and have since found your team needing additional support? Getting Smart and Learner Centered Collaborative have worked together to support several districts in creating, updating, and implementing their POG. We’d love to support your team as you start your journey. Email Jessica to learn more.

The #NewPathways campaign will serve as a road map to the new architecture for American High Schools, where every learner, regardless of zip code, is on a pathway to productive and sustainable citizenship, high wage employment and economic mobility. Interested in telling your future of high school story? Email Editor.

Operation Breakthrough: Changing Life Trajectories From Birth to Citizenship

By: Tom Vander Ark, Rashawn Caruthers and Bill Nicely

Located in the heart of Kansas City, MO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to loving children and opening up their hearts to share what’s possible. Operation Breakthrough, a community partner serving kids from preschool through high school, is focused on the whole learner, the whole family and the whole community. Walking into the building and seeing a space alive with parents, learners, community members and healthcare professionals, the mission of providing a safe and loving environment for students in poverty rings true with every interaction.

What started as early learning and after school programming has grown into helping high school students continue to discover their interests. Recognizing that students needed support past age 14, Mary Esselman, President/CEO/Kid Whisperer, connected with partners to create The Ignition Lab. What was once a muffler shop and boarded up department store is now home to a human development center for elementary through high school students. The property was purchased by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his Eighty-Seven & Running foundation. Other donors included Cargile, Honeywell and the Stowers Foundation.

Open to all students, elementary students and freshmen from Hogan Prep cycle through the Ignition Lab every day. With a capacity of 100 students per morning and afternoon sessions, students experience all of the programs at the beginning of the year and then narrow it down to what their focus will be for the first semester. During the semester, they are given space to stay in their current program for the next semester or choose a different focus. All of the programs are focused on real world learning and students see the connection between one program and another. Students are also learning from real world teachers that include a military cook/private chef, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineer and a graphic artist.

Known as Ignition Lab Fellows, highly trained content specific professionals are on loan from the area corporations. Mary says, “The program really checks all the boxes. The fellows have an opportunity to give back to the community, our corporate partners fulfill their philanthropic goals and our kids get to learn from experts in the field.” Of equal importance is Mary’s ability to spot people who possess a real talent working with high need students. “It’s not just poverty our kids are experiencing, in many cases it’s some form of trauma as well.” For this reason, teachers and volunteers alike must possess the unique gift of deep empathy for all students and the grace to provide what they need when they need it. “I hire based on potential to interact with kids. I can tell if they have the right stuff.”

The confection of support services Operation Breakthrough provides to students and families might best be characterized as Wrap Around Services on steroids.  “If there is a need, we try to find a way for sustainable funding to provide it to our community.” As a result, all students receive free dental care at the onsite dental lab. Occupational and physical therapy along with speech and language therapy are provided for students in need. Partnering with Children’s Mercy Hospital, the in-house medical clinic supports not only to students, but family members and the community as space is available. On a tour of the various programs one would likely see the in-house food pantry, clothes closet, bread table for a quick grab and go and a sundry of other donated items as in free large carpet remnants to warm a cold bedroom floor. The goal is educating students, supporting their socio-emotional needs and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty. As such, financial counseling and literacy is a part of this arsenal.

With over 196 employees, 250 volunteers and funding sources that include govermenal, individual, corporate and from nonprofit foundations, Operation Breakthrough is anything but a boutique organization. With an eye on long-term sustainability, the board of directors recently started an endowment with the hopes of someday relieving some of the time and effort focussed on annual fundraising. As CEO, Mary’s strategic focus is on assessing the diverse needs of every child and measuring outcome effectiveness to better tell their stories of success and make program changes when there isn’t. These are indeed worthy goals that will insure the success of future students, and cloning this dynamic adult inspiring, kid whispering leader wouldn’t hurt either.

Esselman says, “We’re just a not-for-profit,” but with a focus on early STEM, programming for students in poverty to become self-directed learners and responsive community services/resources, she and the Operation Breakthrough team are “just” sparking real world learning experiences that are changing lives.

Bill Nicely is the former Kearney School District Superintendent, and is now an education consultant for Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Real World Learning Initiative and the Education Governance & Leadership Association.

Youth Corps SC: An Afterschool Program Creating Equity for All

Youth Corps SC (YC) provides effective leadership training and skills to 9th and 10th-grade students from the Midlands of South Carolina. YC students are encouraged to live a life of influence, to be productive citizens, lifelong learners, and to take responsibility for their lives, family, and community. YC achieves its vision through a one-year course of practical, firsthand, on-site experiential learning and leadership studies to transform the lives of students so that they can in turn influence those around them. The program engages students from as many as nineteen different high schools and has over five hundred alumni who have gone onto college and careers.

I spoke to Jeff Becraft, Director Emeritus of Youth Corps and Oakley Dickson Executive Director of Youth Corps in a quick Q & A about the impact of the pandemic on their program and the adjustment made to the program to make sure every student had an equitable experience. Here’s what they shared.

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What are some of the needs of students that are being addressed through afterschool programs? 

Jeff Becraft:

“For us, it was an opportunity to engage in experiential learning and relationships. This has a myriad of effects and outcomes. The process of engagement meets various needs within a student’s life. For instance, as human beings, we were created to relate to one another. Some of us may not do that on our own if we are introverted or feel insecure about ourselves, especially with someone who is different from us. But put students in a real-life experience, challenge, work project, or activity, and now they are working side by side and they are on one team. The other person is no longer just someone who is different from me, but they become a teammate. A bond is formed because we are now working together for a common goal and it is much easier to encourage one another and relate to one another… whether it is writing a poem, designing a t-shirt, making it through a ropes course obstacle, or putting on a new roof. There is a togetherness that happens that cannot happen by simply being in a classroom and talking about information. Not only are students now relating to one another on a deeper level (social) but there is an emotional connection – the sense of belonging to a team but also the deep satisfaction of accomplishing something great… something they thought they could not do before. Add in the dynamic of doing something for someone else (a low-income elderly person, a victim of crime, etc.), and the development is even greater. Now the student is working within a team, relating to others, discovering truths about themselves (and others), overcoming challenges, growing in many ways, making a difference, shifting the life of someone else, and discovering that this is a fun and significant way to live. They become part of something bigger than themselves. And in this process, they catch a whole new vision for their lives.”

What lessons have you learned as a leader?

