P A R T   T W O


SHELBYVILLE — It’s nine years before high school graduation (May 2032) for Elijah Mabrey and his third-grade classmates at Heritage Elementary on the eastern edge of Shelby County. However, that distant horizon hasn’t stopped Elijah or Heritage from getting ready. Efforts to meet Shelby County’s new goals for graduates are in high gear across the elementary grades.

In front of a hallway display their class created last year — as second graders — Mabrey and classmates Stella Franklin and Dallas Husband explained the district’s hexagon-shaped “graduate profile” diagram in terms that would make sense to even the youngest Heritage students.

Stella said that young students need to know that part of becoming a lifelong learner means knowing that people grow from their mistakes.

Elijah pointed out the blue wedge on the poster that says “a global citizen.”

“The community would get worse if we didn’t make good choices like being involved, like picking up trash,” the eight-year-old explained. “We can grow up to be really good. Like getting people to share.”

Dallas, also 8, noted the wedge that symbolizes “an effective communicator.”

He looked at the reporter intently, speaking slowly. “One thing that’s important is eye contact,” he said without blinking. “You have to make eye contact so a person knows that you are talking to them.”

Preparing students to use what they know is driving districts across Kentucky to rethink the skills that students should gain in their school years. The emerging graduate profiles often involve districts seeking increased input from educators, community members, employers, and students themselves. The process is also calling attention to measures of achievement that go beyond state test scores or basic credit hours earned.

In Shelby County, priority outcomes now include developing all students as critical thinkers, responsible collaborators, lifelong learners, effective communicators, global citizens, and inspired innovators.

That focus was evident as fourth grade teacher Taylor Shaver posed warm-up questions ahead of a reading assignment.

The whiteboard at the front of the room showed the day’s academic standards: Reading text with attention to what the characters desire and obstacles they face. Also, analyzing characters’ actions, thoughts, and words throughout the text.

Shaver projected a photo on a screen — a statue of the explorer York. He stands facing the Ohio River on the downtown Louisville Belvedere. York, an enslaved man on the Lewis and Clark expedition, is depicted in bronze. He holds a rifle and carries a brace of ducks. He is outfitted with a hatchet and hunting pouch.

“What inferences do you make from the character in this statue?” the teacher asked.

A FOURTH GRADE STUDENT AT HERITAGE ELEMENTARY in Shelby County prepares to respond to a question in teacher Taylor Shaver’s class.

One student said the man looks brave. The teacher asked what skills the class could use to analyze the image. “We can be critical thinkers by asking questions, like what it means to be brave,” one student said. Classmates noted that being brave can mean someone is fearless or confident.

The teacher said it is important to be on the lookout for telling details in reading and to think critically about how characters respond to situations and surroundings.

Xander Kleiner, one of the fourth graders in the pre-reading discussion, said that the Shelby County graduate profile is a common source for school discussions. “We use it to see that by asking questions, we are thinking flexibly. We know we are responsible collaborators when we talk to each other and share each other’s ideas.”

“When we think in creative ways, it helps us be a well-rounded person,” he noted.

“In math we use critical thinking a lot,” added Julia Swinford, another fourth grader. “It’s what happens when we try again, or know we need to find a stronger justification.”


The Shelby County graduate profile now influences classroom work and serves as a focal point for the district’s public outreach.

“This was created by the community,” said Sally Sugg, the Shelby County superintendent. A series of community forums, input from families and students, and in-school conversations produced the profile’s goals. As administrators have connected in-school experiences and new workplace learning to the skills, continuing community meetings are used to monitor how well progress is being communicated and understood.

“Everybody involved values these competencies to a great degree,” Sugg said of the profile. “We’ve heard repeatedly how people don’t lose jobs because they don’t have knowledge, they lose them because they don’t have skills.”

Based on community connections, the district has created a work-based learning liaison position, career workshops for students, and more support for high school students working in local jobs.

At the state level, increased community collaboration is one of three priority areas in the education department’s new strategic priorities known as United We Learn, introduced in late 2021.  Community partnerships are also a focus of a deeper learning grant initiative by Kentucky’s education cooperatives.

“Opportunities to engage communities and create deep and meaningful learning experiences for students abound in our Commonwealth,” Education Commissioner Jason Glass wrote in 2021.

Mike Hesketh, owner of an industrial powder coating company in Shelby County, said it was more than six years ago that local employers and Shelby County education leaders began realizing independently that important skills were missing in the local workforce.

We’ve heard repeatedly how people don’t lose jobs because they don’t have knowledge, they lose them because they don’t have skills.

— Sally Sugg, Shelby County superintendent

“It was a challenge filling new positions, and several business owners started discussing our challenges in finding the workforce we needed. We learned that the school district was working on those same areas in its graduate profile, and we said, ‘Boy, this is timely,’ ” he recalled. “They were willing to listen and update their strategic plan.”

“A high school diploma is nice, and we understand the big push for assessment and accountability with state testing or the ACT, but we see plenty of extremely bright, motivated students who don’t test well,” Hesketh said. There are also many honor roll students who struggle outside of school because they lack an ability to communicate or adapt to changing circumstances.

