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Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (DPI) believes that every child deserves a personalized learning experience. A few years ago, DPI realized that local districts did not have the flexibility, because of state policy, to implement desired innovative learning opportunities. 

With a legislative session on the horizon, DPI and partners across the state garnered support for SB 2186, which passed with bipartisan support in 2017 and created a pilot program that allows public and nonpublic schools to have more local control and flexibility than they previously had under state law. 

Thanks to this new policy, the North Dakota Personalized, Competency-Based Learning (ND PCBL) initiative was developed, and serves as an incubator for personalized, competency-based learning (PCBL) in North Dakota. This initiative supports the North Dakota PK-12 Strategic Vision that all students will graduate choice ready with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to be successful.

The Aurora Institute defines PCBL as “creating engaging learning experiences customized to each student’s strengths, needs and interests.” Students make daily decisions about how they will create and apply knowledge and how they will demonstrate their learning. They receive timely feedback on their progress as well as different levels of support based on their individual learning needs.

Four school districts embarked on pilot programs in PCBL in the 2018-2019 school year: Marmot High School - North Dakota Youth Correctional Center; Northern Cass Public Schools; Oakes Public Schools; and West Fargo Public Schools. These districts collaborate with each other and receive personalized, grant-funded technical assistance from the national non-profit, KnowledgeWorks, DPI, and other educational partners.

The districts meet quarterly and collaborate virtually between meetings. Recently they met at Northern Cass School District in rural Hunter, North Dakota. It was the first time they had all visited a district in person. Each district approaches PCBL a bit differently and this was an opportunity to learn how Northern Cass learners (students) and educators (teachers) are adapting to this new style of learning. 

Northern Cass has 685 PK-12 students with 35 percent open-enrolled. They must be doing something right to attract that many students outside of their district. One reason could be their “Why Statement:” We believe that every child can change the world; therefore, we will provide a world-class education.

“All of our educators must also have a personal ‘Why statement,’” said Dr. Cory Steiner, Northern Cass School District superintendent. “And it must change every year. That has helped this whole process – it has been an educator-led transformation.”

Some of the most visible differences in PCBL at Northern Cass include the terms they use – educator versus teacher, learner versus student, learning center versus classroom.

"We believe learning can happen anywhere,” said Steiner. “Hallways can be learning centers."

During a learner panel, it was clear students recognize the value of PCBL and the benefits it provides. They appreciate being able to learn at their own pace and advocating for themselves. One learner even commented, “Seeing groups of people visiting every few weeks also makes us feel like we are a part of something special.” 

Other comments included, "I like the fact that I can actually talk to the educators.” “I'm not scared to ask questions.” “I can talk to the educators about problems at home.” “They (educators) want to see us succeed.” “I’m learning how to manage my time.”

Allowing learners to be a part of decision-making is also part of the transformation. That might involve allowing someone to make a movie about a project instead of handing in a written report, or asking a student to become a member of the school board.

Abby Richman, a senior, is the first learner member of a school board in the state of North Dakota. “They presented the opportunity last year, asking for someone to voice the opinion of the students at the school board meetings,” she said. “Learners track me down and if it seems like enough learners have the same issues, and I know it is important, I will present to the school board in a professional manner.”

One of the issues that Richman addressed has already led to a change in the dress code that allows learners to wear hats. Something that may seem trivial but made a big difference for many learners.

As other school districts are seeing the positive outcomes of PCBL, they may wonder, “How can we begin this transformation?”

That is where KnowledgeWorks provides valuable input. They provide most of the research-based framework and navigation tools for how PCBL works and can be implemented in a school.

“All students can learn,” said Kim Hanisch, KnowledgeWorks consultant. “Maybe not all students are ‘A’ students, but they can all learn. Our role is to help any district transform their systems and approaches to make sure this happens. It is not a new way to teach, or a set program, but we do look at what is effective instruction.”

Not all learners are destined for college. Some may want to join the military or take over the family farm. Part of PCBL is making sure learners find their passions before they leave school. Through internships, job shadowing, and other learning opportunities, learners find out what where they may want to focus their time and energy.

“Learners today are so engaged,” said North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler. “I have not seen a better generation of young people than the ones in school now. They are so eager to be their best selves, help their schools and their communities. They are waiting for us to set the table for them and now is the time.”

The four districts implementing PCBL are seeing positive results and providing meaningful educational opportunities across North Dakota. It seems they are setting the table for many more districts across the state to join them.

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