11 May
  • By Justin Pauly
  • Cause in

Pike County: What is the Portrait of a Graduate?

What is the Portrait of a Graduate?

Preparing Students in Pike County for a Complex Future

By Scotty Brewington, Contributing Writer, Marketjet, LLC

During his 13-year tenure as superintendent, Dr. Michael Duncan felt things were going well for Pike County Schools. Graduation rates were up 25%, there had been a 300% increase in dual-enrollment, standardized test scores were high and more kids than ever were taking advanced placement classes.

But in 2012, Duncan reached out to the community to see if they thought the school system could do even more to prepare students for a dramatically changing world after high school. The answer was an overwhelming “yes.”

“We took an opportunity to really reflect on who we are as a school system,” said Duncan. “Our teachers had ben working very hard to engage the state accountability system and we were doing a great job as far as test preparation goes. But we just didn’t feel like we were adequately preparing students for life after public school.”

The school system engaged with the community for over a year, asking students, parents, teachers, employers and more one simple question: What should we do to prepare students for a very complex future?

For many students in Pike County, their path after high school will be very different than that of the older generation’s. Most likely, it won’t ensure a job right after graduation that leads to a comfortable pension.

“We started having lots of conversations and not one person mentioned test scores,” said Duncan. “We had all of these fantastic metrics, but the community never showed much interest in that. What they wanted was for their kids to be able to think independently and be equipped with the skills they need to go into the workplace and tackle any challenges presented to them.”

The Move to Conceptual Teaching

From those discussions, Pike County School’s Portrait of a Graduate program emerged.

The program, designed to prepare students for life beyond the classroom, is dedicated to engaging the community in student success. It is based on six core competencies – the ability to think creatively, act responsibly, think critically, communicate clearly, collaborate effectively and create digitally.

The goal is to begin building these competencies at the Pre-K level through a new and innovative instructional program. The Portrait of a Graduate program will be a part of every grade, Pre-K through 12th, and will define what parents should expect from a culmination of 13 years of education with Pike County Schools, Duncan said.

“We made the decision to reframe the conversation from a focus on test scores to using the state standards as a vehicle in which we can develop these competencies,” Duncan said. “We created a theory of action. This is what the community wants from us. This is what we believe as a school system, and this is why we do what we do.”

Conceptual teaching plays a big role in the Portrait of a Graduate methodology. Teachers aim to teach students concepts that can be applied to a wide range of situations, allowing students to become problem solvers rather than simply memorizing facts.

“Authentic assessment is a huge part of the program. It’s not just about what you know but what you can do with what you know,” said Duncan. “That is where the combination of content and competency come together and allow students to engage and apply the concepts they have learned.”

Measuring the Impact

For over two decades, Pike County has been rich in vision, if not in resources. The school system has consistently had one of the lowest per pupil expenditures in Georgia.

Since the Portrait of a Graduate program began, teachers have been working to redesign the K-12 curriculum complete with authentic assessments. Graduation rates and standardized test scores have maintained steady, though Duncan expects to see dramatic gains on the state assessments and more over the next two to three years.

Just last month, the school system launched a new website – pikeportraits.org – featuring a series of short video stories that show the program in action. Teachers can upload videos from the classroom to show activities students are doing every day to support the Portrait of a Graduate competencies.

Duncan acknowledges that though the changes have been dramatic, completely transforming a school district will take consistency of vision and leadership at all levels. It will also take time.

“This is a journey, not a destination,” he said. “Right now, we are in the deep throws of implementation. We have the house built – now we have to move into it. We are engaging kids in a very authentic way and believe we are close to seeing some fantastic and very effective outcomes.”

Secret to Pike County’s Success

Pike County Schools consists of a Pre-K, primary, elementary and middle schools, in addition to a ninth grade academy, as well as a traditional and online high school.

Duncan credits the success of the Portrait of a Graduate program to the school system’s stable board of education, district leaders and teaching staff. Teacher attrition in the district has stayed around 2% per year.

“Scalability of a program like this is a real challenge. Having a unitary system with one feeder program has been very beneficial and has allowed us to create alignment quickly,” Duncan said.

When developing the new curriculum, for example, it was possible to get all of the science heads together around the table to ensure the tasks aligned across all grade levels, said Duncan.

This freedom to be creative with classroom instruction is also exciting to teachers.

“I think the direction Pike County is going to get students and teachers to think critically and solve problems creatively is exactly what we need,” said Mark Jones, who is in his 20thyear with Pike County. Jones teaches AP Government and AP Economics and was voted the district’s Teacher of the Year last year.

“I always tell my kids – I can’t teach you everything that will show up on an AP exam, but I can teach you the basics and how to think,” Jones said. “If you learn that, you can solve anything they ask.”

The vast majority of the juniors and seniors Jones teaches go on to attend college. Close to 100 students take the AP exams in his classes each year. He says that it is a student’s ability to think and problem solve that results in the highest AP scores – not just memorization or simply teaching to the test.

“I am thrilled that Pike County is going in this direction,” said Jones. “That’s what public education should be doing so that when students leave our school they are prepared for the next step.”

As part of the initiative, Pike County’s high school teachers are teaching five out of seven periods now instead of six to give them more time to plan their lessons. There has also been a lot of professional development opportunities offered to teachers.

“Teachers haven’t been taught to teach this way – it takes longer to come up with a creative lesson,” said Jones. “This year, we have an extra planning period. Once a week, I meet with teachers who teach the same subjects I do and then the next week, we meet with a group about authentic instruction and methods that work.”

 Portrait of a Graduate

Though there are no hard metrics to point to yet, the biggest indication of success in the Portrait of a Graduate program is the students themselves.

As seniors at Pike County High School, Courtney Bagwell and Nikki Dodson interned at the University of Georgia’s Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center. As interns, they developed two gourmet chocolate milk recipes for a Georgia dairy.

Paired with a mentor professor, they researched production methods, experimented with ingredients and even performed taste test surveys. Following their internship, both enrolled as freshmen at UGA the next fall.

Pike County caught up with Bagwell during her freshman year and asked her what she thought about her high school experience – as part of one of the first classes to benefit from the Portrait of a Graduate initiative. She said that the biggest benefit was the fact that she didn’t feel stressed or pressured in college because she was well prepared.

“No test scores or school rankings compare to what she said,” said Duncan. “The goal of Portrait of a Graduate is to prepare our students to navigate the complex world we live in so that they can tackle any challenge they face when they leave us. They will be equipped to go out into the world and be successful.”


Justin Pauly