Jeff Becraft:

“There is wisdom in having many advisors. I have used the expression, “I don’t know,” more times during the pandemic than any other time in my life. With so many variables and so many different perspectives on dealing with COVID 19, it is great to have a solid group of people you can go to and ask, “What is your perspective? What is the best way to manage this situation? How can we still engage the students and be safe? How is each family perceiving this?”  It is great to have the added wisdom of others.”

How are afterschool programs uniquely positioned to address issues of equity and access for students from all backgrounds?

Oakley Dickson:

“Youth Corps completed the Arts and Culture in September. We built in DEI conversations and surveys for students so we can understand where they are in this conversation. The goal during the Arts & Culture Module, which was hosted at Town Theater, was to help students begin to learn about various cultures, discover just how diverse the Midlands of South Carolina is from their own perspectives, and see them have conversations in creative ways. Students begin to get outside their comfort zones and begin to feel safe enough to truly open to one another. On Culture Night, Students from fifteen different high schools that are socioeconomically and culturally diverse, broke into groups of around 7-9 students paired with a community leader. Students were given a piece of paper towel where they ripped a piece to share something about how life is living in their shoes. Each student ripped a piece of paper towel off five different times and shared something about themselves after each rip. At the end of the breakouts, two students from each team were chosen by their peers to share a summary from the main stage to the crowd in the theater about what each team learned about one another. I loved hearing from a young lady who said, “We were excited to find out we have more in common than we do different. I now know more about my new YC friends than I ever have before.” During so much division in our country over so many things, Youth Corps students are finding commonality just in a few short weeks of knowing one another.” 

How has the implementation of afterschool programming been different during the pandemic?

Oakley Dickson:

“Youth Corps did not stop developing the next generation of young leaders during the Covid-19 Pandemic. March 2019, the experience went virtual during the Investment & Finance Module. After graduation in May, a COVID-19 Task Force was created to assist Youth Corps in making sure that students and community leaders stayed safe by following local COVID-19 protocols while community leaders worked with students during all sessions as we launched into a new school year of Youth Corps. During the school year 2020-2021, a few of our regular locations for sessions were closed off due to COVID-19 protocols. The Youth Corps Team decided to pivot to find new community leaders and locations that would allow Youth Corps students to not miss the experience due to the change in societal norms due to a global pandemic. Youth Corps Students learned that when given certain obstacles or bumps in the road in life, school, or in their careers, that leaders find ways to make things happen even in difficult circumstances. Year 16 of Youth Corps looked different than the previous 15 years of Youth Corps, however, it was a unique experience. Students learned to overcome, be flexible, and resilient. 

Early during the pandemic, we noticed a few students did not have proper face masks when they were coming to sessions. Youth Corps is known to bring all students to a level playing field during the YC Experience, so we had nice cloth masks screen printed with the Youth Corps logo, so that all students had proper face masks to protect themselves and others from those who may have been affected by COVID-19. Students of Year 16 of Youth Corps were developed by the same leadership principles often in new locations led by new community leaders, but in the end after 9 months of their experience, those students accomplished more than any cohort that came before them. With social distancing orders and with the wearing of masks, Year 16 students served more people, renovated more houses, and had the most sales in the history of the organization. There were a few times that as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in our region, Youth Corps offered a virtual option through Google Meet and Zoom. If students were quarantined for whatever reason, we gave those students access through a virtual stream so they would not miss being developed.”

To Improve STEM Education, We Must Democratize It

By: Kelly Houston

The New York City Teaching Fellows program was specifically tailored towards folks who wanted to work in urban, underserved schools. At the time of my acceptance into the program, I had never even been to New York before. To say I felt unprepared to handle the social inequalities and systematic racism facing my Crown Heights, Brooklyn, students is an understatement. I was not confident that I could do the job. Gang violence, a lack of resources, and high teacher turnover plagued our school.

In fact, schools that are in the top quartile of serving students of color see a 90% higher turnover rate among math and science teachers than the quartile of schools serving the most white students. At Title I schools, turnover rates for math and science teachers are nearly 70% higher than at non-Title I schools. So why aren’t there more qualified teachers in these schools? It’s complicated, but broadly speaking, teaching these subjects in these schools can be really tough.

STEM Teaching Challenges

In my first years as a teacher, I thought it was my job to teach the aspects of science, so I spent hours scouring the internet for ideas to engage my students. When students struggled, I would comfort myself by maintaining an unhealthy narrative that “they didn’t come to class” or “they didn’t do their homework” so it wasn’t my fault if they weren’t ”getting it.” But in fact it was me who wasn’t “getting it.”

I needed to take a step back and have some perspective. Why didn’t they come to class? Maybe they had to stay home and watch their sick younger sibling so their mom could go to work. Maybe they didn’t do their homework because they went to work themselves to help pay the bills at home.

I needed to take a step back and have some perspective.

Kelly Houston

I grew up in a suburban white community. I needed to take the time to understand the wider system I was working in and my students were living in and how my identity as a white woman in a classroom full of students of color played a role. I realized my job was bigger than just teaching science.  

A key part of that job was trying to literally connect with families. Some of my students were undocumented, so connecting with their parents could prove difficult. Since we were part of the small school movement, oftentimes our teachers were the only subject teacher for their grade. There was not a lot of professional development available outside of the school for STEM teachers that was available or affordable, and the professional development time within the school was spent on the social emotional aspects of our student population, leaving little room to discuss pedagogy.

A lack of ongoing professional development and isolation from colleagues teaching similar subjects has many negative implications, particularly for teacher retention. An inability to collaborate with colleagues is a big factor in job satisfaction, especially among STEM teachers.

When I was accepted as a STEM Ed Innovators fellow as a third-year teacher, I was relieved. Connecting to a larger cohort of educators who were experiencing the same challenges gave me the sense of community I was desperately missing. I wasn’t the only one struggling to engage students. We were all learners and now we had a safe, supportive space to share our common struggles, ideas, failures and successes.

Now I felt empowered to challenge myself in how I was teaching. Being introduced to a democratic STEM teaching framework empowered me to welcome feedback from my students, iterate my approach to teaching to better fit their needs, and create a more equitable learning space. I became invested in elevating my students’ voices, sharing authority in the classroom, and centering my teaching around developing their ability to think about STEM critically.

Under this model, students are not vessels to be filled with knowledge, but co-designers and co-authors of their own education. Their funds of knowledge and interests shape the classroom environment and curriculum choices.

It wasn’t until I adopted this approach that I really fell in love with teaching.The power dynamic shifted, and suddenly I was in constant conversation with my students. Together we created a classroom where everyone felt included and important. We continued to push our way through the state mandated curriculum, but now there was room to make the science relevant to their lives, their community, and possibly their future.

