For over 3 years, the Springfield Public School district has partnered with the Barr Foundation and community members on “Portrait of a Graduate,” which is a vision of what students need to succeed upon graduating high school.  

Last school year, the district launched an art and writing contest around this initiative that gave students the chance to express what Portrait of a Graduate means to them, and the winners of the contest were recently announced. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with one of the winners along with some staff that helped lead the project to learn more.  

Read the full transcript:

Tony Dunne, Connecting Point: For over three years, the Springfield Public School District has partnered with the Barr Foundation and community members on Portrait of a Graduate, which is a vision of what students need to succeed upon graduating high school.

Last school year, the district launched an art and writing contest around this initiative that gave students the chance to express what portrait of a graduate means to them. And the winners of the contest have recently been announced.

Zydalis Bauer spoke with one of the winners, along with some of the staff that helped lead the project, to learn more.

Paul N. Foster, Springfield Public Schools: We love hearing from our students and through that Portrait of a Graduate process, we certainly — students were part of conversations contributing to the writing of the document. We also know our students are so talented in the arts, so talented with their words, and we just thought it would be an opportunity.

You know, part of the portrait is we can say we have this — this vision of North Star vision of what we want for our young people. But then we need to communicate it. We need the whole community to know that vision. And what better way than for that vision to be conveyed in the words and the artwork of our students?

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: And so, there were 20 winners between the writing contest and the art contest.

And Zoe, you were one of the winners from this contest. Tell me about your piece and why you decided to enter.

Zoe Holland, Springfield Central High School: So, this last year, for one of my classes, I took a creative writing class here at Central, and we focused a lot on poetry through the class. And my teacher was talking about the contest, and I thought that it would be a good opportunity to be able to show my writing skills, but also to connect more with the school district and the city of Springfield.

Zydalis Bauer: Do you want to share with us a little bit of your poem?

Zoe Holland: Sure. So, it’s called “Key to Life,” and says:
Communication, the key to life.
Hearing your best friend give you advice as you cry.
Scream while driving with the windows down.
And communication makes connection.
Makes life worth living.

Zydalis Bauer: Azell and Paul, when you hear those words and you see this young woman take the initiative and be part of this contest, like, how does it make both of you feel to see your students excel and succeed in this way?

Azell Cavaan, Springfield Public Schools: I think any time we are able to involve students and hear directly from them and allow them an opportunity to speak and create from their hearts, it’s always mind blowing.

And Zoe was being a little humble and read just a portion of what she wrote, but — you know, so the — the Portrait of a Graduate has come down to several pillars. And one of the pillars, which is a key point that the community made clear they wanted our students to be able to do when they graduate, is communicate. And so, that’s how Zoe interprets a Portrait of a Graduate, in terms of communication.

And I think what we’ve seen across the board with these pieces of art and this written work is that these lessons they transfer across a whole lifetime. It’s not just academic, you know, what you get when you’re sitting in front of a teacher, but what it means in life as you move forward. And I think that Zoe’s piece illustrates that so beautifully.

Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely. And what were the contest guidelines and what did the winners receive for it?

Azell Cavaan: So, the guidelines were they were very open. They could submit in terms of art, a medium that they were most comfortable with. They needed to make sure that they addressed one of the six pillars of the portrait. And the writing work was just as open — it could be anything from a poem to a story. And we received all of those kinds of entries.

And the winners received a Amazon gift card, a beautiful certificate signed by the Honorable Mayor Domenic Sarno, and the superintendent of schools, Dan Warwick. All were invited as special guests to our school opening event, which is the convocation. And so those were the awards that they all received.

Zydalis Bauer: And Zoe, I know that they came to you in person to announce the winners.

How did it feel when you found out that you are one of the selected ones?

Zoe Holland: I was actually in creative writing class when they came to the school, and they had called me down to the office. And I’m not really a student that ever gets called to the office, so I was nervous because they didn’t tell me what it was for. So, I thought I did something.

