Skip Navigation
It begins here.

Upper School Blog


The Making of the SA Graduate

June 20, 2023
By Meredith Williams, Upper School Head

Before Salisbury Academy decided to open an upper school, there was extensive work identifying the educational needs of our community and the desired outcomes of a 9-12 program. Part of this work involved stakeholders identifying the qualities/skills/abilities they would most like to “gift” their student upon high school graduation.  

The resulting list held over 60 items with items like confidence, good communication skills, empathy, and independence topping the list. The list contained a wide range of outcomes, and there was one obvious commonality. - Every word on the list spoke to who the graduate would be, not what specific facts they would know.

Soft Skills Matter Most

The traditional school model focuses almost exclusively on hard skills measured by achievement tests. Yet our gut, just like the stakeholder’s list, tells us soft skills are exactly what our graduates need most. It turns out, our gut is right.

Kirabo Jackson at Northwestern University found that schools that intentionally build “soft” skills such as interpersonal skills, effort, and grit outperformed schools that only focused on the “hard” skills of test scores in both short-term and long-term results.  

In the article Hard Facts on Soft Skills, the authors state:

“Achievement tests miss, or more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills—personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains…soft skills predict success in life, that they produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.”

Who We Become

This realization was a turning point in our design process. This is when we knew the model we created must address the “who we are becoming” piece as directly as the “what information we are learning" piece. The result was our graduate profile and its five competencies:


Many schools and systems have graduate profiles stating what they hope their graduates will aspire to. But, don’t be fooled. The SA difference is that our entire approach to education is aligned with developing these core competencies in our students from day 1. Adding to the foundation of virtues and life skills taught in the 3K-8 program at Salisbury Academy, our model guarantees the development of these competencies because our processes are designed to support it.

The Difference is Pedagogy & Accountability

When students are engaged in authentic, real-world challenges as a part of their core curriculum, they have the opportunity to hone their soft skills as they work deeply with content matter. The SA Upper School will engage students deeply in this pedagogy known as problem or project based learning.

Additionally, in a traditional school students who may have worked on projects (be they authentic or otherwise) were graded solely on their final work product.  

This approach overlooks the critical moments for feedback and development of the soft skills. The SA Upper School will use rubrics designed for articulating growth in the soft skills and allow for teacher, self, and peer assessment throughout a project’s duration.  

The New Tech Network is an example of a high school model where students engage in problem based learning and experiential engagement on a daily basis. They have developed a series of rubrics that allow a student’s growth in the soft skills to be quantitatively measured. See an example for the skill of agency here.

The Buck Institute for Education also has a well-honed set of rubrics for the soft skills that support their project based learning approach. See an example of a creativity rubric here.

The SA Approach

At the SA Upper School, regular and authentic projects provide opportunities for rubric-guided feedback, and our Compass course will provide time for reflection. Students will maintain a portfolio that illustrates their growth in each competency for their senior portfolio defense.  

In this way, our model stands accountable to our graduate profile as a statement of the outcomes we provide consistently to students, parents, and the community. They are outcomes that are not just aspirational but required for success in the life each graduate will experience beyond the classroom.


SA Admissions