A Model for Success 

Eighteen years into my teaching career, I now teach on Cape Cod at an International Baccalaureate School. The curriculum is rigid, but I continue to teach democratically and students have a lot of choice in how they want to demonstrate their mastery. Here are a few ways I have refined my teaching:

  • Create spaces for open discussions rooted in shared classroom agreements.
  • Provide surveys as a way to check in on a social-emotional level.
  • Find class time to co-create rubrics and decide which topics to lean into as a group.
  • Spend time reflecting on lessons and utilize the feedback I get from students.

I also try to model this type of teaching to my colleagues. Here are ways I encourage those who are interested to start small:

  • Build trust and welcome genuine relationships with all students.
  • Encourage students to find ways to advocate for their needs and seek opportunities for open communication with teachers.
  • Choose workshops that align with beliefs in a democratic classroom.  
  • Continue to look for opportunities outside of school including attending conferences, listening to podcasts, and collaborating with colleagues.

I have learned that there is power when we start seeing learners as future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. We enter teaching not because we want to help students do better on standardized tests, but because we love to guide the learning and help students see themselves in innovative careers.

Kelly Houston began her teaching career in the Peace Corps serving in Malawi, Africa and taught for ten years in Brooklyn, NY before moving to Cape Cod, MA where she teaches Biology at an International Baccalaureate School. During her career she has served as a curriculum coach, team leader, and science department chair. Currently she is a mentor fellow in the STEM Ed Innovators Program, where she also serves as the Director of Operations. Reach her at [email protected]org.

Can’t Miss Education Conferences in 2022

Like many of these conferences, this list hasn’t been the same for the last few years. Rampant cancellations, breakneck pivots and restricted gatherings have forced conferences and events to reinvent themselves in order to continue bringing people and ideas together. It seems that we are looking towards a brighter future, perhaps one that is even better than before, giving voice and access to hundreds of thousands of new educators and edleaders.

Historically our team has spent a lot of time traveling to conferences around the country to learn with and from experts, facilitate sessions and cover various conference happenings. Throughout our travels, we continue to curate and update a list of our favorites that we think everyone should attend.

Here is the latest list of can’t-miss education conferences for your 2022 planning:


January 19-21, 2022; London
In-Person and Online

With almost 35,000 attendees from 130 countries, representing 850 leading companies and 103 edtech start-ups, and thousands of exhibitors demonstrating the latest in EdTech, BETT is the world’s largest EdTech conference. Taking place in London, BETT believes in creating a better future by transforming education. This conference is premium, inclusive and game-changing. At every level of education, the themes for BETT  are based on the real needs of the education community, from the tech nervous newbie to the cool geeky early adopter. BETT themes at the heart of education.


January 25-28, 2022; Orlando, FL
In-Person and Online

FETC is the largest national independent EdTech conference discussing tech trends, strategies and best practices for student and school success. 2019 marks the 39th annual event focusing on the Future of Education Technology and gathering a group of dynamic and creative education professionals from around the world for an intensive and highly collaborative event exploring new technologies, best practices and pressing issues.

Digital Learning Annual Conference

February 7-9, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia
In-Person and Online

DLAC aims to bring together practitioners working on real change and is designed for a wide range of attendees, including: educators, companies, non-profit organizations, researchers and state education agencies.


February 7-10, 2022; Dallas, TX
In-Person and Online

Spanning five days with over 8,000 attendees, 1,000 sessions and workshops, and 450 exhibiting companies, TCEA is the largest state convention and exposition in the US. This year’s 39th annual event will feature nationally-recognized experts with topics catering to every educator.

AASA National Conference on Education

February 17-19, 2022; Dallas, TX
In-Person and Online

This years AAASA conference is focused on Leading for Student-Centered, Equity-Focused Education. At this conference, researchers, educators and practitioners will come together for intensive debate and discussion on Leading for Student-Centered, Equity-Focused Education, and what that means for your leadership role, community collaboration, district outcomes and student success.


March 7-10, 2022; Austin, TX
In-Person and Online

The internationally recognized SXSW EDU will include four days of sessions, workshops, learning experiences, mentorship, film screenings, policy discussions and so much more all aimed at impacting the future of teaching and learning. The event hosts over 16,000 attendees, 1,200 speakers, 500 sessions and 200 expos and continues to stand out as a true thought leadership summit. Check out our podcast from SXSW EDU 2018.

We are excited to be a media partner at this event, as well as the co-presenters on a number of sessions!

CUE Conference

March 17-19, 2022; Palm Springs, CA
In-Person and Online

CUE is the largest and oldest EdTech conference in California and is targeted towards educators and EdLeaders looking to advance student achievement by using technology in the classroom. The conference has been a go-to event for educational innovation for almost 40 years and provides a best-value, three-day experience for over 6,000 educators.

Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education

March 27-29, 2022; San Diego, CA
In-Person and Online

Since 2014, the Summit on Improvement in Education has developed a vibrant learning community by engaging diverse groups of educational professionals—such as school and district leaders, staff from charter management organizations, leaders in state departments of education and professional organizations, entrepreneurs, faculty from higher education organizations, students, parents, and community leaders—in service of addressing complex problems and issues of inequity in educational outcomes.

Deeper Learning Conference

March 29-31, 2022; San Diego, CA
In-Person and Online

DL2019 is the 7th annual gathering of educators and leaders focused on creating more opportunities for students to learn deeply. Attend this conference to experience deeper learning hands-on through interactive workshops, maker spaces and deep dives. Here’s a recap from our time at the DL2018.

OLC Innovate

Virtual: March 28 – April 1, 2022

Dallas, TX: April 11 – 14, 2022
In-Person and Online 

Attendees will challenge their teaching and learning paradigms, reimagine learner experience and ideate on how disruptions in education today, can shape the innovative classroom of tomorrow.

ASU+GSV Summit

April 4-6, 2022; San Diego, CA
In-Person and Online

This annual conference is the “only conference during the year where you’ll have access to the smartest and most influential Learning & Talent Tech minds from around the world.” The three-day event hosts over 1000 of the best and brightest in business, entrepreneurship, higher ed and education innovation. Here is our recap of the 2018 summit.


April 11-13, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee

CoSN is the conference to attend if you’re a district tech director or leader. We’re excited to be seeking at this one! More information to be announced…


June 26-29, 2022; New Orleans
In-Person and Online

As the “epicenter of edtech,” ISTE Is where educators and school leaders go to learn about new tools and strategies. With over 550 companies, 1,000 sessions and 16,000 educators attending, this event boasts endless learning opportunities perfect for industry reps, teachers, tech coordinators/directors, administrators, library media specialists and policymakers.

