Episode 044: Northern Cass School District (ND) Interview with Dr. Cory Steiner

In this episode we are speaking with Dr. Cory Steiner, superintendent in the Northern Cass School District in North Dakota. We learned about the audacious goals and vision, driven by their Profile of a Graduate, that are focused on creating a learner-centered school district. Northern Cass School District is a public school district located in Hunter, ND. It has 635 learners in grades PK-12 with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1. As a result of recent legislation in the state of North Dakota, and thoughtful strategic planning, the entire Northern Cass School District will move to a competency-based education model by 2020. 

As a result of our conversation, here are two questions we are thinking about.

  1. What inspires you about the Northern Cass vision for 2020?
  2. What might be if your organization placed greater focus on agency and empathy, up and down the system?


Bonus Episode 08 – Advocacy for Learner-Centered Education – Interview with Joe Cirasuolo

In this  Bonus Episode, we are speaking with Joe Cirasuolo, former Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) about learner-centered education and the role of states.

In this episode, we talked about the following:

  1. Let’s start the conversation with a personal story about how you got connected to CAPSS and the work of developing these visionary resources for Connecticut.
  2. Let’s talk first about the white paper – A Look to the Future: Personalized Learning in Connecticut, in which you have four defined parts – creating the urgency for change, defining personalized learning, examining personalized learning elements, and identifying policies that hinder personalization.  We were fascinated by the policy barriers and suggestions. Can you share some of the ideas in that section with our listeners?
  3. In NextEd: Next Steps: A Vision and a Plan for Transforming Connecticut’s Education System, problems with Connecticut’s education are highlighted and  core recommendations for change are made. Share a few high-impact students-centered approaches which can be leveraged to transform education.
  4. For leaders who want to dig a little deeper into the core recommendations, they can review the Summary of Proposals white paper. Talk to us about the meaning behind this white paper.


Episode 043: North Star Teens Interview with Kenneth Danford and Nolan Saito

In this episode, we are learning about an innovative learning environment, North Star Teens located in Hadley, MA, with Kenneth Danford and a 15 year old learner, Nolan Saito.

Ken Danford is Executive Director at North Star.He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio and attended public schools. His positive experiences as a student led him to become an idealistic public school teacher, first in Prince George’s  County, MD, and then in Amherst, MA. Having earned his teaching degree at Brown University under the auspices of the Coalition of Essential Schools, he planned a career in education reform from inside public schools. He became disillusioned with what he felt was too tight of a system, and decided to leave teaching school in a way that would support any interested students to leave with him. Since 1996, North Star has welcomed all inquiring families. Now there are about a dozen centers modeled after North Star in the Liberated Learners Network.

Nolan Saito, 15 years old, is a member of North Star. Nolan was five years old when his oldest brother joined North Star, and he has been around the community since that time. After spending two years at North Star, Nolan decided to attend a local charter school for middle school. This year he has chosen to re-join North Star to focus on his primary interests of ballet and violin. In his spare time, Nolan follows the European soccer leagues and is an avid fan of Juventus.

The learners at North Star are individuals moving forward in unique directions at a pace right for them. North Star is not a school. It does not offer diplomas, credits, or grades. Rather, North Star offers an alternative to school where teens learn in the way that suits them best. Most North Star members are between the ages of 13 and 19. North Star considers younger members on a case-by-case basis, and has been supporting teens to find and pursue their passions since 1996. Most North Star teens choose to go on to college and do so successfully.

As a result of the conversation, here are a couple of questions we are asking:

    1. What learner-centered aspects of North Star might you apply in your school or district?
    2. What might be in your learning environment if you shifted the paradigm to give learners the greatest level of agency?


Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback

In this episode, we learned about Nautilus School with leader Milissa McClaire Gary and a young learner Andrew (AJ) from the Nautilus school located in Chicago.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback.


When asked what teaching and learning looks like in Nautilus School, Milissa shared there was significant collaboration to get their learning space ready for the learners. The curriculum, activities, and experiences are designed to meet what learners need academically and socially.

AJ described his day which begins with morning meeting and Daily 5. He participates in yoga twice a week, STEM challenges, geometry, enjoys recess and lunch in the dining room. and ends the day with wrap-up. AJ shared he has been learning about electric cars and will share what he has learned through an Animoto video at the school’s portfolio night.

