Northern Cass School District
“Doing the right things for kids is hard, but I always tell people, ‘hard’ is not a piece of evidence that something’s wrong.”
These words from Superintendent Dr. Cory Steiner have become a mantra in recent years. Steiner and his team at Northern Cass School District in North Dakota have been working hard to stand up a bold new way of learning, but when they first began, they faced a tough reality: the system itself threatened to derail their vision. There was only one solution.
“We decided to tear down the system and rebuild,” Steiner said. Core to their innovation was a competency-based learning model, which advances learners on mastery of standards versus grades or even grade levels. “It’s been the hardest work in our careers but also the most fulfilling.”
Northern Cass School District (NCSD), located about 25 miles northwest of Fargo, is a consolidated district that serves six very small, rural communities.
“We are literally located in a cornfield,” Steiner said. By geographically situating the school facility between the rural communities it serves, district leaders gained local support to consolidate buildings, programming, and services for the 660 preK-12 learners it serves.
Now in year four, the competency-based model is making strides. “We are slowly eliminating grade levels. We no longer have percentage or letter grades,” Steiner said. Instead, a proficiency scale guides articulation of learning mastery into credits.
Providing curriculum for the competency-based model has sometimes been a challenge. While NCSD had some online course options in place, offerings were limited by the loads their staff could realistically carry.
In addition to providing college access, ASU Prep Digital provided a high-quality and highly supported learning experience—all while adding no burden to his staff.
“Beside the teacher, students get a success coach,” said Steiner, “so I know they are getting the support they need. They are still high school students. They need that.”
Results have been spectacular. Students at NCSD earned 434 college credits last year. “Well over 350 of those came from ASU,” Steiner said. “We basically earned three years of college degrees in a year because of this partnership!” In addition, learners gained access to more course choices and more flexible options when scheduling conflicts or gaps arise.
Students at Northern Cass especially like ASU Prep Digital’s flexible college course options, whether a 7-week course, an open enrollment (move at your own pace) option, or the full 16-week option. Students can go far beyond basic college courses to truly explore material in their fields of interest before investing college dollars.
When students do connect with a particular field of study and are ready to move forward, the benefits are significant. One student interested in social work completed almost all of her social work coursework before graduating from high school. Another graduated with a year of college under her belt and told Steiner that without those credits, “I wouldn’t have been going to college. We couldn’t afford it. Now, we can.’”
The kicker is that NCSD pays for the college credits, both through general funds and through fundraising. “We think it’s an equity issue. Students should be able to take as many courses as they want.”
Students at Northern Cass are now saying, “We don’t think about credits anymore. We think about learning.”
In Steiner’s words, “That’s a beautiful thing.”