“What I often say to people — I’ve said it at least 23 times in the last few weeks — is if I don't want to be the best district in the Upper Plains, then I'm in the wrong spot.”
That sentiment is a common theme among leadership in North Dakota’s Bismarck Public Schools. And for Ben Johnson, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, it’s at the heart of a push to create pathways “where kids can see themselves being successful and following their passions and their interests.”
Bismarck Public Schools serves about 13,700 students across 25 K-12 schools, an early childhood program, and a Career Academy and Technical Center. In the 2021-22 school year, the most recent year for which this data was available, its student population was 79.8% Caucasian, 9.8% Indigenous, 4.6% Black and 3.4% Hispanic. Around a quarter of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
This school year’s enrollment in Bismarck Public Schools represents the highest ever recorded, reflecting overall population growth in the state due to a strong economy fueled in part by an oil boom in 2006 and strong manufacturing and agriculture sectors. And Bismarck schools are capitalizing on that demand with an imperative to innovate.
For Jeff Fastnacht, who became superintendent of Bismarck this school year, that commitment to innovate was a major factor in his decision to take the top job. “As long as I've been in North Dakota, they've been a leader, a pioneer and innovator in helping to meet the learning needs of children,” says Fastnacht.
Much could be written about Bismarck’s approach to curriculum development, its commitment to literacy, and “Peer to Peer” programming that partners students with disabilities with mentor peers to build inclusivity. State data for the district shows that between the 2020-21 and 2022-23 school years — a period where schools nationwide felt the learning impacts from COVID-19 — English language arts achievement rose from 42% proficient and above to 49%, math rose from 41% to 45%, and science remained flat at 47%.
But it’s the district’s Empower[Ed] personalized, mastery-based career and technical program that currently stands out as a microcosm of the district’s commitment to innovation.
The seeds for Empower[Ed] were planted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guided by a strategic plan crafted with input from the community, Bismarck Public Schools decided to focus on project-based learning and authentic, hands-on experiences. The district formally launched a deeper “proof of concept” — which would ultimately become Empower[Ed] — based around that focus in fall 2020 with 14 students and one teacher.
“We had a decision to make when the COVID closure hit our state,” says Johnson. “Are we gonna hit the brakes or hit the gas? And our team decided that they wanted to move forward with a pilot that year, which was a really great experience to keep our educational motivation up.”
The Empower[Ed] program is open to high school juniors and seniors with an interest in career and technical education. They must apply to the program and have parent or guardian permission.
Rather than having definitive academic requirements, which could exclude some learners who might benefit from the hands-on opportunities, district administrators worked with students, counselors and learning facilitators to identify “learner dispositions.” These measures of aptitude for self-driven learning and career education guide admission to the program, says Pat Phillips, district systems innovator at Bismarck Public Schools who oversees Empower[Ed].
School counselors or career advisers will ask interested students roughly a dozen questions focused around those dispositions, says Phillips.
Among those questions: Do you feel like there are certain ways school is holding you back? Would you benefit from creating a unique academic story? Do you have a CTE interest area? Are you a potential CTE program completer? Do you have a passion or interest that you'd like to devote more of your time to?
Students accepted into the program earn credits in core subjects like English, math, science, social studies and business while working alongside community partners on projects mapped to the state’s content standards and aligned with a student’s goals or interests. Those interests can vary from traditional career education areas, such as metalworking or automotive work, to more artistic pursuits, including graphic design or music.
Participants are also expected to collaborate on student project teams, engage with facilitators for progress reviews, and develop a portfolio. Student groups typically work on two to three projects at a time, says Johnson. For instance, they may serve in more of a “lead” capacity on one project and as collaborators on others.
This year, the program has 93 students, and the model has been expanded from the district’s Career Academy and Technical Center to also include Legacy High School, says Phillips. The goal is ultimately to support 130 to 150 students.
Examples of the more than two dozen projects completed by Empower[Ed] student groups in the 2022-23 school year included:
Event planning and volunteering for Furry Friends Rockin’ Rescue, a pet rescue and adoption organization.
Metal sign cutting and painting for AquaTraction, a boat flooring provider and installer.
Poster design for the CraftCade pizzeria, arcade and bar.
The installation of a flight simulator at local historical attraction Buckstop Junction.
Phillips says the projects fall under two categories: inbound and outbound.
For inbound projects, the district contacts organizations or businesses in the community and makes a pitch based on students skills and interests and what needs that organization may have.
“We don't necessarily want to put high school kids into high-stakes environments where they're doing mission-critical work for community businesses,” says Phillips. “We want them to be working in the realm of ‘value added.’ We’ve found that works really well in terms of our community partners being responsive to letting learners try things and giving them the opportunity to fail, get feedback and try again.”
With outbound projects, students are asked to identify a problem or need within the community, how they would go about fixing it, and identify the best community organization or business to pitch to.
For Ann Ellefson, director of academic support at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, the personalized, competency-based work Bismarck is doing is particularly notable because it is being done within the structure of a traditional public school district.
Elsewhere, that level of freedom to experiment might be provided in, say, a charter model, but North Dakota does not currently have charter schools.
However, Bismarck has a waiver from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and the Department of Public Instruction that allows flexibility around traditional academic requirements like Carnegie time units for high school credit, says Johnson.
Even though changes related to scheduling and how learning is measured can be difficult for adults to wrap their heads around, Ellefson says these are not barriers to progress for Bismarck.
“We like to call those ‘big people problems,’” she says. “They're moving forward because it's what's best for kids.”