Powerful portfolio process for high school students

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

What a great way to end a high school career!

Recently I had a chance to participate in portfolio presentations at St Paul’s Harding High School. For 20-25 minutes, each graduating senior presented information about what she or he had done in high school, covering grades, extra-curricular activities, community service, honors and awards, reference letters, personal reflections and post-high school plans.

Under state law, in the next few years, each Minnesota student will be encouraged to gather at least some of this information.

“It’s an opportunity for our students to see growth. Otherwise they would have no idea how far they’ve come.” That’s how Maureen Rueber, who coordinates the portfolio process, summarized what happens. Rueber has spent 43 years as a public school educator at Harding. The school has been using and refining its portfolio process for more than a decade.

The work begins in ninth grade. Students write a one-page paper describing who they are and where they would like to go. Students also keep some of their work in various classes. This becomes part of the packet they present as seniors.

Most portfolios were 50-75 pages long. They included student transcripts; class work samples; the personal statement from ninth grade; awards from music, debate, drama, athletics or other activities; letters of recommendation, some of which are from faculty some from work or service supervisors; and a senior summary looking back and ahead. The portfolio also included documentation of at least 12 hours of community service, which the school requires of all students.

Ralph Alexander, a Harding faculty member who runs the school’s College and Career Center told me that students “start off thinking this is a huge amount of work. They’re right. Some of them are not eager to do it. But by the time they’re finished, they are very proud of what they’ve done and pleased to have a record of their efforts.”

Harding serves more than 2,000 students, representing an array of races and cultures. Over about three hours, I reviewed portfolios that 11 youngsters presented. Their last names included Ramirez, Xiong and Williams. They hope, among other things to be a chef, a nutritionist, a graphic designer or a doctor. Next steps include the military, two- or four-year colleges.

I think state legislators and Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius were thinking about this kind of process as they developed the “World’s Best Workforce” ideas. But Harding student portfolios are not only about preparing for work. As Betty Yang, who also works in the Harding College and Career Center explained, “It also is about students learning to give back.”

The process helps bring the school and community closer together. Each student presented the portfolio to two people. Some were Harding faculty. Others were from 3M, one of Harding’s partners.

Harding Assistant Principal Lanisha Paddock, with whom I reviewed portfolios, believes “This is a great way to learn more about what students are doing and thinking.” Agreed.

It also helps students review their accomplishments, plan for the future and consider what they have accomplished. It’s a great gift, making graduation much more meaningful.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]


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