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North Dakota鈥檚 Personalized Learning Journey Started Six Years Ago – and They鈥檙e Not Done Yet

Article
June 12, 2024

By: Jillian Kuhlmann

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Personalizing learning 鈥 and teaching 鈥 requires collaboration across districts.
  • The original North Dakota personalized, competency-based learning cohort of four districts challenges each other to keep going forward and holds each other accountable.
  • The cohort transformed into a statewide network that provides peer-to-peer learning and leadership development critical to scale and sustain personalized, competency-based learning.

Beth Slette鈥檚 first year as superintendent of West Fargo Public Schools coincided with the first year the district joined a cohort of North Dakota districts committed to implementing personalized, competency-based learning.

鈥淚 don’t know how we would be where we are as a district today without the work of the last six years,鈥 said Slette, who has been working in West Fargo schools for 17 years. Joined by Northern Cass School District, Oakes Public School District and the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center, West Fargo has been implementing learner-centered practices and building their capacity to scale and sustain personalized, competency-based learning.

The cohort recently celebrated six years of work and their transition to , a network that expands the reach of student-centered learning practices beyond the original four districts. The opportunities the network provides for peer-to-peer learning and leadership development are critical to scale and sustain the work of personalized, competency-based learning in the state.

鈥淲hen you think about where we鈥檙e going today 鈥 we have standards-based learning groups, partnerships with higher education, we鈥檝e presented at SXSW EDU and the Aurora Institute, we鈥檝e built out a personalized learning framework and a North Dakota learning continuum 鈥 this all exists because of what you tried with your students, what you advocated for because of your students,鈥 said Ann Ellefson, academic support director with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI). 鈥淭he state department is a better advocate for what kids need because you鈥檝e let us sit at your table. Because of your generosity, we鈥檙e able to bring the voice of North Dakota students and advance change at the state level.鈥

Personalizing learning 鈥 and teaching 鈥 requires collaboration across districts.

Marisa Riesinger is the elementary library media specialist with Dickinson Public Schools in Dickinson, North Dakota, and became involved with the network this past autumn after attending a personalized learning institute at Northern Cass over the summer. Her previous experiences as a classroom teacher and a literacy coach led her to personalized, competency-based learning.

鈥淓ven before personalized learning was a thing, I knew that was how kids learned best,鈥 said Riesinger. 鈥淚t was nice to see that there’s a cohort of people as passionate about it as I was.鈥

Riesinger went on a site visit to Northern Cass this past spring and was able to bring educators from one of Dickinson鈥檚 elementary schools, Lincoln Elementary. Her peers found the experience as powerful as she did.

鈥淚t really opened their eyes to what things could be and also recognizing that things we’re already doing,鈥 Riesinger said. 鈥淲e might think, wow, we鈥檒l never be where they are, but Northern Cass has been doing this for years. They were like us once, too. It鈥檚 a process. We ask our kiddos to focus on growth, and personalized learning is an opportunity for educators to think about their growth. Networking with other educators gives everyone an opportunity to see that.鈥

Slette explained that while they were interested in personalized, competency-based learning from the start, it wasn鈥檛 until they began collaborating with other districts that they realized how much educators in North Dakota had to offer each other.

鈥淭here鈥檚 this natural resistance to look at another school or district and think, they鈥檙e not like us. That what works for another school or district won鈥檛 work for us. You get embedded in your own culture,鈥 said Slette. 鈥淏ut this work has to happen in collaboration with other districts. It鈥檚 transformational, not transactional.鈥

Greg Dobitz, principal at Oakes Elementary School, agrees and cites the opportunity the initiative provided to visit other schools 鈥 and host schools that wanted to visit them 鈥 as pivotal. While West Fargo has more than 12,000 students across 21 schools, Oakes serves approximately 500 students on a single campus. They still had much to teach and learn from each other, with teams of educators from West Fargo visiting Oakes.

This work has to happen in collaboration with other districts. It鈥檚 transformational, not transactional.
Beth Slette Superintendent, West Fargo Public Schools

鈥淎sking others to come into our school and visiting other schools forced us to reflect and think about how we do things,鈥 said Dobitz. 鈥淥nce our teachers saw somebody doing it, that鈥檚 when progress was made. And anytime we slowed down I said, we need to go see somebody because we鈥檙e slowing down.鈥

, a national leader in research, development and service, on progress and outcomes in North Dakota:

鈥he peer site visits gave the districts the agency and accountability to take stock of their personalized, competency-based learning practices and determine what to share and where to ask for feedback. Peer visits also served to help educators see what personalized learning could look like. Educators spoke of changing their practices because of feedback received on their instruction during a peer visit. The cohort facilitated district collaboration and shared experiences that would have been highly unlikely without it. Two of the districts aligned their schedules to share professional development days, offering the opportunity to visit one another and/or collaborate virtually on professional learning days despite their geographic distance.

Recalling that she once worried that not everyone from West Fargo got to participate in the convenings, Slette now sees practices spreading by virtue of what her educators and principals are able to learn from each other. The growth of personalized, competency-based learning practices is often organic 鈥 and supported by instructional coaches the district employs to help educators take risks and try something new.

鈥淪chools that weren’t at the table during this work, they鈥檙e doing it,鈥 said Slette. 鈥淚t’s growing, and it’s really collaborative.鈥

What鈥檚 next for teaching and learning in North Dakota?

Right now, the network boasts more than 300 members, five higher education institutions and 16 districts. While 澳门天天好彩 and NDDPI once served as conveners and facilitators for the initiative, the network is now educator-led. The network is driven to maintain a commitment to : learner agency, relationships, a continuum of learning, learner supports, relevant learning experiences and meaningful demonstrations of learning.

There鈥檚 also a strong desire among the original districts to continue cultivating the kinds of relationships that allow for collaboration and shared accountability.

鈥淚鈥檓 passionate about this work, and I want it to expand. We need the state, we need the network,鈥 said Doug Margerum, a secondary principal with Northern Cass, who surfaced the need for commitments, norms and reporting out on what worked and didn鈥檛 work from everyone involved. 鈥淲e all have to have some skin in the game.鈥

Echoing Slette鈥檚 thoughts on getting stuck in the culture of your building or district, Margerum and others affirmed the value the cohort provided in stretching their thinking and challenging them to be transparent about the process. Returning to doing what was familiar was never an option, even when things got hard.

鈥淲hen you build relationships with people, you can ask them very direct questions about things,鈥 said Slette. 鈥淚t goes back to accountability. People who know our district, we can ask, what are you seeing? What are you thinking? What are our next steps? It’s another reason to stay with it, and a different level of actionable support.鈥

THE AUTHOR

Jillian Kuhlmann
Senior Manager of Communications

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