Rural Places, Big Visions – a visit to Northern Cass School District

Key Points

  • Five years ago, Northern Cass embarked on a journey to reimagine the learning experience.

  • What has emerged is a remarkable, learner-centered, personalized school that continues to build better experiences for its learners.

Northern Cass

What is accountability?

        “Own your own learning, become better at it.”

        “Reliability, you can get your work done in a good way.”

        “To speak up for yourself.”

        “Mutual trust between educator and learner.”

        “The willingness to ask questions and take action for yourself.”

These thoughts, by students from Northern Cass School District, north of Fargo, North Dakota, paint a very different picture compared to the national discussion on accountability.

The Northern Cass District emerged in 1997 after the union of five small rural towns within two districts 30 miles north of Fargo, ND.  Drawing its 688 PK-12 students from a 400 sq. mi. area and an additional 35% out-of-district open-enrollment students, this consolidation provided better resources than any individual school but meant hard work to build strong culture and climate and a new academic program. Five years ago, more than 20 years after consolidation, with lower college graduation rates than expected and low student engagement rates, Northern Cass embarked on a journey to reimagine the learning experience.

What has emerged is a remarkable, learner-centered, personalized school that continues to build better experiences for its learners, delivering on their why: We believe every learner can change the world; therefore, we will provide a world-class education.


The journey began with a partnership with the Marzano High-Reliability Schools model. This grounded the district in a high-fidelity standards-based assessment model supported by quality instruction in every classroom. North Dakota law allows local districts to set more rigorous standards than the state standards, and thus all classes have identified 7-14 priority standards that are transparent to each student. Every class uses playlists and proficiency scales that guide learners to meet the expectations of the standards with assessments recorded using the Empower LMS. When prompted, learners of all ages in the school easily described their current understanding connected to each standard. To earn credit for a class, the district follows the 80/100 rule, meaning 8 out of 10 standards in any given class must be at 3 or higher to earn credit for the class (out of a 4-point scale). Even at the youngest levels, learners showed portfolios with literacy and reading progress and their growth over time.

Grades and percentages are not used anywhere in the school with the exception of final translated transcripts to support higher education and scholarship requirements. A roadshow by the school leadership to most regional higher education institutions built trust and confidence in Northern Cass graduates, even without a traditional transcript.


While Northern Cass still has three AP courses (Chemistry, Psychology and Human Geography), most college-level courses are dual-enrollment. Partnerships with higher education providers such as Valley State University (which pays for Northern Cass educators to get certified to teach the courses), North Dakota State University, and Arizona State University save learners time and money in higher education (one reported having earned close to have an AA while in high school).


A Portrait of a Learner includes Accountability, Communication, Adaptability, Learner’s Mindset and Leadership. These five competencies describe expectations for every graduate. This culminates in a Capstone presentation in 12th grade where learners describe their development of these competencies and their personal journey to become who they are today in front of a panel of educators.

Educators also are expected to meet these competencies as well through professional learning experiences. A conscious decision was to include everyone as a learner rather than build a distinct portrait of an educator.

In partnership with Mastery Transcript Consortium, Northern Cass is embedding these competencies into both the MTC portfolio platform and a set of Mastery Learning Records that will be stored on the newly approved North Dakota digital wallet.

Future work includes developing progressions for the competencies to help development across the spectrum of grade levels.


Certainly, personalized learning is built into the mastery-based approach, but with the support of three different North Dakota legislative moves, learning is on the way to becoming personalized for every student.

HB 1478. Learn everywhere. Learning outside of school can receive credit. The proposal comes from the district and a formal application from the provider. Approval is currently at the state level, but newer changes may allow this to shift to the district level, saving time and paperwork.

SB 2186. General waivers. Waiver for seat time requirements in lieu of mastery-based demonstrations. This is essential for Northern Cass learners to move at a pace that is best for them – within good constraints set by the educators. Learners reported acceleration at the individual level based on interest, time, and engagement.

SB 2196. Pathways to graduation. This allows learners to meet graduation requirements with projects and other learning experiences outside of formal courses approved for credit. This has empowered the formation of the Studio model in middle school and high school (see below).


New this year, and based on lower than desired engagement levels, all middle school learners participate in studios where educators coach 6-week learner-centered high-engagement projects. This past fall, one studio was built around a Farm to Fork concept to teach about agricultural careers and to experience the world of food production by going out and exploring the real world.

Include opportunities to unbundle, and you have a model that is suited for the future.

Nate McClennen

This effort is also being replicated in a full Studio microschool program piloted in high schools with 10-15 students. In partnership with Building 21, the Studio program allows learners to build independent/collaborative projects and match to expected standards to meet graduation requirements. While not every learner will want this microschool opportunity, it will be a game-changer for some who were disengaged or uninspired.

Each learner needs to meet graduation requirements mandated by North Dakota, Northern Cass expects an additional requirement including an internship and/or job shadow, community service, and a Capstone presentation.

Educator powered

Dr. Steiner and his team believe that “un-learning” of veteran educators may be slower than upskilling of novice educators and thus focus hiring on those new to the field. With partnerships from regional universities, an Teacher Leadership Academy has supported advanced degrees for 60% of educators.

Culture and Climate

Second-grade learners eagerly came to greet us at the door when we entered the classroom. Looking for handshakes and introductions, they were clearly used to visitors – and developing excellent interaction skills. A panel of high school learners could find no real improvements when prompted with the question “What would you do if you were Superintendent”? Engagement rates have soared with the implementation of studio approaches. Learners are part of most decisions with leadership coming from a Student Advisory Committee. Learners and educators report that behavior issues are virtually non-existent – and attribute this to the learning model that develops independence, ownership and agency for learning.

What every school can learn from Northern Cass

  1. Get out of the way of students. Aspire to personalize through whatever means necessary – figure out ways to demonstrate mastery AND follow their passions.
  2. Don’t accept low engagement scores. Ask students frequently and co-design better solutions – even if academic outcomes are strong.
  3. Use legislation. Northern Cass would not be able to do what it does without legislative waivers. Many states have these but are under-utilized.
  4. Be brave before perfect. These changes take courage. Many questions have to be resolved. In this case, the district was already getting high marks for academic performance, so redesign did not feel like an imperative for some.
  5. Growth mindset. In a school going through redesign and change, every constituent must live with a growth mindset.

At Getting Smart, we see four key elements of school design emerging in innovative schools. Mastery-based (including competencies associated with a portrait of a graduate), project-based/real-world learning, dual enrollment opportunities, and a strong social-emotional and character program. Include opportunities to unbundle, and you have a model that is suited for the future. Northern Cass gets this and continues to develop a model where every learner is ready to change the world. It is a school worth visiting!

Nate McClennen

Nate McClennen is the Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at Getting Smart. Previously, Nate served as Head of Innovation at the Teton Science Schools, a nationally-renowned leader in place-based education, and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Rural Schools Collaborative. He is also the co-author of the Power of Place.

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