Big Picture Learning Big Bang

July, 2022; Florida

In-Person and Online

More information to come…

2022 Aurora Symposium

October 24 – October 27, 2022

Aurora Institute’s annual conference is the leading event for K-12 competency-based, blended and online learning. With hundreds of sessions, it brings together experts, EdLeaders and educators to explore next-gen learning for K-12 students. Here are 10 reasons to attend

National Rural Education Association Conference

Dates coming soon…

Like always, the Rural Schools Conference has been designed to create an environment for collaboration and innovation with a diverse community that includes, national experts, K–12 and higher education practitioners, leading researchers, policymakers, and philanthropic leaders. The goal is to help communities innovate and leverage local assets to create meaningful learning experiences for rural students.

ASCD Virtual Symposiums

Ongoing through 2022
In-Person and Online

More information to come…

WPS Summit

Dates coming soon…

We loved attending the WPS Summit this year. Read our recap of the event here!

Getting Smart offers a variety of interactive conference services including strategic advising, podcasting, media coverage and social media amplification. To learn more, email [email protected] and place “conference media” in the subject line.

Did we miss one of your favorites? Tweet us at @Getting_Smart so we can check it out!

How Design Thinking Transforms Communities, One Project at a Time

By: Kyle Wagner and Maggie Favretti


What if every course began with a single Essential Question?

What if people were rewarded for having ideas and not ownership of them?

What if every student experienced success in solving a community problem?

What if school buildings were leveraged as community centers?

What if success in school was measured based on contribution to your community, rather than rote knowledge?

What if every learner could co-author their learning journey?

These were questions that rose to the surface from educators around the world when given a blank canvas to re-imagine school.

For many, entrenched in an outdated system, they are the stuff of science fiction. Too many structures hold this kind of innovation back- from standardized tests, to grades, to unwavering curriculum.

But for a bold and courageous few, these ‘what ifs’ are a manifesto for immediate action.

Meet Maggie Favretti, founder of ‘DesignEd4Resilience,’ (DE4R) an organization that uses design thinking to facilitate collaborative community responses to climate change and other complex issues.

Maggie has empowered young people to transform these ‘what ifs,’ into ‘what happens when?’

“What happens when young people find a meaningful, healing purpose, and connect with nature and other people to create a more equitable and sustainable world?”

This powerful and provocative question has propelled young people in DesignEd4Resilience to: Develop community disaster plans and co-create logistical centers to respond to devastating hurricanes. Create toolkits and resources for emotional and mental well-being during proliferating pandemics. Build community gardens and shared farming plots to protect from food shortages.

It’s a way to connect us to each other with openness and empathy.

Kyle Wagner and Maggie Favretti

These young people’s canvas is not limited by the four walls that shape traditional schools.

Their canvas is their community.

And the brush they are using to fill it in is design thinking.

Design Ed 4 Resilience version of Community Design Thinking is based on Stanford D-school’s 5-step process and also on the National Equity Project’s Liberatory Design processes. The DE4R 6-step process provides a clear, repeatable framework for addressing challenges and drawing on innate creativity and collaborative courage, from innovation through implementation. Young people and their communities worldwide are using models like this to address problems as existential as climate change, to issues as localized as clean fresh water and food security.

But it’s more than a framework to address community challenges.

It’s a way to build coherence in learning and the capacity to understand issues more complex than our traditional textbooks and fragmented, watered-down curriculum provide.

It’s a way to connect us to each other with openness and empathy. The Design Ed 4 Resilience version of design thinking is set up to co-empower. It begins with belonging and safety and challenges us to notice and address our preconceptions. It calls on us to reflect critically on relationships of power within the process and our communities, to be sure that the authentic power of design (from challenge and opportunity-seeking through problem-solving through decision-making and implementation) is inclusive of youth and more specifically, those voices typically unheard.

You can use the same process in your community.

This article will unpack each step of the design thinking process in the context of real community projects, and provide ideas for how you might use the process in your own classroom and community.

Step 1: Gathering Knowledge; Cultivating the Power of People

Maggie Favretti is a firm believer in ‘zero-based thinking.’ Zero-based thinking asks us to rid ourselves of all preconceived notions, biases and assumptions, and literally start from zero. Assuming we know nothing, what questions might we ask? Only in this way can we build on our empathy and remain open to new ideas and ways of thinking and being.

Maggie prepared young people to embody this empathy-based process when seeking to address the resilience to flooding of a nearby town in Puerto Rico, into which Hurricane Maria had poured her fury.

Using the three mental frameworks of ‘People, Place, and Purpose,’ young people uncovered the nearby town’s greatest concerns and strengths by interviewing community partners:

What does the community value? Where was there visible evidence of these values?

Where was there evidence of community resilience? How did the community develop this resilience?

What impact did disaster and climate change have on mental and emotional health?

What else contributed to this trauma and sense of unease?

What are their biggest fears/ areas of concern, and what do they identify as strengths?

Through countless interviews, phone calls and observations, young people uncovered four major areas of concern: flood and earthquake-proof housing, better evacuation planning, climate recovery and mental health, and overall community resilience.  

Building Deep Listening and Relationships In Your Community:

How might you uncover issues and needs in your community? Who are prominent members that you might partner with to discover these needs and connect to key stakeholders? Who usually gets left out of those conversations, and how might you partner with them also?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Observe, Ask, and Listen, listen, listen. Engage youth and community in recording their own stories and images, using tools like Photovoice. Think of this from the beginning as a shared process, where ‘the designers’ are facilitating community (or student) design.
  2. Build a shared community map to identify potential needs and assets.
  3. Attend City Council Meetings and jot down issues being discussed during the open forums, or host community fun events where you are also cultivating participation.
  4. Look for relevant community organized events via MeetUp.
  5. Attend local NGO fairs and Outreach events (make sure to cross-reference the NGOs)
  6. Learn as much as you can, noticing your own assumptions and biases, about the environmental, historical and political context of the community.
  7. Run a short ‘design challenge’ or mini-project as a warm-up for larger scale prototyping (this can also be done in the first stage of the design process to sustain momentum and increase trust in the process).

Step 2: Defining Perspectives, Challenges, and Opportunities

After uncovering areas of need, to better frame the problem, Maggie worked with her young learners to envision what success might look like for the community had the challenges been addressed. How would life be different with earthquake and flood-proof housing? What changes would they see with a clear and coherent evacuation plan?

