PEABODY —  Superintendent Cara Murtagh was working to put in place Peabody’s “Vision of the Graduate” — a set of seven life skills for all students  — when she passed away last November.

Murtagh, 44, was just halfway through her second year as superintendent when she died, having spent more than two decades as an educator in Peabody schools, as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent. Vision of the Graduate was to be one of her legacies. Now, her colleagues are working to ensure that still happens.

“This was Cara’s vision for every kid in this city,” High School Principal and Assistant Superintendent Chris Lord told School Committee members at a meeting last month, choking up as he spoke about how Murtagh wanted to see this initiative spread to all of Peabody’s schools.

The initiative, in use by several other schools across the state, focuses on how a student performs as an “effective communicator,” “self manager”  or “global thinker,” which may mean more to a prospective college or employer than a GPA. 

The program will become part of the accreditation process of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

In Peabody, it’s already in place at the high school, where students are being ranked as “path finders” or “problem solvers.”

While middle and elementary school students are not being assessed on report cards in this way, the plan is to showcase students’ work at all Peabody public schools based on the Vision of the Graduate sometime in the spring, Lord said.

“She and I talked about this last summer and we thought, ‘wow,’ if we could make this happen in our town, you’re going to bring businesses here. Parents are going to want have their kids here (at the high school),” Lord said.

Peabody High is at least three years ahead of the game when it comes to meeting accreditation standards for high schools now being put in place by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Lord said.

“We are so far ahead of the curve. We are the point of the spear. We are the thought of throwing the spear,” said Lord, who is also a NEASC commission member. “So all high schools in New England over the next 10 years are going to try and get to where we are now.”

Peabody’s vision

The Vision of the Graduate involves seven attributes students should attain by the time they graduate: “path finder,” “effective communicator,” “global thinker,” “problem solver,” “artist innovator,” “team player,” and “self manager.”

Peabody High has taken these seven skill sets and put proficiency ratings to them. 

Students are rated on a scale of 1 through 4 for each attribute, with 1 meaning  “little or no evidence;” 2 meaning “developing;” 3 meaning “providing;” and 4’ meaning “sustaining.”

The program is being rolled out over four years at the high school, so that each department works on two skill sets at a time over the course of a year. This year, English students are being asked to be team players and artist innovators in class, while visual arts students are becoming global thinkers and path finders. 

Next year, the skill sets rotate, and departments will take on two new skill sets to teach.

‘A life thing’

Students in the high school’s medical assisting class were enthusiastic about Vision of the Graduate, where they were learning to become effective communicators and path finders while learning to take a patient’s blood pressure or pulse.

“Every time they do a skill,” medical assisting instructor Mari Jamgochian said, “I am looking at the Vision of the Graduate core values in order to assess them. And they get graded on that.”

Junior Michaela Bonfanti finds the process helpful.

“For me, path finder is huge because the whole (Career and Technical Education) program as a whole is huge for being a path finder,” said Bonfanti, 17, who wants to go into nursing and work in orthopedics.

Junior Olivia Gardikas, 16, said Vision of the Graduate and its emphasis on being an effective communicator has helped her work on her public speaking. She even attends courses at North Shore Community College, meaning she is cutting down on the number of courses she will have to take in college. She considers herself a path finder for doing so.

Edson Walle, 17, also a junior, is taking his prerequisite nursing courses at North Shore Community College and Salem State University, and the high school’s focus on his skills has helped.

“Personally, it made me build my character,” Walle said. 

Bonfanti, who plays basketball, said the Vision of the Graduate attributes transfer from classroom to the court, where it’s important to be an effective communicator and a team player.

“It’s a life thing, it’s not even just a school thing. When you graduate, you should still be living by these things,” Bonfanti said.

The whole student

Jarred Haas, the high school’s director of teaching and learning and integrated technologies, said Vision of the Graduate allows teachers to talk across departments, which in a typical high school are compartmentalized by subject matter.

“We want students that are successful in life,” Haas said. “We are not as focused as ‘are the going to be a scientist or are they going to be an English major in college?’ ... We are now really looking at that whole student.”

Using the school’s new Aspen student information system, school officials can track how the high school is doing as a whole in demonstrating the seven skills. They can see what percentage students might be sustaining as “path finders,” and they can also look at areas where students may need more work.

Lord told the School Committee the Vision of the Graduate was the culmination of three years of work at the high school, with Haas and Chris Vasseur, the TV studio instructor, instrumental in putting the program in place. Former High School Principal Eric Buckley also presented the program to the School Committee last year.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2534, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews. Find us at 300 Rosewood Drive, Suite 107, Danvers, Mass. 

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