But when I went down there, the head of the English department for the city awarded me my award and he walked me to class to tell my teacher about it and just seeing how proud my teacher was that I had won the award really made me, like, proud that I had put a lot of hard work into what I was doing.

And I actually am going into journalism for my career, so it made me excited that I think that I’m going down the right path and it, like, gave me recognition for all my hard work.

Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely. And you already have a bright future ahead of you in that field of study. So, congratulations on that! Tell me a little bit more about the other artwork and written pieces that were submitted, because I know that they were described as being very thoughtful and they passed your expectations that you have for the students. I know the students probably never cease to amaze you.

So, tell me a little bit more about the other submissions that you received for the contest.

Paul N. Foster: Well, we had lots of different writings. We had poems. We had some other poems. We had several students who are winners, wrote letters to the superintendent talking about why they thought certain pillars of the portrait were important.

And in the case of the artwork, we had some digital art, we had some paintings. I think we had a charcoal drawing. We had one student illustrated, basically, a picture of figures climbing a mountain and I think a flag at the top of the mountain. And they were really conveying that for them, the Portrait of the Graduate was what they were trying to achieve.

For each of our pieces of artwork, students also did an artist statement, and it’s just beautiful to read students describing this feeling of like, it’s hard, that school is hard, and this process of — really the process of growing up and figuring out who you want to be and developing the skills to achieve that. And for them, there was that visual of climbing this mountain.

Another one I’ll describe was a student who did a digital piece of art, and it was a character. And the part that really stood out to me is the character was illustrated with stars in their eyes. In the in the artist statement, what the student said is that every student at school should be like that. Every student when they’re at school should have stars in their eyes because they’re so excited about what they’re learning.

And I think that’s really a beautiful description of what we hope to achieve in school and what we hope to achieve with our Portrait of a Graduate is creating a place where students are excited to kind of pursue their dreams and feel empowered to do that.

Zydalis Bauer: And what I love about this contest is that it’s not like the students just submitted their work and that’s it. You all have plans to display it, and I know that there’s a podcast for the written pieces.

So, tell me a little bit more about how you plan to highlight the work that the students submitted.

Azell Cavaan: So, we — we’ve created all the winning pieces into two beautiful posters, and we’ve disseminated those posters to every school in the district. So, whatever school you walk into, you should be able to see these posters.

And we’re in the process now of also sharing them with community organizations and, you know, local businesses and things so that the community at large can see their work as well. And as you mentioned, the written pieces are available on our SPES POG: The Podcast.

So, we hope that people around the community get very familiar with all of these works.

Zydalis Bauer: Zoe, what does it mean for you to see the administration and the district really value and appreciate the students’ voices? I know that you’re a senior, so how does it feel to be included in such an important initiative?

Zoe Holland: I think that it’s the most important to me that with the Portrait of a Graduate, they don’t just highlight being like a “good student” with getting good grades and, like, being the top of your class, they’re more focused on who you are as a person, which I think is a really important thing that you learn throughout — especially high school.

I definitely know that now as a senior, looking back on my high school career, I noticed the things that I’ve learned through high school and the different ways that I’ve changed, and it shows me that all the different pillars that are part of a Portrait of a Graduate are really important in making the students of Springfield become ready for the world that they’re going to go into after graduation.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, this is the third year of a five-year plan for the Portrait of a Graduate.

As administrators and people who are part of the Springfield Public District, what have you learned throughout these past couple of years?

Paul N. Foster: I think, certainly, we’ve learned…I would describe it as the joy of hearing from our community, hearing from students, hearing from our community about what our hopes and dreams are. And it was just such a rich process.

And then I think also, we’re continuing that partnership to try to think about how do we actually reimagine school? And I — I love what Zoe just said about the fact that it isn’t just the grades. And I think one of the things that was loud and clear from our community is we absolutely want our students to learn math and literacy and social studies and science. But there is so much else our community wants for our students as well.

And I think, you know, in some ways the portrait was just the start. And now it’s about conversations about how do we actually re-envision what we do every day so that students experience that and are developing the skills, the knowledge that our community wants them to have?