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Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer

As the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) works to make education more innovative, Bismarck Public Schools (BPS) is making sure they are taking advantage of all the opportunities NDDPI provides.

The Career Academy in Bismarck has been innovating education for many years. They offer courses such as aviation, horticulture/botany (with a greenhouse), pre-engineering/tech ed, medical-related careers, Certified Nursing Assistant, electronics, and more. A number of industries have expressed an interest in the potential this type of facility has to offer for skilled graduates.

After the 2017 North Dakota Legislature passed a landmark education innovation bill, BPS applied for a waiver to create a program that would provide personalized learning options for Career Academy high school juniors and seniors. It started with a few students and is growing every year.

Besides meeting graduation standards through, some might say, unconventional learning methods, Empower[Ed] offers students a whole new way to learn and celebrates their achievements.

“An education approach that makes it easier for our students to tap into their interests and passions while benefiting their families, their communities, and themselves is an excellent way to prepare our young people for their futures,” said North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

Becoming project managers

Authors note: David St. Peter is an English teacher and the personalized learning facilitator for the Empower[Ed] program. He works with the Empower[Ed] learners to make sure they meet their standards and provides a learning environment that inspires creativity, produces solutions that help our communities, and allows the learners to be in control of their education.

St. Peter invited me to visit with some of the Empower[Ed] learners to hear more about their experiences with the program and I was overwhelmed with their accomplishments and the projects they are involved with. The following learners were part of the interview:

Deanna Ellis, Junior, Legacy High School

Ryan Stapleton, Senior, Century High School

David Brousseau, Junior, Legacy High School

Samuel Ennen, Junior, Century High School

Olivia Butler, Junior, Bismarck High School

Jesse Kraft, Senior, Homeschooled

Cameron Lipp, Junior, Century High School

David worked with Heavens Helpers Closet (701), which is a nonprofit that provides clothes and other resources for people in the community that are struggling to meet basic needs.

“They needed help with their check-in process,” he said. “They don’t want people coming in more than once a month, volunteers are staffing the check-ins and they needed something that was quick, easy, and free.

“I went to observe, talked to people that I thought could help me come up with a solution, and we came up with a pivot table in Google Docs. It allows them a quicker way to sort through names. I learned a lot of communication skills, how to reach out to people, work up the chain of command, observe, and how not to take things at face value. And, I was able to meet my Speaking/Listening Skills standards through this project.”

“I worked with a lady that goes to parents' houses and cleans them out before or after a death, downsizing move, or a move to a facility,” Ryan explained. “She helps them sort, decide what to keep, then donates or sells the rest. The owner (of the company) has a big heart and really wants to help people.

“I learned about communication and research through this project. She wanted a website to make it easy for people to find her and it took a lot of research.”

Ryan is in his second year in the program and said without Empower[Ed] he wouldn't be in school, he would probably be doing homeschooling.

“I have dyslexia, and it is very hard to be in traditional learning,” he said. “When I got accepted into this program last year I was so excited. I thought, ‘maybe this will help’ and it does! We get to learn at our own pace and also focus on what we are interested in. It makes it easier.”

Deanna said she enjoys the flexibility of Empower[Ed]. She tailors her days based on the standards she needs to complete, then decides how much and what kind of work she will do that day.

Deanna and three other learners, along with Miss Anderson, a teacher at Career Academy, are working on a maker space for learners at Prairie Rose Elementary.

“We are creating spaces that focus on engineering, business and marketing, agriculture, arts and communications, and health and human services,” she said. “My area is arts and communications and for art, I’m going in the direction of recyclable art since they already have a large art room with a lot of supplies. This space will encourage them to use the resources around them to make the art. For communication, we are making a recording studio so they can learn how to edit videos and photos.

“I learned communications, organization, imagination, and how to work with a budget. Working with elementary kids was a bit of a learning curve. We went and talked to them and they gave us some ideas, it was fun finding out what would work for them. One of the best things is the principal, Tabby Rabenberg, is excited about it. She is so supportive of us and the project and always has good feedback. She has never second-guessed us. It is cool but intimidating, and having an adult to support us has been huge.”

Two community organizations are benefiting from Samuels’ projects.

“I am working with Northern Plains Dance Studio,” he explained. “They have a new parking lot and asked us to figure out a way to water the trees in the lot. This project is mostly about planning and problem-solving.

“We are also working with Harmony Stables in Bismarck, making a course that desensitizes horses, so they aren’t afraid when they have new riders or are on a trail ride. In this project, we learned how to budget, had to come up with ideas for the design, and developed communication skills by having face-to-face meetings and through email.”

Communications skills are just some of the standards the learners are meeting, using, and refining as they work through their projects. In this world of texting and streaming, young people who are adept at face-to-face and/or telephone conversations may have an advantage when entering the job market.

“One of the (communication) facets is ‘speaking and listening’ and I go into the year knowing those skills will be met through these projects – whether through a class discussion, scary phone calls, or working out details with a business owner,” said St. Peter.

He has a ‘mastery board’ that he developed for each learner. It keeps track of the standards they need to meet for English 11 or English 12 and the learners have access as well, so they know where they are and how hard they have to work. 

“There is the expectation they have to demonstrate proficiency on every standard we require,” St. Peter explained. “As long as they know where they are, they might just want to come in and focus on community project work some days or work hard on a core standard they need to meet. Our NDDPI waiver lets us use time as a resource rather than a restraint.”

“We have a lot more opportunities through the Career Academy than through ‘regular’ school,” said Olivia, who is studying for her CNA exam. “And, while flexibility is important, we know what we have to do. We have to do our work. You can’t just sit back and think you're going to watch Netflix for the next few days.”

“It’s not for everyone,” David added. “You may come to a point where you realize it is not going to work for you. It’s very self-learning based, depending on what you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to try it, but also recognize if it’s too much. In a regular English class, you could maybe do the minimum amount of work and get by. You can't do that here.”

Having St. Peter as a facilitator may push these Empower[Ed] learners a little harder to make sure they are meeting their goals. Cameron just finished a very big paper the learners are required to do in English every year.

“It was an argumentative paper, and while I was working on it, I realized it met the criteria for another standard,” he said. “It took me over a month to write it, but Mr. St. Peter challenged me and it got a lot longer than I had intended.”

“He chose to go above and beyond,” said St. Peter. “There was a lot of thinking that went into it.”

“We have teachers that actually care about our futures – they want to see students succeed outside of school,” said Jesse, who is doing an internship through the Career Academy to become an electrician. “It was through taking a couple of classes here that had some electrical components to them, that were so easy for me, that I realized ‘this could be a future career.’”

“These kids are so capable, and they will not only meet your expectations they will exceed them,” St. Peter said. “They will show you things that you had no idea could be done.”

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