Milissa was working with teacher teams in Chicago Public Schools, and worked to bring Nautilus to life. Through the work, observing classrooms and reviewing neuroscience research (including executive functions and mindfulness), Melissa determined the need to create a new school since current systems are not set up to support the most effective kind of learning and success. After planning with other community members, the school opened its doors in September 2018.

What is portfolio night?  Students developed two individual goals and learner-centered projects in the first couple of weeks of the trimester. The learners access their  neighborhood library and online classroom resources for their research. Portfolio Night is similar to parent conferences or report card pickup.

There are no letter grades at Nautilus, but there is a language that has been developed to indicate how the students are progressing towards their goals. Students then review their self-selected work in their portfolio. They present their videos also.

By the end of the year, the school hopes the students will be running their own conferences. To do this, Nautilus staff are working with learners on speaking and articulating their learning for parents.

The school is working to release agency in its learners. Students set goals for learning during morning meeting every day. Students use set processes to review their progress. Even on the parts of the day which are more free choice or play-based, learners determine what options work well in their space.  Learners complete self-checks and monitor how they are doing. Learners also use a free choice calendar, which was designed by the learners.

Nautilus is digging into open-walled experiences and shifting to a more learner-centered environment. They are currently thinking about assessment and how it will evolve. They are determining how they and the learners can articulate what they are learning.

Helping parents see school differently is important as Nautilus seeks to increase the number of students attending the school. Community members and parents are generating a buzz on social media. Word of mouth is spreading.

You cannot do this work by yourself; it has to be a collaborative effort. As a leader, Milissa does not hold all the responsibility of developing the school and generating all of the ideas. She uses her coaching background to engage the whole team in reflection while she learns alongside others. Leaders need to constantly have the eyes open for what lessons they are learning on a daily basis.

AJ reflects that Nautilus is a friendly time and place for kids to learn. He appreciates they have a class pet, a lemonade stand, yoga, and working with the teacher on Daily 5.  Some of the work is also different from his previous school. He notices there are fewer worksheets and more choice in his learning. AJ reflects on his learner-centered goal. He wants to learn more about electric cars, and has created an Animoto. AJ brainstormed about next goals, and pondered about learning more about his friends.

What advice do you have for learner-centered leaders? It is really important to partner with parents and  know kids deeply.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have done several surveys to seek input from learners, teachers, leaders, and parents.
  • We have elementary learners creating student-led conferences as an outcome of our Leader in Me process.
  • We struggle with deep parent engagement.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Do we know our learners deeply?
  • Are we open and responsive to feedback?
  • What is our attitude towards feedback? Do we seek it out, or do we only accept it when we receive it?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?

Episode 042 – The Nautilus School Interview with Milissa McClaire Gary and AJ, a learner

In this episode, we are speaking with Milissa McClaire Gary from the Nautilus School located in Chicago. Joining Milissa is a young learner –  Andrew (we call him AJ) is almost 8 years old and is passionate about technology and cars. Nautilus opened in the Fall of 2018 with 3 learners. The Nautilus School in Chicago is an independent school empowering students to explore their world and drive their learning through a learner-centered education leveraged by their unique strengths, curiosity, and the community. Their reimagined one-room schoolhouse allows students of various ages and abilities to learn in a shared space.  Students work at their own pace, as valued members of our learning community.

As a result of the conversation, here are a couple of questions we are asking:

    1. What learner-centered aspects of the Nautilus School might you apply in your school or district?
    2. How might you know your learners and be open and responsive to their needs?


Learner-centered leaders help learners understand everyone’s journey is different

In Episode 41, we spoke with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders help all learners understand that everyone’s journey will be different.


A typical day in this public school starts with a morning meeting and includes reading, math, and content areas. Learners are grouped according to needs and not age. Groupings are labeled as Littles, Middles, Molders, Olders rather than second or fourth graders.

Learners may attend studios with students across multiple groupings. Learners flex based on where they are at in the learning continuum and what they need. Their learning journey starts where they are instead of with same-age level peers. This has allowed the flexibilty to move learners where they need to be during their school day.

This work started in the high school over 10 years ago. The educators looked at different schedules – blocks, modified, etc. But, they were looking for more of a college schedule with varying blocks of time to meet different learning needs. They developed a customized look for their learners.  For example, some learners might not need a whole year of Algebra 1. Through the early years, they determined they needed to rethink some ideas to make sure they were meeting all of the needs for all of their learners.