Hesketh said that the most impressive sign he’s seen in his recent work with schools was a third grader in a school board meeting presenting his “learning defense” — an activity taking hold in many schools focused on deeper learning. In front of a panel of adults, students share their best work and describe how they’ve grown. They explain what skills have become strengths and areas where they want to improve .

“This third grader was telling how he was a critical thinker. He talked about projects he’d done and about solving a problem — ‘this is what I found out’; ‘this is what I did’ — it was amazing,” Hesketh said.


Learning defenses and electronic portfolios of students’ best work from real-world projects are growing as a way to measure students’ skills.

In 2018, Jefferson County launched its Backpack of Success Skills program (its own graduate profile) and a partnership with Google to create a digital backpack for every student to collect student work. Students in 5th, 8th, and 12th grade make official presentations to a panel of educators and community members to showcase their work and describe gains on the “Backpack” skills. Panelists also get time to ask students questions.

Through the pandemic, Jefferson County’s emphasis continued with virtual presentations. Last school year, 20,625 student defense presentations were held across Jefferson County. In the first six weeks of this school year, district officials said that about 40,000 examples of school work were loaded by students into individual digital backpacks.

Many schools and districts have used the last decade to make impressive gains in overhauling learning environments to focus more on student input, local economic connections, and more engaging work.

The single-campus Eminence independent district in Henry County is a pioneer in student-driven learning experiences dating back to 2010. It increased high-tech connections and more rigorous classes after interviewing students about how school could improve. The district’s makeover also emphasized “surprise and delight” as qualities that inspire effort and creativity from staff and students, boosting achievement.

The vibe permeates. The elementary dining space at Eminence looks more like a cafe than a lunchroom. A looping slide connects the second floor with the ground-level cafeteria. An airy, multi-purpose addition resembles a high-tech corporate training retreat more than a school.

“The biggest thing for us was we wanted our diploma to mean something,” Superintendent Buddy Berry explained in a June webcast for superintendents held by the state education department. “We thought we needed something bigger than a program. We needed … something for our town to rally around.” He said the outcome was “a completely personalized, technology-rich, authentic, passion-based learning environment where kids couldn’t wait to be at school every day.”

It was a challenge filling new positions, and several business owners started discussing our challenges in finding the workforce we needed. We learned that the school district was working on those same areas in its graduate profile, and we said, ‘Boy, this is timely.’

— Mike Hesketh, Shelby County business owner

Over about the same timeframe, districts across Eastern Kentucky have embraced the connection between education and economic development. The emphasis has prompted courses and career training that offer creative responses to needs in Appalachian communities and local resources.

Active, applied learning approaches have been championed and spread by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which promoted enterprising Appalachian school programs as part of a renaissance “to lift the region out of generational poverty and historically poor educational outcomes.”

Teachers have eagerly shared creative learning opportunities.

 At a KVEC regional conference four years ago, for example, a Knott County elementary teacher explained how she added software coding lessons for her third grade math class, allowing students to program robots. She explained seeing the connection between coding and math after learning that computer science jobs were growing far faster than the qualified workforce.

 Under carpentry teacher Don Page, Phelps High School in Pike County has become well-known for annually designing and selling new “tiny houses,” an enterprise now popular in area technology centers.

At Belfry High School, also in Pike County, the STEAM Lab led by science and engineering teacher Haridas Chandran, known as “Doc,” has gained a reputation for in-depth projects with local applications.

His class resembles an inventor’s workshop. Students have examined chemical compositions that exist in coal, measured water quality in local wells, examined local medical trends and needs, even testing kudzu for medicinal qualities and as a building material.

“I want my students to learn more than what I have learned — I want them to be No. 1 in the world and compete with anybody,” Chandran said in a 2020 interview. “We’ve built a program where students can gain knowledge that fits the 21st century workforce — where they can take initiative, and they gain motivation to want to start something to help in this area.”


Hesketh of Shelby County has high hopes for what business leaders and deeper learning proponents can accomplish to equip students with skills that match the times.

“This is definitely having an impact,” he said. “Our industries are not the industries of the old days. Everyone is reluctant to change, but we need to take this message out to everyone in the county.”

TEACHER HARIDAS CHANDRAN AT BELFRY HIGH checks on students in his STEAM Lab as they work on a prototype biodigester which will convert manure and food scraps into fertilizer. 2020 photo.

Charlie Reeves, now a sixth grader at East Middle School in Shelby County, said that his experience with graduate profile skills that connected to classwork helped him become a better student. He said that the learning defense presentation he made last year at Heritage Elementary allowed him to stand out in a way tests couldn’t.

“I’m really shy, but I got to show myself. It was just me,” he recalled. “I’ve become more responsible. I’m five times more confident. I’ve grown a large amount.”

Shaver, the fourth-grade teacher, said that he has been impressed at how thoughtful students have been about connecting graduate profile skills with life beyond school.

“I have found it extremely powerful when a child can tell me how they’ve been a responsible collaborator during scouts, on their baseball team, or in church,” Shaver said.