Imagining these ‘best case scenarios’ helped students to frame specific problems they hoped to design around. They captured these opportunity statements as ‘how might we’ questions to help guide the design of their solutions.

Identifying Challenges and Opportunities In Your Community:

How might you identify the most pressing community needs? How will you ensure that you have gathered all relevant stakeholder input?  How can you make visible the abstract inferences and learnings from your community partners?  How can you create a challenge/opportunity statement that will generate rich ideation?

Here are some examples from the Puerto Rico D-Lab:

How might we cultivate community resilience, well-being, and empowerment in our community center?

How might we speed evacuation and ease anxiety around potential flooding and earthquakes?

How might we support mental health recovery without labeling/othering people as mentally ill?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Make thinking visible, using image-making such as the one above. Create a public event held at a visible community center to share findings and gather more stakeholder input to surface key concerns.  Challenge/Opportunity statements can be created and ideated together.
  2. Connect with global partners who have addressed similar problems.
  3. Create an advisory board that connects students with their community partners to ensure the fidelity of solutions.

Step 3: Ideating Solutions and ‘Unleashing Creativity’

Our young people are never short of ideas once we remove the shackles that often bind them. During this phase of the design process, we want young people to think divergently. This way of thinking values the quantity of ideas, not the quality. That’s for a later stage. Using the ‘25 ideas in 10 minutes’ challenge, Maggie got some teams to create over 100 ideas around developing flood and earthquake-proof housing.

Other good frameworks for ideation include the ‘Yes, and’ strategy, where one team develops a series of solutions and then passes the sheet to another group to affirm the idea (‘yes’), and add (‘and’) 3 to 5 more of their own. This cross-collaboration between teams helps young people see challenges from fresh perspectives. Maggie also stresses the importance of including community partners in this process:

“Involving community stakeholders in ideation yields trust in the process and helps creative consensus to emerge about what’s possible.”

After spending time ideating, it’s time to categorize and connect. Like ideas can be grouped together and be measured against the design constraints and their potential to fulfill the opportunity emerging from key aspects of concern.  New questions arise, such as, ‘is this possible? And how will we do this?” The picture below captures this process:

Ideating Solutions to Needs in Your Community

How might you help unleash creativity in your students? How might you group them to generate a number of ideas? How might you facilitate groups to include community partners, and materials for ideation? (post-its, white boards, manipulatives, shapes, gifts, food, etc.)   

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Do warm-up games (like easy improv) before ideation, or do your ideation while running on a treadmill, or on a walk through nature. Research proves it works!  In a classroom, provide opportunities to stand, lean, and move around.
  2. Have lots of manipulatives to hold, touch, feel and play around with. This helps distract the mind and allows ideas to flow.  Many people find art materials, colors, and music inspiring.
  3. Break into smaller teams, and invite community members to co-ideate to generate more ideas and deepen trust.
  4. Develop a design brief around the specific problem that captures research, insights, timelines and key deliverables.  

Step 4: ‘Rapid Prototyping’ Bold Ideas

There’s a prevailing thought in the education world, that we shouldn’t try something until it’s been researched, analyzed, tested, and weighed in on by experts. The problem with this way of thinking is that by the time all of this takes place, the idea is outdated. Innovation relies on a concept called ‘rapid prototyping.’

In this phase of the design process, young people in Puerto Rico constructed models of their solutions using whatever materials were available. Cardboard, legos, scrap paper, and recycled materials– ‘clean garbage.’ The goal here is not perfection, but simply a prototype that can easily demonstrate the idea in action.

As young people constructed their prototypes, Maggie asked students to “brainstorm what kind of expertise their ideas would require to fully build,” as well as “community partners who might share knowledge.”

Below are students seeking more expert input about emergency evacuation based on their prototypes:

Building Prototypes:

What materials do you have readily available for prototyping, and how might you demonstrate how to use it? Cardboard, old newspaper, magazines, etc. What expertise do your parents and other community members have that might assist in measuring the feasibility of ideas? How might you share prototypes students build?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Gather/upcycle scrap materials for prototyping. Do a cardboard collection!
  2. Invite parents or community partners with relevant expertise to assist students in their designs.

Unfortunately, this is the stage where most projects end. Students dress up nicely and share their prototypes in a public exhibition, and then the prototypes go promptly to the place most projects wind up; the dumpster.  

Not in Maggie’s Design4Resilience Program.  She understands that the impact on youth self-efficacy and confidence of this repeated message that ‘your ideas don’t actually matter’ is strongly felt and ripples back through the community. DE4R Design Thinking also has an Enact step, which is where collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship, and civic agency takes root.

“At this point, we invite back our community partners and potential funders and present to them.”

Unlike a science fair where ribbons are awarded, prototypes are actually advanced into the ‘development phase’ to be enacted in the real world.

The student projects opened the door to a mobile mental health clinic that was actually a makerspace and funspace, an ongoing relationship between a UPR architecture class and the community, a new evacuation map and an agreement with the PRDE to unlock the school located on the highest ground in anticipation of flooding, an evacuation/emergency plan for their school, and plans for resilient community hubs such as the one being shown below.  The programming framework for it created by the students got published and is being used throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago and beyond.

Developing and Enacting Ideas:

What potential funding might exist for student ideas? Are there incubators in your community that hold ‘startup’ competitions for new ideas? How might you connect with them? Are there high-tech design labs that exist in the community to build prototypes? Are there engineering students or university partners who can offer expertise in the development phase? What ‘low-tech’ maker partners can help create scale model working prototypes? Who can build it and maintain it?  What community allies do you need to advocate with in order to enact the project?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Use Feedback Protocols to help stakeholders provide feedback on each proposed prototype.  
  2. Partner with a university, a Fabrication or Design Lab in the community to help build out prototypes and develop ideas.
  3. Hold ‘Pitch Events’ for students to pitch ideas to potential funders or investors (with any profit generated going back into the community).


Critics of design thinking might assume that this process is generally reserved for rich kids, in elite private school settings. But that’s the magic of the framework.  Looking at it with a critical lens helps to make it work for young people of all backgrounds, socio-economic classes, and cultures.

Maggie’s students, many of whom come from less privileged backgrounds in Puerto Rico, were transformed by the experience. Using Likert Scales, students reported an increased sense of self-efficacy, deeper knowledge of climate change, and positive feelings towards schools as a result of the experience. Most importantly, they felt a renewed sense of optimism for the future. One student said, “After the storms, all I could do was draw.  I just drew and drew.  Design Lab gave me my voice back. Now I know I have ideas that can help.”

Turning OUR ‘What Ifs’ into ‘What Happens When’

What’s holding you back from innovating on your campus? Yes, it would be nice to re-make the master timetable, rigid curriculum standards, and mandated state testing; but those are things many of us have little control over. Most of us do however have control over how we organize learning experiences. Rather than start from a textbook, try starting your next learning experience from a community need.

In this way, you will no longer have ‘what ifs’ but rather, ‘what happens when?!’

Want to dip your toes into the design process? Joining the Design Thinking Hackathon Wednesday, October 27th where we will hack the process of effective project design by designing creative solutions around teacher well-being!

Maggie Favretti, a Yale-and Middlebury-educated cultural historian, has spent 35 years happily helping her students to ask, “why not now?”  Maggie has won scholarship and teaching awards from three professional historical organizations (WHA, AHA, OAH), a national organization of bankers (Sallie Mae Foundation Teacher of the Year), and a national organization of student leaders (21st-century Teacher of the Year).

Pandemic Innovation at Piper Schools

Dr. Jessica Dain took the helm at Piper School District 18 months ago in the middle of a health crisis. She met her new community (often virtually) while zooming in and out of meetings about health precautions and remote academic delivery.

She learned that when schools reopened in the historic northwest Kansas City suburb, they’d be crowded and dated. She learned that the growing community was becoming more diverse and that the schools needed a strategy relevant to their new demographics as well as the new economy.

Inspired by the innovation and equity agenda of Future Ready Schools, the Piper team developed a strategic plan to ensure that all Piper students are #FutureReady.

Portrait of a Piper Graduate

Shifting to virtual engagement strategies, the Piper leadership team asked their community,

“What do we want our incoming kindergarten students to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school in the year 2033?”

Using a variety of engagement strategies, district leaders and an advisory group collected and compiled community aspirations into a portrait of a graduate focused on six competencies:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Initiative and self direction
  • Resilience and social and emotional wellbeing
  • Social, global and cross cultural skills
  • Communication
  • Creativity and innovation

Grade span rubrics describe developmental progressions in each of the competencies and help bring the portrait of a graduate to life in the culture and curriculum of Piper schools.

Inspired by the innovation and equity agenda of Future Ready Schools, the Piper team developed a strategic plan to ensure that all Piper students are #FutureReady.

Tom Vander Ark

Future Ready Success for All

The first goal of the new strategy is “future ready success for all” and it includes three priority outcomes:

  • Competency-Based Learning Instruction: Provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum to ensure all students are on or above grade level and are proficient in academic and portrait of a graduate competencies to ensure post-secondary success.
  • Student-Centered Classrooms: Empower all students in their learning through a wide variety of authentic learning experiences, student-centered instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the district learning needs, passions, and cultural backgrounds of individual students.
  • Culture of Professional Learning: Establish and invest in a growth-oriented and collaborative culture of professional learning that holds the value of collective responsibility for the development of all of our learners.

Other strategies guide development of a connected culture, strong talent base, and operations that are fiscal responsibility. Progress on these new strategic priorities will be tracked on a balanced scorecard.

Real World Learning

With 30 other school systems in metropolitan Kansas City, Piper is seeking ways to infuse more real world learning including internships, community connected projects, and entrepreneurial experiences.

High school faculty and business partners developed plans for six career academies that will ensure that all Piper learners engage in real world learning:

  • Design, Production & Aviation
  • Business, Entrepreneurship & Innovation
  • Arts & Media
  • Human Services
  • Health & Life Science
  • Public Services

Career awareness education in 8th grade will support informed academy enrollments in 9th grade.

Facilities Plans

The Piper school board commissioned a facilities audit and community committee to study options for the growing district. In September, the board approved a January vote on a $64 million bond which will address deferred maintenance. A second bond for additional space will be considered in a few years.

Student Empowerment

Recognizing the need to empower diverse voices at Piper High, Jillian Collier, president of Black Leaders of America, wanted to create an event for Black students at Piper High School modeled on the annual Amplify conference for educators of color. After many conversations with her peers, the idea took shape as a half-day conference focusing on intersectionality, mental health, entrepreneurship, and scholarship essay writing. The conference, Accelerate: Empowering Students of Color for Success, took place October 1 at the Kauffman Conference Center. About 60 students from four high schools attended.

Dr. Dain’s leadership demonstrates how a small school district can come together–even in the middle of a health crisis–and innovate for equity.

Let’s Not Return to School, Let’s Move Beyond It

By: Tony Jackson and Jordan Shapiro

Across the United States, children are returning to school. For some, it will be their first time since March 2020. The past year and a half has been a challenging, if not devastating, disruption for families, teachers, and administrators. Now we’re all hungry for a return to normal.

But at what cost? Normal, for vast numbers of American students, is not something to which we should aspire to return. For too long, our society has been willing to ignore persistent inequities—specifically, the lopsided distribution of education resources that the pandemic amplified so clearly. We’ve seen the disproportionate suffering of youth who were already marginalized by poverty and systemic racism. We’ve watched as schools literally became the means of survival for the most disenfranchised children.

Still, many pundits, education journalists, experts, and thought-leaders have already returned to a perspective that reifies the past. When they’re not writing about mask mandates, they offer a steady stream of op-eds about learning loss and the need for remediation. This is precisely the language that has long framed an ineffective, paternalistic approach to education inequality.

What they’re missing is that, for underserved youth, returning to these conversations means the same old discrepancies in achievement and the diminished futures they foretell. For all children—regardless of their race or socio-economic status—it means a school experience that fails to adequately prepare individuals to survive and thrive in a world threatened by a climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, partisan political division, misinformation, tribalism, and nationalism.

In April, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society convened more than 40 top education leaders—including researchers, administrators, reformers, philanthropists, policymakers, EdTech developers, and more—to identify priorities for establishing a new education mindset for the 22nd century. But we wanted to avoid the old debates, which have defined the conversation about teaching and learning for more than a century: “hard” vs. “soft” skills, rigorous vs. playful, STEM vs. SEL. Instead, we wondered: What education system do we need not only to prepare for the future but also to ensure the human race has a future?

…it is time to rethink the ways we center young people in their education.

Tony Jackson and Jordan Shapiro

Key to this conversation was the idea that it is time to rethink the ways we center young people in their education. How can we reframe the conversations about learning, community support, and policies that will really allow our children to flourish and reach their full intellectual and human potential? We established three recommendations to help teachers, parents, caregivers, administrators, funders, and policymakers think differently about what normal can and should be.

