Out on the prairie, near the small town of Hunter, sits Northern Cass Public School. Despite its fairly remote location, it sets right on the cutting edge of technology and innovation in education.
When Senate Bill 2186, the Teacher Innovation Bill, passed through the Legislature this past year, and was signed into law, Northern Cass school district was one of the first ones out of the gate, looking at ways it can change the system of education.
Their district drafted a proposal that would “assign instructors in different disciplines to work in the same classroom, and student progress would be measured by their proficiency in subjects, rather than by grades,” according to a news release from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
Central to Northern Cass’ efforts in transforming education has been Tom Klapp, their high school science teacher, and a finalist for the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year award. Klapp is an 11-year veteran of the Northern Cass school district, having started in 2006 teaching life sciences, biology and earth science. Currently he teaches physics, chemistry and Advanced Placement chemistry.
“At Northern Cass our diversity comes in the form of students at different academic levels but in the same grade,” Klapp said about his school’s efforts to innovate. “In the past, these students, regardless of ability, were placed in a class because of age. We are now shifting toward a model where students are in classes because they are ready for them and the content is at their level, only moving once when they have achieved mastery. This shift holds students accountable for their learning. It has been a difficult shift, and we are not there yet, but we are making strides to achieving this goal. These efforts have been positive as each student will see success and will have fewer and smaller gaps in their education.”
Klapp says time management is central to his philosophy of teaching, and key to finding a place for science in teenagers’ often busy schedule. “I use a lot of formative assessments to ensure all students are achieving at a high level,” he said. “We do a lot self-grading, self-evaluation and self-reflection in my classes that allows students to track their own progress as they continue to strive to master the learning targets.”
In addition to his work in the classroom, he keeps himself busy outside of those walls with a multitude of activities, organizations and committees. “I have been a part of the good-to-great team, the staff advisory council, the capstone project group, book studies and the Teacher Leadership Academy at Northern Cass,” he said.
“I also coach volleyball and baseball, and have presented at many conferences on teaching and coaching. I have had four student teachers work with me and possibly a fifth starting this winter.”
Klapp is an active member of his local association, the Northern Cass Education Association, as a negotiator and advocate for the teaching profession. He urges his new co-workers to join their local, state and national associations, and be active. “The NEA provides teachers with resources and contacts that are so valuable,” he said. “One of the greatest gifts teachers can get is the sharing of information, and the NEA and its affiliates provide opportunities for teachers to get together and share information. I would try to convince young educators to get involved and attend conferences and seek out these opportunities. I try to lead by example and take them with me, when I go and have opportunities to share information.”
Representing teachers in his school and throughout the state is important to Klapp. “I try to be an advocate for the profession in everything I do, and look for ways to share what our school is doing,” he said. “Whether it be presenting at conferences or doing radio and media releases for sports, I try to represent the profession as best I can.”
At the end of every busy day at school, Klapp measures his success by the relationships he forges with his students. “I work relentlessly, trying to build relationships with my students and being a positive influence in their lives,” he said. “I never know how much of an impact I have on them, but once and a while something happens that reminds me it is working. I have a student that really struggled through AP Chemistry and had a tough year in general. When it came time to the take the AP test, she was a mess. When I talked to her later, she said, ‘I never would have taken the test, but I didn’t want to let you down.’ It meant so much to me that she was willing to push herself and try things despite her troubles. It was validation for me and for my relationship with this student.”