The high school now offers two paths – traditional and customized. In the customized path, learning is flexible. Learners control the pace – moving as quickly as works for them. Additionally, they can take more time.  Check points allow for the school to monitor progress.

Travis is thoughtful in sharing their learners express voice and choice. Learners use their creation devices – iPads – to determine how to communicate their learning. In the traditional path, learners may have more paper/pencil tests and move at the pace of the class. Teachers differentiate for learners.

In the elementary school, learners have set blocks of time. In the middle school, learners have greater opportunity to schedule their own courses. In a four block time, facilitators advertise their offerings. Middle school learners then schedule their day based on what they need. For example, students will advocate for themselves. If they have a conflict between a science lab and extra help for math, they work with the facilitators to solve the issues. The middle school use Personalized Learning Tools to facilitate this process. It takes six minutes for the process to occur.

The organization is making bold changes – such as implementing the tools to offer students opportunity to schedule their own day. The school also focuses on Habits of Mind and growth mindset. Learners recognize everyone’s journey will be different, and everyone is there to support each other. Learners work in mixed groups to learn the Habits of Mind.  Sometimes the best learning happens when one learner can explain it to another learner.

Landri shared how her voice contributes to learning. She reflects she and her classmate are working on different math tasks. While she is creating a Write About project after her Mastery Check, her classmate completes another task.  Learners choose how they want to show their understanding.  Learners are taught multiple productivity apps on their iPads.

What kind of leadership competencies do leaders need to have to do this work?  Leaders need to think differently about how they support staff and teachers. It is tough to tear down a system that has been built by others. This has not been a top-down initiative. A team observed other schools, identified strengths, and possible opportunities for change in their own system. Leaders and teachers are on the ground everyday. They have had to empower teachers to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t work. The leadership has to be flexible and feel the heartbeat of the facilitators to better support them.

As a result of that support, the teachers are encouraged to share their voices. Constant communication between leaders, facilitators, and learners is essential. Together, they figure out what can be put in place to improve. The leadership recognizes it is all a process to make sure it is done well.  Everyone in the organization has agency, and that is a big shift in terms of leadership. It can be uncomfortable for leadership as well as new staff members.

This learning environment puts differentiation on steroids. Facilitators learn quickly that in any one room, there could be learners across many standards. Faciltators need to better understand the standards across grade levels.

If teachers are not accepting the agency or invitation, how do you support and enroll them in the conversation? Engage in conversations, develop team norms and standard operating procedures. Facilitators may also need to support in content, math and reading, etc. The facilitators might have pacing and grouping questions or concerns. The leader needs to function as a go-to resource!

Is this shift systemic?  Starting to move forward. For example, Kindergarten has WIN – What I Need groups – 15 minutes, four times per day. Learners are grouped based on need in letter groups and math groups.

What advice would you give to other leaders? We did not get here alone. We encourage others to look at a lot of different models, and ask questions. Travis tells schools not to replicate Harrisburg’s program. Instead, schools need to look at their context critically.  Leaders also need to raise expectations because learners will meet them.  Travis also tells leaders to, “See it to believe it!”  Secondly, he tells leaders to engage in conversations with their your core team. Discuss what the team wants for learners when they leave. Systems are different. communities are different. And needs are different.

Leaders also need to know it is ok to make mistakes and fail. Struggles made this team better, even through the range of emotions – frustration and struggles. Reflect to make it better and the positive changes will keep growing.

Landri encourages learners to think flexibly if something doesn’t go your way. She also tells others to trust their facilitators because they know what they are doing.

The art of teaching and leading is being able to be fluid. This transformation is a long-term process which requires analysis of contextual factors. Learner-centered leadership shifts the agency and voice from the leader to those they are working within the organization. This process isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it is a messy curvy line with detours and failures along the way. Learners will understand every journey will be different. The norm is not that everyone gets the same and travels together. The norm is that everyone’s journey is different. As leaders, we need to be intentional about supporting our teachers, be on the ground with them, celebrate the positive/less productive risk-taking.

