School systems work together to ensure students excel
In the Fargo-Moorhead region, competition has been replaced by collaboration. Leaders at the region’s three school districts recognize that to ensure today's students are prepared for tomorrow’s jobs, they must work together to instill those 21st-century skills required by a technology-driven society. Fortunately, they’re not alone.
The Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo school districts have partnered with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. and United Way of Cass-Clay to form Education That Works, a collaboration which focuses on developing a common definition of 21st-century skills for the region and provides learning opportunities for students and teachers to explore how these skills are applied in the workforce.
Education for the 21st Century and Beyond
As part of the collaboration, the school districts have also joined EdLeader21, a national consortium of school districts engaged in learning how to transform teaching to prepare students for a global marketplace. EdLeader21 condenses the 21st-century skills students need to compete into the 4 C's – creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication, and all three school districts have committed to incorporating those skills into their curricula.
“We know that the world of work is changing rapidly, and that to compete, our students must have 21st-century skills. Students in rows listening to a teacher expound on a topic, then taking notes, practicing on worksheets and regurgitating content on a test is not the teaching and learning environment that will produce students with the skills necessary in today’s workplace. We must transform the way we teach, the way students learn and the ways in which we measure what students know and can do,” says Dr. David Flowers, superintendent of West Fargo Public Schools. “We’ve benefited from both the gentle pressure and the significant support of the GFMEDC, United Way and local businesses, all of which are willing to partner with us to enhance professional development for our teachers and create opportunities for our students.”
Part of that teaching transformation includes a shift toward project-based learning in order to better prepare young people for entering the workforce, says Dr. Jeff Schatz, Fargo Public Schools Superintendent.
"Project-based learning gives students a problem, and teachers guide the students through the process of finding solutions while incorporating teamwork. Educators are learning new techniques to teach students and tying techniques into existing curriculum," Schatz says. "Through our connections with the GFMEDC, United Way and conversations within the community, we're recognizing the demand for these types of skills."
Helping Teachers Get Schooled
Lisa Gulland-Nelson, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp., says professional development and teacher retraining are two of the primary initiatives behind the Education That Works partnership.
“We asked, ‘How can we get teachers the training they need faster so that they can begin implementing some of these principles, like project-based instruction and the 4 C's?' and, more importantly, ‘How do we start training teachers differently at the college level so they enter the classroom with the skills they need?’” Gulland-Nelson says.
The answer resulted in a series of brainstorming sessions between educators and professors at Minnesota State University-Moorhead School of Teaching and Learning, a summer Tech Camp for teachers, as well as the Teachers In Industry program, which allows instructors to spend time learning about the workforce needs of local businesses.
“So many teachers have no real experience with nor connection to the ‘real world’ of work, so they find it difficult to make the content they teach meaningful and relevant,” Flowers says. “When they have opportunities to do internships, as has been the case for a number of our teachers through a program sponsored by the GFMEDC, they actually work in businesses and experience real-world problems that they can then apply in their teaching.”
The Education That Works collaboration also focuses on the role STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) plays in preparing students for jobs of the future. The group hosted the first C.O.D.E. – an acronym for Creating Opportunities for Digital Experiences – Tech Camp for middle schoolers in 2014. The two-day program introduced students to coding, computer programming, web design and development.
“I saw students from all three districts working together, specifically learning about coding and computer programming. It didn't matter if they were from Fargo, West Fargo or Moorhead, they were all learning and creating together,” says Dr. Lynne Kovash, superintendent of Moorhead Area Public Schools. “They were creating games using code language; other students were using drafting software and then building birdhouses out of cardboard. It was wonderful to see the work that we planned throughout the year coming to fruition.”
All three districts have implemented STEM-related programs or introduced STEM classes into the courseload. Moorhead students, for example, are required to take a nine-week STEM class each year of middle school, and STEM courses are offered as electives at the the high school. West Fargo middle and high schools have course pathways that support STEM education and apply hands-on and project-based learning. Fargo Public Schools instituted the Glass Paper Project, a 1:1 initiative that assigns each student in grades 6-12 a personal digital device for use in classes.
“The goal is to build authentic learning experiences into all courses,” says Jodell Teiken, director of standards-based instruction for Fargo Public Schools, “and we want students to be able to apply the 21st-century skills in their learning.”
The school systems’ focus on the 4 C's was especially evident in 2014 when a team of Fargo students took first place at North Dakota’s Destination Imagination challenge, which works to inspire students to become the next generation of innovators and business leaders.
“We have students who are going to take over the family farm; we have students who are going to be doctors or engineers. It doesn't matter what job they take, they need to be able to solve problems and work together and communicate,” Gulland-Nelson says. “It's not only about growing our talent and providing that pipeline for companies coming into the area, but also about supporting the high-tech companies that are already here.”