First, if students don’t understand themselves, they can’t understand others. And without empathy, there is no working together, no collective prosperity. Let’s move beyond the tired question of skills vs. personal development. Education should not be premised on a view of the child as either a future worker or an individual in need of social and ethical development. We all know that a fully realized human being is both. Skills and values are interconnected. Productive civic engagement and economic contribution require autonomy, agency, and reflexivity.

Second, we should embrace the notion that learning happens everywhere, all the time. Recent research on youth during the pandemic shows that given the opportunity and the right support, kids take learning into their own hands—when kids use technology and digital media, they often choose how-to videos on TikTok or deep dives on YouTube. There’s an alternative to the “pandemic learning loss” narrative, a narrative that relies on a narrow and problematic understanding of what constitutes “learning.” The new normal needs to move beyond the false division between formal and informal learning, school-based and self-directed learning. Let’s replace this outdated way of thinking with a new model of education ecosystems which embrace, rather than avoid, nonlinear and connected modes of communication.

Third, let’s rethink where the power and responsibility for education lies. We need a rigorously inclusive model of “local education authority” that enables kids and their communities to determine their future. Let’s move beyond school district bureaucracies and the massive disparities based on property tax revenues they represent. The governance of education systems is not just a safety net accounting for individual achievement, but also as a springboard for the kinds of action that today’s kids innately know they want to take: to make the world safer, healthier, more embracing of difference, and more equitable. Only by sharing power and responsibility for education, in a radically cooperative fashion, can we transition our children to be the makers of a 22nd century worth living in.

Taking the comfortable path of least resistance back to normal imperils our future. We need a new, inclusive approach to education for the 22nd century. Our children’s future and the future of the human race depend on it.

Tony Jackson leads Asia Society’s work in education which strives to enable all students to graduate high school prepared for college, for work in the global economy, and for 21st-century global citizenship.

Jordan Shapiro is a Senior Fellow with Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Black Men Educators Conference Recap

The Black Men Educators Conference (BMEC) 2021, produced and hosted by the Center for Black Educator Development, brought together black male educators and those who support them. This included school and district leaders, superintendents, nonprofit education leaders, higher education leaders and administrators, education advocates, secondary and post-secondary learners, and education policy leaders focusing on deeply provocative and empowering live sessions, workshops, and keynotes delivered by distinguished speakers from across the United States.

Why the emphasis on black-male educators? Emir Davis, a former teacher, principal, district administrator, and the current Director of Black Male Engagement at the Center for Black Educator Development, served as the conference emcee and opened the conference with daunting statistics. “The problem we face is that 2% of educators were black men before the pandemic (2019), and that number has declined to 1.6% in 2021.” These abysmal numbers shed light on a profound lack of inclusion and access that black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) have to the education profession in general, while pointing to the specific impact of this systemic issue on black men. The two-day conference was a tour-de-force in awareness, advocacy, and renewal for educators and leaders, laying the foundation of its vision and mission by two deeply impactful keynote speakers.

Curtis Valentine delivered the first keynote address. Valentine is the Founder of Real Men Teach, a national campaign to recruit and retain male educators of color by reimagining and reinvesting in the profession. He also serves as Co-Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is in his third term as a Prince George’s County (MD) Board of Education member.

Valentine spoke about the importance of creating equitable access to a high-quality, world-class education for learners of color. He discussed how black parents, educators, learners, and leaders came together historically (and contemporarily) to provide access to the education their children deserve and the abject hurdles intended to squelch and suppress access that accompanied the work. “Black-led schools controlled the education of black kids,” during de jure educational segregation, black parents and leaders came together to build and donate school buildings, supplies, and all other resources to educate their children, which occurred even in schools that sought to integrate, physically, but not curricular-ly.

The aforementioned is a nod to the “false promise of integration,” a particular fact more properly elucidated by a workshop presented by Dr. Jarvis Givens in his deeply relevant and provocative new text, Fugitive Pedagogy, Carter G Woodson, and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2021). Dr. Givens is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Faculty Affiliate in the African and African American Studies department at Harvard University. He specializes in the history of education, African American history, and theories of race and power in education.

Dr. Givens’ workshop explored themes of resistance in the history of black education, focusing specifically on Dr. Carter G. Woodson and African American teachers through the Jim Crow era. As previously mentioned, this text implicitly discusses arguments apropos the false promise of curricular integration by elucidating examples of black educators in the Jim Crow south that taught texts by Carter G. Woodson in classrooms in defiance of anti-black curricula and other educational resources. Dr. Woodson, the second black man to graduate from Harvard University with a Ph.D. and a lifelong educator, was a central figure in what Dr. Givens terms a fugitive pedagogy that existed for generations among black educators and still impacts education today. Fugitive pedagogy seeks to provide a definitional understanding of “African American physical and intellectual acts that explicitly challenged anti-black protocols of education and domination…”

The problem we face is that 2% of educators were black men before the pandemic (2019), and that number has declined to 1.6% in 2021.

Center for Black Educator Development

Dr. Woodson founded black history month to celebrate blackness, culture — across the diaspora, and so much more. Black educators would surreptitiously teach black history and texts in integrated school buildings, often with the door open because of racist monitoring protocols as an act of defiance, revolution, and epistemic disobedience. “To survive, we have to grow our own. Grow our schools, curriculum, and yes, educators,” Curtis Valentine’s words saliently encapsulate a central point, that the work of educating BIPOC students in a society that seeks to marginalize, erase, and ignore them, their histories, and access to a lever of true liberation, i.e., education, requires the entire community to come together to do everything necessary to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status.

Lorenzo P. Lewis delivered the second keynote address; he is a behavioral health expert who has used his testimony and experience as a foundation for challenging the stigma of mental health issues. Lewis is the founder of The Confess Project, in which the organization facilitates conversations in 13 US cities, specifically for boys and men of color, in barbershops around mental health awareness. Lewis, during his keynote, entitled, “A letter to my younger self,” offered the following, “…We gotta take care of our kids. Them our boys and girls. The village gotta step in — the revolution must go on. How will you be able to go and support and render our young brothers that need us?”

Lewis, as a mental health expert and advocate, does not simply speak of education revolution as the curriculum or hiring and retention practices. He explicitly wants it to encompass mental health for BIPOC learners and educators. Through bold, honest, and deeply personal storytelling, Lewis tells his story of being born in jail to an incarcerated mother, his struggle with depression, anxiety, and anger throughout his youth, to the point of being at-risk for recidivism. This compelling narrative serves as the catalyst and bedrock for The Confess Project, an initiative that confronts the stigma around mental health for men of color.

