Portrait of a Community to Empower Learning Transformation 

Key Points

  • The Community Portrait approach encourages diverse voices to shape the future of education, ensuring it reflects the needs and aspirations of all stakeholders.

  • Active, representative community engagement is essential for creating meaningful and inclusive educational environments.


Students in the Guinn Graphics Design Program

Imagine a bustling school gymnasium filled with parents, students, educators, and local community members. The energy is palpable as diverse voices share their hopes and dreams for the future of education in their community. A single parent juggling two jobs stands up to speak. Despite rarely attending school events due to their busy schedule, they are here to shape a nurturing and inclusive education environment. This is the power of community convenings – a transformative approach to education that invites everyone to the table. This is the start of a Community Portrait.

The Portrait of a Graduate—a collaborative effort to define what learners should know and be able to do upon graduation—has likely generated enthusiasm in your community. However, the challenge of future-ready graduates persists: How can we turn this vision into a reality within our diverse and dynamic schools, especially amid the current national political tensions and contentious curriculum debates?

The answer lies in active, inclusive community engagement. It’s about crafting a Community Portrait that reflects the rich diversity of our neighborhoods. This approach, grounded in the same principles used to design effective learning systems, seeks to cultivate deep, reciprocal relationships within the community. When young people are actively involved, the potential for meaningful change increases exponentially.

John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” This underscores the importance of actively designing our educational environments with community involvement. Whether we permit chance environments to shape our students’ experiences or intentionally design them to reflect our community’s values makes a difference. By fostering these designed learning environments, we can ensure that education is a lived experience shaped by and with our community. 

Gathering in a Polarized World

Political polarization underscores the necessity of shared agreements and robust support for our learning systems. Engaging the broader community is not just beneficial; it’s essential. School leaders must navigate shared aspirations and address critical questions:

  • What are our community’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations for its young people?
  • What skills and mindsets do our children need to thrive in a rapidly changing, complex world?
  • How can we design equitable learning experiences in our school systems?

This community-centered approach enriches the Portrait of a Graduate, ensuring the educational ecosystem aligns with stakeholders’ values and needs. It brings diverse voices to the table, fostering inclusivity and co-creation, ultimately shaping an educational landscape that is both intellectually and emotionally safe for students.

Real-World Engagement Examples

The Community Portrait can be a powerful way to invite people into the vision of a school and /or district and create a renewed sense of belonging. Imagine the following examples: 

  • A single parent (or guardian) juggling two jobs: Maria, a single mother of three, has her hands full working two jobs to make ends meet. Participating in school events has always been a challenge for her. However, she attends a Community Portrait meeting, eager to share her vision for an education system that supports all students, including her children. The room listens attentively as she speaks about the importance of after-school programs and flexible scheduling. Her ideas are met with appreciation and understanding, transforming Maria from a bystander into an active participant in shaping an inclusive educational environment.
  • A family with swing hours or caregiving responsibilities: The Johnsons, a family new to the community, have parents working swing hours while caring for an elderly grandparent. Despite their busy schedules, they attend a Community Portrait meeting. They share their experiences of struggling to balance work, caregiving, and their children’s education. Their input on creating more supportive and flexible school schedules resonates with many. Through this involvement, the Johnsons feel a newfound sense of inclusion and integral to the community’s vision.
  • Local small business owners: James, a local shop owner, often hires recent graduates to work in his store. He participates in the Community Portrait process, sharing the skills and qualities he seeks in employees. James emphasizes the importance of practical skills like communication, teamwork, and time management. His feedback helps align the education system with real-world needs, ensuring graduates are better prepared for the workforce. James’s involvement not only enhances the employability of graduates but also strengthens community ties, fostering a stronger connection between local businesses and schools.

The Community Portrait invites diverse voices into the work, fostering a deep sense of belonging and collective purpose in shaping the educational future.

Five Stages for Co-Creation of a Community Portrait

Diversity forms the fabric of America and its democracy, encompassing various identities, perspectives, and experiences—race, ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, abilities, and more. A diverse community fosters inclusivity, mutual respect, and equal opportunities for all its members.

We must move beyond simplistic labels and stereotypes to define our community inclusively. Instead, we should recognize the multifaceted nature of diversity. As showcased above, our community comprises individuals with unique stories, histories, and values that shape their identities and perspectives. By valuing this complexity, we create a more accurate, inclusive, and stabilizing vision of the future. The Community Portrait is a logical and powerful starting point for this important work. Additionally, bringing people into the fold just got easier with emerging technology.  Below are the five stages to adopting the portrait model… with an infusion of AI. 

  1. Engage with the Broader Community: Understanding and incorporating the community’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations into the educational vision is critical. AI can help draft personalized messages and ensure timely communication, making it easier for community members to stay informed and engaged. With smart tools, school districts are better able to send tailored newsletters to parents, highlighting events and news pertinent to their child’s grade level or upcoming community engagement sessions.
  2. Define the Portrait of a Graduate: Tailor the vision to reflect students’ desired knowledge, skills, and mindsets, aligning it with the community’s aspirations. AI tools can process feedback from parents and students, identifying common concerns or suggestions to improve school programs.
  3. Align the System with the Portrait of a Graduate: Ensuring that the entire educational system, from policies to practices, aligns seamlessly with the vision, promoting equitable and enduring experiences. AI-driven listening platforms can help education leaders monitor online mentions, gauge public sentiment, and identify emerging topics, allowing schools to address issues and opportunities proactively.
  4. Empower Educators with the Portrait of an Educator: Providing educators with the tools, resources, and support needed to bring the vision to life in classrooms. Every teacher just got a new student teacher. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants offer real-time support in the classroom, helping educators reach their defined portrait goals.
  5. Equip Leaders with the Portrait of a Leader: Empowering educational leaders with the competencies and qualities necessary to champion and steer the systemic change towards a learner-centered, forward-thinking environment. Leadership analytics and AI-driven training modules can help leaders develop strategies to implement the Community Portrait effectively.

By embracing shared wisdom and crafting representative Community Portraits, we are building a more inclusive, dynamic, and forward-focused learning community. Integrating AI into this process enhances communication, feedback, and alignment, ensuring that the vision reflects the diverse voices and needs of the community. Margaret Wheatley wisely noted, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”  Leveraging emergent technologies like AI helps us to uncover these shared values while addressing potential biases to ensure an education system that is intellectually and emotionally safe, inclusive, and responsive to the evolving needs of our students and society.

Rebecca Midles

Rebecca Midles is the Vice President of Learning Design at Getting Smart and is an innovator in competency education and personalized learning with over twenty years of experience as teacher, administrator, board member, consultant and parent.

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Director at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.