A North Dakota Story: A Story of Rebirth, Hard Work, and Doing What is Right

April 2, 2015

Despite descriptions to the contrary, North Dakota Center for Distance Education (NDCDE) is an integral part of North Dakota’s K-12 education system. I can understand the confusion. Just five short years ago NDCDE government leaders seriously entertained closing its doors. In 2009 NDCDE served just 300 ND students. It served 2400 students outside North Dakota, mainly via mail correspondence. It was no surprise for those that took the time to investigate that little investment had been made in putting together an electronic infrastructure. An infrastructure that was not only possible, but required, if NDCDE was to serve the needs of North Dakota’s schools and students.

Through the effort of a lot of people including, Governor Dalrymple, Lisa Feldner, Jody French, Doug Johnson, Mike Ressler, ND Legislators, the leadership of ND Small Organized Schools, and the employees of NDCDE, the Center was able to build a system that is capable of the doing the job. The job being an agency that has within it the wherewithal to address the issues of educating North Dakota’s youth in a state experiencing unprecedented growth in certain areas and population decline in the vast rural areas. NDCDE rose to the challenge. Beginning five years ago, NDCDE began to systematically reach out to all schools, all REA’s, all consortia in order to understand what is needed. NDCDE focused on North Dakota with everything it had at its disposal, not out-of-state education systems.

What NDCDE found in ND was a large disparity between the opportunities afforded to a child educated in a small school and a child educated in the larger ND schools. The disparity coalesced around three areas: choice, quality and special services. Choice = a student in a small school grades 9-12 has on average 60 courses to choose from during the 4 years of high school. A student in a large, ND school can pick from 185 courses during the same 4 year period. Many small schools could not support business courses, world languages, advanced math, FACS and technical electives. Quality = many of the smaller schools have been forced to eliminate courses that add to the overall quality of a student’s education experience. Ag courses, shop, chemistry lab, computer science are not part of many small school students’ schedules. STEM education is a once-in-a-while, drive-by event that gets the students’ juices flowing only to disappoint because there is no follow up. Special services = if you are a student in a large school and you have specialized learning issues you will likely be professionally assisted in some manner. Remediation at a high school level, speech therapy, psychological help, special educational needs of all types are barely meeting legal requirements in several small schools in various parts of the state, and in others they are simply being ignored.

What has NDCDE accomplished in the past five years?

  1. NDCDE’s rebuilt system has made progress in stemming the Choice disparity. A small school can now offer up to a 150 choices to its students with the help of NDCDE. Many schools are just beginning to take advantage of the opportunity. By the end of the current biennium NDCDE will have delivered and taught 8500 courses to ND kids. 70% of those courses are required courses. Surveys, research and word of mouth has indicated that the need has not yet been satisfied. NDCDE projects it will be asked to deliver and teach 12,000 courses 2015-2017.
  2. Five years ago NDCDE supported a grand total of 80 student enrollments in Ag-related courses. This past school year NDCDE delivered and taught over 400 Ag-related courses. In one year, this past school year, a part-time teacher of a NDCDE computerized robotics course became the single most prolific provider of computer-based technology courses in North Dakota. In fact, her exposure landed her on a national panel to develop Praxis testing for perspective teachers seeking to teach in the area of computer technology.
  3. NDCDE was asked and has developed an innovative approach to Math and English remediation for high school students. NDCDE is working with the Special Education consortia throughout ND to help them deliver online services in the areas of speech therapy, special education, and psychological therapy so that no child in North Dakota is deprived the services they need and deserve.

For reasons that remain unclear, NDCDE’s budget was reduced by over 30% by its assigned House Committee. This amount removed from a budget that was already conservative. That is to say, if the budget were to remain as requested (before the 30% was stripped), it simply would allow NDCDE to maintain #1 above. Needs #2 and #3 came about after CDE had already submitted its budget to the Governor. Even with the 30% reinstated, it will take all of the business and systems acumen NDCDE has developed in the last five years to even attempt to take on #2 and #3. Preparing for the challenge, NDCDE is currently building partnerships that could allow us to make some headway in the areas of Quality and Special Services.

NDCDE with no new funding (the 30% reduction remains in place) will be hard-pressed to maintain its current level of support to ND schools and students, let alone step up to the new areas of need that have been identified. NDCDE will be forced to cap courses, or short of that, will be required to significantly raise course fees, which in turn will indirectly cap courses.

The current situation is heartfelt by me; it is personal. Nearly 50 years ago I graduated from high school with a class of 8. There was no technology to assist my tiny school. True, I had some heroic teachers; but many of them left my tiny school in frustration; after all, how could they remain watching kids being denied chemistry labs, biological experimentation, advanced math, advanced composition, when they knew full well that once confronted by college those who aspired to be engineers, doctors, physicists, pharmacists would have those dreams dashed. I know. From fifth grade on I wanted to be an engineer. My uncle was an aeronautical engineer for the Air Force, so I knew it was possible. That is, until I took my first Math course in college – pre-calculous. I was in over my head and knew it. There were no tutors or learning lab to turn to. I passed with a D (how I didn’t fail I’ll never know). But my confidence was shaken and I went on to other pursuits, nearly dropping out of school.

We can now do better for ND kids regardless of where they are located – whether small school or large, small town or large city. But do the pockets of disparity still exist? Unfortunately, yes. Yes they still exist in North Dakota and in several other states with large, expansive rural areas. NDCDE is doing something about it. NDCDE hopes to continue the work that it has begun.

If anything, NDCDE should have asked for more funding.

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