Isaiah R. Walker is principal at KIPP Philadelphia Preparatory Academy where he manages and mentors multiple Principals in Residence (PIR) in Philadelphia. Most recently one of his PIRs has become a school leader this year at one of the KIPP elementary schools. Why does the problem of educator diversity exist? This query posed by Walker is relevant to understanding the issue as a whole and the subtle or siloed elements such as traumatic experiences faced by educators and learners of color.

Walker brings in James Baldwin’s magnum opus, The Fire Next Time, to lay bare his response to anti-black racist education practices and its once de jure and now de facto structural and systemic existence and lingering residue. “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not justify your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear (The Fire Next Time, Baldwin).” The quotation, albeit a fragment, served as the framework for Walker’s workshop on Strategies to Support and Retain BIPOC Educators by Emphasizing Instructional Expertise.

At Walker’s school, he starts with the fundamental belief that their educators – particularly their BIPOC educators – want to be true experts in their craft to provide the very best to their students. They believe – as a leadership team – that their educators are the most dedicated and driven people. Thus, they have a manifest commitment to provide the most comprehensive and robust professional development to their faculty. Walker developed and released a survey for BIPOC male educators at his school to understand their needs and aspirations to provide the most relevant and optimal professional support through the explicit identification of individual developmental needs of its black male faculty. From this, Walker and his team set a standard for professional growth in the building. Walker developed an 80-90-100 model for task planning and learning design, which inherently builds expertise by setting and raising the bar higher (graphic below). Additionally, they held school-based events with families and the broader community about emphasizing high standards of professional growth and instructional expertise to get the whole community involved to ensure the most optimal results for all learners.

The goal of BMEC 2021 is to continue the work of building a national multigenerational network of black male educators as a response to historical and contemporary structural and institutional educational inequities and outcomes. The upshot is to rectify academic and socioemotional outcomes for all learners through enhanced and sustained exposure to high-quality, diverse educators, especially black-male educators. And the buck does not stop there; the organizers and attendees believe that mental-health care is inextricably bound to the overall progress of this movement. “Teaching is a revolutionary act…education is the purest form of activism” perfectly sums up the conference as it denotes the revitalization of “fugitive pedagogical” practices during a time when Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the piece de resistance on the proverbial legislative chopping block across state legislatures in the southern region of the US. More disparagingly, male educator statistics are in a deep declination. So the question is, what can we do to fix the problem?

This School Year, It Will Take A Village

By: Julia Freeland Fisher

George’s* initial months of COVID schooling followed an all too familiar path: once a strong student, as a seventh-grader flung into a virtual classroom last March, George started to fall behind in reading and history. He needed help, but was too anxious to ask for it over Zoom where his peers would overhear. Some days he didn’t want to show his face on camera. And his go-to outlet, a travel baseball team, was canceled for the season.  

But George was lucky enough to have someone waiting in the wings: a mentor named Linda, whom his school, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, had paired him with the year prior. When he began to falter, George’s teachers called on Linda. She knew that in sixth grade, George had thrived on one thing: checklists. If he could cross something off his list, Linda told his teachers—like passing the test, finishing the project, turning in the assignment—pride would beam out of him, a huge grin on his face.

It wasn’t just his teachers that banked on Linda’s support: when George began to struggle, George’s mom started checking in with Linda almost daily. During a particularly difficult week, George’s mom told him to look out the window: Linda was there, outside, waving.

It was gestures like these, a system of checklists, and the collective support of his mom, his teachers, and Linda, that helped George get his seventh-grade year back on track.

Many hoped that this school year would return to normal. But students are gearing up for more unknowns. The number of school districts across the country launching new plans for hybrid learning more than doubled from July to August.

One thing, however, is utterly knowable: like George, the millions of students who returned this fall need a community of positive relationships. “Every student deserves a team of learning guardians,” said Phyllis Lockett, founder and CEO of Chicago-based education nonprofit LEAP Innovations. “Given the very broad spectrum of students’ learning and social-emotional needs, especially this year, we need to mobilize a broader set of caring adults to support each student.”

Years ago, researchers began to highlight just how critical relationships are in helping students thrive. Boston University researchers Jon Zaff and Shannon Varga found that contrary to the belief that young people need merely a single strong mentor, they, in fact, benefit from a web of close connections. And researchers at the Minnesota-based nonprofit the Search Institute have found that as the number of strong relationships in a student’s life increase, so does academic motivation, social and emotional skills, and his ability to take responsibility for his actions. And risky behaviors, like alcohol and drug use, decline.

Every student deserves a team of learning guardians.

Phyllis Lockett

In other words, the old adage that “it takes a village” rings true in the research. And if COVID taught us one thing, it’s that students will need an entire village, both inside and outside of school, whom they can lean on and learn from in the year ahead.

That’s a tall order. Even prior to the pandemic, schools’ ability to weave webs of support was constrained by punishing adult-to-student ratios. The average student: teacher ratio hovers around 16:1. And the average guidance counselor: student ratio is a staggering 464:1. Those hardly amount to the relationship-rich environments young people need.

Luckily, some innovative approaches suggest how schools might overcome these limits. For example, schools can modernize the traditional “parent-teacher conference.” Achievement First’s Greenfield School in New Haven, Connecticut has “Dream Teams,” composed of students’ parents, caregivers, extended family members, or neighbors. Teams meet frequently to consult with students about their goals and to solve challenges together.

Students themselves are also a magnetic resource hiding in plain sight. During the pandemic, students have reported missing their friends the most. Schools can capitalize on that, and offer more structured ways for students to support one another. For example, the Atlanta-based Forest School enlists peers as “Running Partners”, pairing students with an accountability partner to help them stay on track.

And schools can deploy modest staff capacity to coordinate in-and out-of-school connections. For example, the nonprofit City Connects assigns coordinators to meet with teachers to discuss each and every students’ individual strengths and challenges. Based on these individual assessments, coordinators connect students to services in their communities and monitor those connections throughout the year.

Amidst surging case counts, students like George might have to endure another year of awkward Zoom rooms. School leaders are spending this fall swirling in the logistics of determining where and when students will learn. But these well-intended operational gymnastics risk a major blindspot: determining who students can turn to throughout the year. Schools’ focus on logistics may accomplish some modicum of reliability. But relationships will drive resilience. They are the not-so-secret sauce that helps students get by and get ahead.

*The student’s name in this piece has been changed to ensure student confidentiality.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education Research at the Christensen Institute.