J.J. Black, principal at Heritage Elementary, said the graduate profile presents students with important new challenges. The district’s expectations encourage students to make their voices heard and to recognize their roles as contributors to the school and their own success.

“The profile has given kids license to be an advocate for themselves and push us at times,” the principal said. “It’s been about educating the whole student to realize that their world isn’t in these four walls.”

Black said the district now has a thorough plan for stressing the graduate profile and challenging academic work.

“The skills aren’t something we see in a silo or as an extra,” she said. “They are naturally a part of who people are and what we should work toward.”

* * *

TOP PHOTO: Stella Franklin, Dallas Husband and Elijah Mabrey stand in front of a poster that their second grade class at Heritage Elementary in Shelby County created last year. It explains the district’s “graduate profile” skills in language young students can understand.

M A Y   2 0 2 3



Adjusting to new methods   As more schools work toward engaging learning experiences and preparing students with durable skills, some thoughts about understanding the changes involved:

Local priorities  School districts across Kentucky have developed “graduate profiles,” their own ambitions and priorities for equipping all graduates for adult success. In 2022, the Kentucky Board of Education adopted a statewide profile, its Portrait of a Learner. That portrait includes six areas that are similar to many school district profiles. The Kentucky Association of Educational Cooperatives maintains links to more than two dozen profiles from across the state.

Growing skills  Kentucky was the starting point for the Center for Innovation in Education, founded by former state education commissioner Gene Wilhoit. In 2015, the Center partnered with the Oregon-based consulting group Educational Policy Improvement Center, now known as Inflexion, to create Essential Skills and Dispositions, a detailed framework for how to view and increase student skills in creativity, communications, collaboration and self-direction. The guide breaks each skill area into component parts and describes how individuals progress from beginners to emerging experts in each.

Workplace needs  An Internet search for “building workers’ communication skills” yields a very specific set of guidance: the importance of improving communication skills for construction workers. The results are a good example of how “soft” skills are essential even in hard labor: “A construction worker needs to be able to effectively read and interpret the blueprints to know how to meet engineer or code specifications,” one site says. “Being able to listen and take instruction are critical to the construction worker,” adds another. Technical vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing skills and verbal communication are all essentials. A 2022 article from the Indeed job-posting site, details skill needs for existing workers looking to land and keep jobs.

Explaining the need  A LinkedIn Learning Blog post from a Wisconsin instructional designer and former teacher summarizes skills needed to be successful in the modern economy and workplace. The advice can be helpful as educators work with parents, community members, and non-educators to launch a productive conversation about the need for schools to deliver a more meaningful diploma.

This special report on durable skills and deeper learning showcases emerging issues and school efforts to better connect school work and adult success.


1. RETHINKING NECESSARY SKILLS & ENGAGING EXPERIENCES to better prepare students for challenges to learn, work, and thrive beyond high school.

THIS STORY: 2. UPDATING OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS with local graduate profiles, greater student voice, and new connections to employers and communities.

3. RENEWING PROFESSIONAL POSSIBILITIES as educators explore creative options for learning experiences and personalized connections that spark student interest.

4. MAKING STRONGER PERFORMANCE MAINSTREAM by expanding engaging and effective learning environments to replace outdated approaches and preparation.


Shelby County
ENROLLMENT: 410 in K-5
47% eligible for free/reduced price meals
14% minority

ENROLLMENT: 93,700 in P-12 across 166 schools
67% eligible for free/reduced price meals
62% minority

ENROLLMENT: 925 in P-12 across 2 schools
49% eligible for free/reduced price meals
24% minority

Pike County
ENROLLMENT: 520 in 9-12
55% eligible for free/reduced price meals
8% minority



“Anyone who has spent time in an elementary school classroom knows that every student starts school with unbound imagination, curiosity, and creativity — until he or she learns that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question,” educator and author Tony Wagner wrote in his 2012 book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.”

Wagner’s 2008 “The Global Achievement Gap” was a leading force in promoting the need for deeper learning and durable skills. In the book that followed, he said that essential qualities might also include perseverance, a willingness to experiment, take calculated risks and tolerate failure. He also recommended a capacity for “design thinking.” He emphasized traits of innovators nesting within durable skill areas: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.

However, a chief takeaway from Wagner’s book is that in addition to the world now built around a new generation of skills, today’s students are a ready audience. The rise of technology and availability of information are areas that young people already navigate. The challenge is installing modern learning experiences and avenues for productivity into schools — a notoriously rigid and tradition-bound institution.

“Most young people today frequently find the Internet to be a far more compelling teacher than the ones who stand in front of them all day,” Wagner wrote a decade ago. “The result of this new form of learning is that many of our youth, whom I call the Innovation Generation, have extraordinary latent talent for — and interest in — innovation and entrepreneurship, likely more than any generation in history.”

One challenge is that many young people have different dreams and aspirations than their elders.

“The problem is that many of us in our forties, fifties, and sixties who work in established institutions don’t make time and space for the younger generation’s dreams and ambitions,” Wagner stated.

Succeeding with students should be seen as creating pathways from play to passion to purpose, Wagner wrote, with intentional assistance from parents, teachers and mentors along the way.


Lonnie covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.

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