Connections to our Practice

  • Our elementary students learn success skills through the Leader in Me program.
  • We have a traditional path in our high school, even though students have options.
  • We have been working to support our teachers in our Project Wonder program at the middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Would two paths work in our system?
  • How would our learners feel about creating their own schedules?
  • How are we teaching Habits of Mind or growth mindset in our secondary schools?
  • Do our learners trust their teachers – that there learning experience is better because of them?
  • How could we scale Project Wonder?

Next Steps for Us

  • Take a look at the software scheduling tool. How could a tool like that support our work?
  • Consider running two paths simultaneously in middle school.

Episode 041 – Harrisburg School District (SD) Interview with Travis Lape, Shana Wagers and Landri, a young learner

In Episode 41, we are learning with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Located in Sioux Falls, SD, the Harrisburg School District’s current K-12 enrollment is around 4800 students. It is the vision of the Harrisburg School District to create a legacy of exemplary academics, paired with a comprehensive scope of extra-curricular activities and opportunities that will develop an educational environment of leaders who foster citizenship, exemplify integrity, and evoke critical thinking. As an innovative, leading-edge school district, the district works to maximize positive change and transcend barriers.

As a result of our conversation, here are two questions we are thinking about:

  1. What learner-centered aspects of Harrisburg School District do you connect with most?
  2. WHAT MIGHT BE if you made voice and agency the drivers of your transformation?


Learner-centered leaders unlock time for teachers and learners

In Episode 40, we learned about Design Tech High School in San Mateo, CA. Joining us today is Rachel Siegman, Internship Coordinator and Educator at Design Tech; Wendy Little, Director of Intersession & Community Learning; and two learners – Vani Suresh and Hezekiah Smithstein.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders unlock time to create experiences where students can dive deep into core academic classes or their personal interests and explore other potential passions/interests. They also unlock time for teachers so they can be as effective as possible in this personalized, learner-centered model.


  • Learners reflect on their experiences at dTech. They indicate they have freedom to pursue their own paths. For example, one learner is using the design thinking process they are learning at dTech and taking that process to elementary schools. Hezekiah shared he appreciates the flexible Thursday Lab Day to pursue his interests. In a given week, he might prepare for Model UN and host a fundraiser for his animal rights club,
  • dTech employs a Thursday Lab Day where students have agency over their work. They plan their day every Thursday, and collaborate.
  • Learners reflected learning at dTech is different from learning in traditional schools. Instead of taking the classes in isolation of clubs and extracurriculars, the clubs and assignments are integrated into real world applications. For example, in environmental science, Hezekiah is working on a project to determine whether or not the school should install solar panels.
  • Vani reflects along with focusing on traditional education (core classes/content), dTech gives students the ability to see what life might be like after school or even college.  dTech encourages values that some traditional high schools might not see as important – creative confidence, self-direction, independence, and storytelling.
  • dTech employs an intersession programs. What is intersession?  During these two-week programs, students try different “electives.”  These short programs are opportunities to explore different content areas. This program is available four times per year – allowing students to go deep in four different topic areas. Some topics might include: art, coding, sports, bug science, etc. In the morning, students complete the lab time, and in the afternoon they connect with industry partners. The industry partners share learning experiences which are project-based. The purpose of these experiences is to expose learners to different potential career opportunities/industries.
  • Community partners also work with students on the Thursday lab days. Students meet with their advisors first thing on a Thursday to plan their day. Maybe they redo a lab, work on a group or club activity/project, or continue an intersession activity.  Teachers have office hours so you can get additional help.
  • What do the physical spaces look like in DTech? The entire space is designed for learners. The front entrance opens to a giant space for assemblies, club meetings, lunch, ping pong table and is referred to as the Hanger. Each classroom is part of a four classroom block, connecting via sliding white board walls. The connected design allows for ease of interdisciplinary learning and joint projects.  Each four classroom block has two breakout spaces with interactive whiteboards which students can use for group projects or independent work. (It is important to know the designers worked with the students and teachers to envision this space together.)
  • The furniture is also flexible – easily moved and transformed into different formations.
  • Tne mission of the school is to make the world a better place.  Students are making the school a better place – including developing murals and flower boxes.
  • Students are required to earn a specific number of credits to qualify for graduation. Some courses are completion-based, and others are letter-graded. Students complete pass/fail courses for personal development credit. If a student completes a dance class during an intersession, it can count towards a visual/performing arts credit.
  • Internship program is an extension from intersession. These experiences are designed to be mutually-beneficial for the learner and the industry partner. The external experiences focus on bringing design thinking to the partner. Learners work collaboratively with partners to potentially solve an authentic problem.  Internships range from forty differnt lines of businesses (including health care, libraries/non-profits, etc.). Some are group internships where 4-5 students participate in a design challenge, and other opportunities are individual. Some internships exist for 2 weeks and others are once per week for a longer period of time. There are six pillars to the student-designed internship programs (adaptability, professionalism, networking, significance, and relevance.)
  • Hezekiah reflected on an internship he completed with the San Mateo COunty Office of Education. During the internship, he put together research for the environmental literacy fellows which was later used by the Department in meetings with city officials. They also assisted in the organization of a city-wide youth summit which discussed sustainability.
  • Design thinking is a critical component. How can we get started? Check out the Design School design thinking process. Learn more about the students’ experience. Consider shadowing a student to better empathize with your learners and/or community. Once you know the process of design thinking, it can become a vehicle to shift a mindset. You need to be more open to trying something new because, “everything has an expiration date.”
  • When asked what competencies leaders in more learner-centered learning environments need, these leaders shared the need to prioritize unlocking time for what counts.  Teachers have a half-day once per week for professional learning, providing feedback to learners, or personalizing a new strand they are preparing. Leaders also need to defer judgment with staff, faculty, and learners. Educators have the freedom to fully design the curriculum, choose books, and labs.  Staff and adminstration tries to empathize and be open to new ideas. As a leader, you need to offer various opportunities for roles and new experiences. Faculty members wear many hats and allow for a breadth of experience.
  • Final thoughts… advice for leaders and learners. You need to be open to change because you never know where the greatest experience of your life is going to come from. The leaders shared – our high school students are really an underutilized resource. We need to create opportunities for youth to do real work and impact the school and our community.  Everyone needs to find their passions by trying new things because discovery doesn’t come from hesitancy. Practice is a way to embody and implement new skills/learning.

