Making Learning Personal in North Dakota
February 01, 2023
Appears in February 2023: School Administrator.
Superintendent Jill Louters sees singular power in her North Dakota school district’s capacity to make education personal.
“We connect with each other. We have to,” she says. “We work, worship, dine, educate and play in the same community.”
Now in her 11th year leading the 350-student New Rockford-Sheyenne School District, located 160 miles northwest of Fargo, Louters says she strives “to create space for people to explore.”
She’s taken advantage of the district’s small size to nimbly personalize learning so students can explore interests, both on the computer each is issued and in independent, small-group and one-on-one instruction. Her district, housed in a single building in the city of New Rockford, gives students a choice of experiences at every grade level.
The district offers students the chance to earn various credentials linked to careers, such as certified nursing assistant or emergency medical technician. Louters says she expects graduates to be “choice ready” for the workforce, the military or college. About 40 percent each year choose the latter.
Louters, who grew up across the border on a farm in southern Minnesota, and the school board “understand that society and children are changing, and you as an educator have to change with them,” says board chair Mike Jacobson, who calls the superintendent “one of the smartest, most organized people I’ve met.”
The district’s student achievement gains on statewide exams and success in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups were underscored in 2019 when the U.S. Department of Education named its elementary school one of two National Blue Ribbon Schools in the state.
Louters considers one highlight of her work the community’s solid passage of a $3.2 million construction bond in 2017 to upgrade the school. Another triumph, she adds, was filling that school with quality staff willing to work on what she called “meaningful change” — innovations, best practices and models to ensure students, community, higher education and business work together.
As with student learning, Louters personalizes professional development, even securing grants for teachers to travel and explore successful schools elsewhere. After COVID-19’s isolation, Louters used some training time to reconnect staff through bowling, skating and ice fishing.
She also applied her leadership skills to higher education as a member of the State Board of Higher Education. During a four-year term that ended in 2022, she oversaw approval of 300 new credentials among the state’s six universities, five tribal and five community colleges. With her extensive knowledge of K-12 education, she pushed for expanded dual credit options for high school students, says Casey Ryan, state board chair and a physician.
In addition, Louters, who earlier worked in small Minnesota schools, brought a deep understanding of rural students and their needs to the state board, says university system chancellor Mark Hagerott.
Louters finds worthwhile opportunities in all corners of her rural world. She’s now parent education coordinator for a region of the North Dakota State University Extension Program. In 2021-22, she drove a school bus for her district and previously earned her certified nursing assistant credential to work part-time in a local nursing home, sometimes with students exploring health care careers. She also plays piano for local churches, serves on local organization boards and judges horses for 4-H. She sees it all as education.
“It’s her life,” says Joan Heckaman, a state senator who formerly taught in the district. “Because of her dedication, I know our school is better and our community is better for having her.”
Bill Graves is a freelance education writer in Beaverton, Ore.
BIO STATS: Jill Louters
Currently: superintendent, New Rockford-Sheyenne School District, New Rockford, N.D.
Previously: professor of education, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Greatest Influence on Career: My father, a community leader and school board member, helped me understand the challenge of making tough decisions among competing interests.
Best Professional Day: District voters in 2017 approved a levy to upgrade our beautiful, historic school building.
Books at Bedside: Field of Blood by Joanne Freeman; and Becoming a Student-Ready College by Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald and Thomas Major, Jr.
Why I’m An AASA Member: AASA develops a robust continuum of development programs that allows members to customize training in support of specific learning needs.