At the top of Superintendent Rupak Gandhi’s summer to-do list is telling everyone what Fargo Public Schools is all about. He and his school board are going to write up their four overarching education philosophies so families are better informed about everything offered by North Dakota’s third-largest district.
“When individuals are trying to learn about your school system there’s nothing that proactively says, ‘This is who we are,’ and ‘Here’s our approach to education,'” explains Gandhi, North Dakota’s 2023 superintendent of the year. “We are going to be releasing Fargo Public Schools philosophies … to be on the front end of ‘this is how we teach’ and ‘this what we believe in.'” Here’s how Gandhi describes those four major principles (which will be posted to the district’s website this summer):
- Honesty in education: A commitment to fostering an inclusive and culturally relevant educational environment that treats everyone with dignity and respect. Staff are encouraged to use instructional materials that are reflective of the student body. Educators will also not shy away from teaching fact-based history “good or bad or otherwise.” “We want proactive measures to celebrate diversity and to celebrate authenticity,” he points out. “We don’t believe in censorship—it’s our job as educators to teach students to think critically, to understand we’re not perfect, we’ve never been perfect as a system or as a people, and we learn from our mistakes.”
- Openly support the LGBTQIA+ community: We have phenomenal students and educators who reflect the LGBTQIA+ community, and we have allies and we have individuals who have opportunities for growth. Schools need to lead by openly saying they want to create a safe for environment for every individual and protect the rights of all students. “We don’t need to allow for gray areas that perpetuate prejudice and bigotry in our systems,” he says. “Students, staff and community members need to see organizations that take a stand.”
- Disability justice: Approach special education with the recognition that an impairment is not always a disability. “Sometimes an impairment is considered a disability when in reality the disability is caused by the environment, not by the individual,” says Gandhi, who spent large parts of his career in special education. “We can’t penalize an individual for having an impairment in which we have the capacity to change the environment.”
- Student discipline: Emphasize restorative practices over punitive punishments. The goal is to analyze the harm caused by a student’s behavior and repair it so it’s less likely to reoccur.
Fargo Public Schools moving forward
Anchoring those four key philosophies is Gandhi’s drive to make Fargo Public Schools a more dynamic learning organization that is making data-driven decisions on a daily basis to improve student outcomes. The district is in the midst of a “complete transformation” to standards-based instruction and evidence-based reporting, Gandhi says.
“Some of the archaic notions that have always been used in education—the 100-point grading system that has shown evidence of marginalizing students and having areas of bias or prejudice—will no longer be used,” Gandhi explains. “We want to make sure we’re not judging or allowing for any reporting systems that dictate someone’s worth or value based on an assessment at one point in time.”
The district is now taking a proficiency-based learning approach that will better help students develop critical thinking skills while also allowing them to demonstrate mastery of standards in multiple ways. As a part of that, Fargo’s educators are focused on the whole child to create a sense of belonging and to identify “for whom our system is working and for whom it isn’t.”
“It’s our responsibility to remove barriers to make sure every student feels like they belong,” he says, “and that’s making sure they can feel authentic to who they are, they can feel accepted, they can feel comfortable and they don’t feel like they have to shift or change who they are to be part of a large group.”
‘Public education is under fire’
Like many other leaders, Gandhi and his team at Fargo Public Schools are contending with a highly politicized education environment on the local, state and national levels. Education has been weaponized, and students—particularly those from the most marginalized groups—are suffering the most. “Allowing yourself to be disrupted by a vocal minority can shift the focus from the results you want to achieve for all students,” he asserts. “That will continue to be a challenge.”
Educators across the board must be willing to abandon approaches that are no longer getting results. “A challenge for ourselves is going to be ourselves and our own ability to change as we recognize that the world is changing, students are changing and the way they learn is changing,” he says. “How can we be adaptable and nimble to meet students’ needs on an ongoing basis and also have the resources to do that for all kids.”
These challenges are magnified by ever-growing demands on schools that are requiring administrators and teachers to find ways—and local partners—to care for students’ social-emotional well-being. More students are coming to Fargo Public Schools at younger ages having suffered more adverse childhood experiences “than ever before.”
That challenge is compounded by financial constraints that make it hard for North Dakota’s school districts to pay teachers competitively. Almost every one of the state’s 170-plus school districts spends about 80% to 85% of their budgets on staff pay and benefits. Yet, educators continue to be among the most underpaid employees with the kinds of advanced degrees that would qualify them for more lucrative private-sector jobs.
“We’re not based on revenue—every student is not a profit for us,” Gandhi concludes. “We profit from every student’s learning … so how do we continue to not criminalize poverty or create an inequity?”