Connections to Practice

  • While we have started an internship process, we have done so on a limited pilot basis. How do we grow this program? How do we support our high school principal in this work? Are our students solving real-world problems, or are they making copies, etc.?
  • We have struggled to create some business partnerships. What strategies can we use to develop stronger mutually-beneficial relationships.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • How do we ensure our students’ learning is connected to the “Why?”
  • If someone asked our learners what we value, what would they say?
  • How could we connect with community partners?
  • How could we get started with design thinking?
  • How do we better create learning experiences where our students are doing real work?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk to our middle school principal  and superintendent advisory council to determine possibility of running two week-long intersessions.  What could that look like?  What resources would we need? What would learners say?
  • Investigate the D School Design Thinking K-12 network.
  • Consider creative ways to unlock time for learners and teachers. What is possible in our schedule as we plan for 2019-2020?

Episode 040 – d.tech High School Interview with Rachel Siegman, Wendy Little, Vani Suresh and Hezekiah Smithstein

In Episode 40, we are learning with an innovative school –Design Tech High School in San Mateo, CA. We spoke with Rachel Siegman, Internship Coordinator and Educator, Wendy Little, Director of Intersession & Community Learning, Vani Suresh and Hezekiah Smithstein, learners at d.tech.

d.tech curates learning experiences so students are innovation-ready by developing skills that are critical to success in the 21st century – abilities include collaboration, creativity, self-direction, and communication. Students develop these skills by building deep content knowledge and learning important design thinking skills. The two principles that guide the educational model are extreme personalization and putting knowledge in action.

Thinking beyond our conversation, here are two questions we are asking:

  1. What learner-centered aspects of Design Tech High School might you apply in your school or district?
  2. WHAT MIGHT BE if your learning environment connected student learning to action in the community?



Episode 039 – Interview with Suyash Agrawal, learner in a traditional learning environment

In this episode we are speaking with Suyash Agrawal, a 16 year old learner from Edison, NJ. He has spent all his life in traditional, school-centered environments and has recently connected with what is possible in education through Education Reimagined. He strongly believes that education needs to be able to ignite the passion within every student. His passions are business and finance and intends to run multiple businesses that will have a positive impact on people all around the world in the future.

As a result of the conversation we are asking these questions:

  1. How might leaders provide opportunities for learners to develop their passions in a learner-centered environment?
  2. How might you engage the learners’ voice?