New scholarship helps rural North Dakota teachers – and their hometown schools

Burgum Foundation, in collaboration with UND, sponsors ‘Partnership for Rural Education in North Dakota’

Image courtesy of the Burgum Foundation.

A new UND scholarship program will help not only rural North Dakota teachers, but also those teachers’ schools, because the program focuses the teachers’ graduate research on their hometown schools.

Since 2015, the Burgum Foundation – established by alumni Rick and Jody Burgum – has been a philanthropic force in the state, focusing on North Dakota’s backbone of rural communities in the causes it supports.

Katie Itterman

The organization’s latest effort, in collaboration with UND and the College of Education & Human Development, is titled the “Partnership for Rural Education in North Dakota.”

Through the Burgum Foundation’s gift of $250,000 over the next three years, UND will be able to provide 50 percent tuition assistance to a cohort of teachers enrolling in the Master of Science in Teaching & Leadership program. To complete their degrees, those teachers will engage in targeted – and at times, joint – research that’s expressly designed to help their hometown schools.

“UND has continuously proven to be on the cutting edge of educational program development and delivery,” said Katie Itterman, executive director of the Burgum Foundation. “With Dean Cindy Juntunen’s leadership and drive to bring more programming to rural educators, it was a natural fit. … Now more than ever we are seeing educators go above and beyond to meet the needs of North Dakota students, and it’s great to see that UND recognizes that.”

Watford City High School in Watford City, N.D., is among the schools that’ll be helped by the Burgum Foundation and UND’s new initiative. YouTube screenshot.

Focus on collaboration and local impact

The Partnership for Rural Education is unique in that it has recruited a single school district for its inaugural cohort of students. This fall, nine master’s students in the Watford City School District became the first to enroll. Faculty in the CEHD said another 15 could be supported by the tuition assistance model in a degree program that typically takes five semesters to complete.

Sherryl Houdek

Watford City, a booming town in the western part of the state facing increasing demand for qualified teachers and administrators, became the top choice for the Burgum Foundation and UND after assessing a number of communities statewide.

Associate Professor Sherryl Houdek, the Partnership’s coordinator, said that the cohort structure allows the group of graduate students to look at lessons and projects through the lens of the school district where they all work, as opposed to the lens of their individual development.

“This way, as a cohort, the students can work collaboratively throughout their assignments,” Houdek said. “And the students are very excited about doing research that is specific to Watford City, to meet the needs of that school district and community.

“They’re hopefully going to produce something for the school board and for their administration to hang their hats on, through their work.”

Understanding North Dakota’s needs

The Partnership’s approach is one that meshes with the aforementioned changes the CEHD has made to its Teaching & Leadership course delivery. In the degree program, there are a number of specializations to pursue: elementary, middle, secondary and special education; STEM education; principalship; instructional coaching and behavioral support. Each of these had its own associated courses and curriculum.

“What we’ve done is open all of the courses to our students, no matter the specialization area,” Houdek said.

So, if a student is working toward a principalship specialization but already has a sufficient amount of experience in curriculum development, for instance, they can take a course in a different area, such as STEM or instructional coaching. Additionally, the core courses taken by everyone pursuing a Teaching & Leadership degree are now unified across specializations – allowing for closer collaborations and additional perspectives.

Cheryl Hunter

Cheryl Hunter

“We clearly said to students that they can take courses that are in areas where they need more development, and that their school district can benefit from, too,” Houdek continued.

The adjustment is part of a larger movement at the CEHD, where departments have coalesced in recent years and longtime professors and instructors see the field as different from when they were perhaps teachers, principals and superintendents in K-12 schools.

Position descriptions are changing, school districts are looking for more or different qualifications, and leadership structures within schools are becoming more collaborative, said Houdek, a former principal and superintendent herself.

Associate Professor Cheryl Hunter, chair of the Department of Teaching, Leadership and Professional Practice, said the College has been proactive in engaging with districts and active professionals to understand North Dakota’s needs.

“That’s exactly the purpose of this partnership,” Hunter said. “We’re starting with what it is these schools need, as opposed to creating a curriculum strictly on our own.”

UND archival image.

New takes on “lifelong learning”

While, traditionally, the CEHD is keeping up with a dynamic field that is ever changing, the cohort structure of the Partnership for Rural Education is enhancing the “two-way street” by which UND’s experts incorporate new approaches, according to Hunter.

“With students being able to share with us the newer things are occurring in their schools, we have a great mechanism by which to learn and further educate our students at UND,” the department chair said.

Bonni Gourneau

Ultimately, it’s all about the students whom the graduate students will go on to serve, said Bonni Gourneau, associate professor of Teaching & Leadership. By going into an advanced program together, the cohort from Watford City can ask questions and collaborate with one another, as well as better understand each other’s perspectives on how to approach their profession.

In a job where the idea of “lifelong learning” is essential and most times required, UND is striving to make educators more qualified and better able to bring new ideas into classrooms and school districts.

“The Burgum Foundation really trusted us as we’ve developed this program, and the amount of respect that they’ve shown to us has been incredible,” Gourneau said. “We’re hoping this is just the beginning of reaching these rural communities directly.”

The Burgum Foundation’s executive director told UND Today that success in the organization’s eyes would be seeing educators and administrators bringing their knowledge, as a result of the program, into the classrooms and community of Watford City.

“From an overarching view, we want to see the interest in this program have a ripple effect in other rural districts,” Itterman said. “It is important for educators to know there are other options for them to continue in their own education, no matter where it is they teach.”