illustration of backpack with supplies and doodles of information

Every student in Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky has a new backpack.

It’s digital, with virtual compartments, one for each of the five Success Skills our district and community have agreed are most essential for our students. At every level, K-12, students are collecting and categorizing evidence of their learning in their digital backpacks

Drawing from their backpacks, each student makes a public case, or defense, at key transition points showing they are ready for the next step. This means that by the time students graduate, they will have successfully completed at least three defenses, in front of panels of school and district leaders, teachers, parents and community members, during which they share the very best evidence of their learning, discuss their strengths, areas for growth and plans for reaching their goals.

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

Although we could quickly articulate what we hoped our diploma represented, the best we could do consistently was to say it meant students couldn’t come back, that they had served their time, and earned an average of at least a D minus. We knew we had to begin thinking differently about our work. 

It made sense to start by deciding what skills we wanted students to have when they graduated.

We started making a list. We named that list the Danville Diploma, and it became our foundation for change.

After that experience, realizing how powerful it was to create what many now call a graduate profile, I was convinced this was where schools and districts had to begin: by deciding what skills and knowledge were most essential to students’ success, and then working to create the day-to-day experiences in the classrooms that would lead to those outcomes. We could continue to simply encourage more rigorous, authentic instruction, but decided that would be a slower, less effective process. Or we could design a system that required a very different kind of learning experience—one that sparked new interest in project-based learning, making it a must rather than just another instructional design to consider. The “Why?” became much more clear. 

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

Each group created a very similar list; empathy, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, collaboration and perseverance were especially common.

We collected the lists and literally counted the words to determine which seemed most important to our district and community. This was the start of what would become our five key Success Skills:

  1. Prepared and Resilient Learner
  2. Globally and Culturally Competent Citizen
  3. Emerging Innovator
  4. Effective Communicator
  5. Productive Collaborator

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

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

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

Much more common was that only students who were on track academically, in schools in certain zip codes, got to take part in those kinds of rich, project-based learning experiences.

Students who were behind were often spending most of their time on remedial tasks. We had an equity problem.

Neither my superintendent or I can remember the moment when we decided we wanted each student to have a virtual backpack, but we knew it had to happen. If we wanted our graduate profile to leverage the changes we had to make, we had to bring it to life. 

We decided that every year, each student would need to collect evidence of their learning toward each of the five Backpack Success Skills, and that they would have to make a case, using their best artifacts at key transition points, that they were ready for the next step. Those key transition points, elementary to middle school, middle to high and high school to their post-secondary path, meant almost 22,000 defenses had to take place in the next school year. 

Although many suggested that we start with a small number of schools the first year, we didn’t believe it was right for any students to miss out. Far too many were already missing out on the best of learning experiences. This had to change.

Our teachers and leaders – and students – have been amazing.

In the first year, almost one million artifacts were uploaded into digital backpacks and nearly 22,000 defenses took place. Many students, for the first time, experienced project-based learning. They designed tiny houses, tackled community issues, designed roller coasters and playgrounds, and created self-sustaining communities, just to name a few. Students were excited and teachers found renewed passion for their work. 

We still have a long way to go. Our Backpack is exposing vast differences in the expectations for our students from school to school. It is also exposing that our students are capable of so much more than we realized.

If we want our students to leave us with those skills we collectively identified, the day-to-day experiences have to change. As one especially insightful third grader said last summer when he learned about the Backpack, “Worksheets won’t be good artifacts.” He was exactly right. The Backpack calls for artifacts like those that result from PBL experiences. 

We know tremendous shifts have to be made, and we know it won’t be easy.

Creating authentically engaging experiences like those resulting from high quality project-based learning rich in both academic content, our Success Skills, and the application of both, is far from easy. We know, however, that making these changes is simply is not a choice if we are sincere in preparing our students for successful futures. We believe, in Jefferson County, there is nothing more important than that.

You can find our Backpack of Success Skills here.

Dr. Carmen Coleman, Chief Academic Information Officer, Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky