North Dakota's Rural Partnership

The University of North Dakota Builds An Innovative Collaboration with a Rural School District

February 10, 2021 |

We want to thank the University of North Dakota for sharing this wonderful example of regional collaboration. There are three parts to this feature: (1) A UND feature on the Rural Partnership; (2) An interview with Sherryl Houdek, Rural Partnership Coordinator; and (3) a nuts and bolts overview of the program.

The Feature Story: Courtesy of University of North Dakota

A new University of North Dakota 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

An Interview with Dr. Sherryl Houdek

1. What has been most exciting to you about the Rural Partnership program?

First, the fact that the Burgum Foundation was willing to fund an effort that has enabled us to directly focus on one school district as a partner in western North Dakota, one that has a real need to recruit and support the development of outstanding teachers.

In addition, the program allows us to work with graduate students in a cohort, and it prevents the isolation that often occurs in graduate programs that support rural teachers.

Finally, the community benefit is a tangible aspect of the program. Students focus their action research on projects that have a public benefit, helping the school or community. Furthermore, the Rural Partnership is a wonderful recruiting tool for a district that needs to recruit new teachers.

2. How has the Covid pandemic affected rural schools in North Dakota?

Rural schools have probably fared much better than some of the larger districts. Smaller schools have seemed to come together more, perhaps reflecting their more tighter knit communities. One thing that I would like to point out is that the pandemic is helping all schools view or consider how they can deliver education differently—proving that we can change the delivery of traditional education formats. Interestingly, as hard as Covid has been on the social-emotional aspects of many families, there are actually some students who have done better on their own, individually, in a more isolated environment. We just have a lot to learn from this.

3. If you could wave a magic wand and do one thing that would alleviate the rural teacher shortage, what would it be?

With my experiences as a school administrators and teacher, I would suggest that all teacher education undergraduate programs place students in an internship experience in a partnership with a rural community for at least two weeks. This would provide students a ‘window’ to see through the lens of being in a rural school and community. It would be an experience that would help them make good decisions about locations for their career. In addition, this would encourage the ‘host” school communities to roll out the red carpet and make the case that a young person can really make a difference not only in the lives of children but in the future of a small town.

Program Description

UND College of Education and Human Development

Teaching, Leadership and Professional Practice Department and Watford City School District


MS (Master of Science) in Teaching & Leadership

FALL 2021-SPRING 2023



TLPP is excited to announce our second round of applications for another cohort to begin in FALL 2021 in the MS degree in Teaching & Leadership. This partnership was developed with the Watford City School District and TLPP. Our first cohort began in FALL 2020 with 9 current teachers in the district. We have 14 spots remaining open for the upcoming academic year.

  • This program allows for collaboration among six concentration areas for stronger curriculum, course offerings, teaching, research, and programs that meet the needs of educators and leaders. We are excited to be seeking our second round of applications for this degree to our rural school district – Watford City.
  • We have integrated the National Educational Leadership [program standards (NELP), the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL)]
  • We are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and ND Education and Standards.
  • Tuition is supported by the Burgum Foundation at 50% of your degree.
  • Only five semesters needed to complete the degree.

WHAT: Master of Science in Teaching & Leadership

Areas for concentration: (Applicants select one)

Elementary Education


Instructional Coaching

Principalship (leads to ND principalship licensure)


Behavioral Supports in Education


CONTACTS: Dr. Sherry Houdek

Graduate Director of MS in Teaching & Leadership

ADMISSION Requirements:

      • BS in Education
      • 3.0 Undergrad/Grad GPA
      • 2 yrs. teaching experience for Principalship
      • Writing Sample
      • Resume
      • Recommendations
      • Background Check

APPLICATIONS: The link to apply is:


Credits: 30 Graduate level credits

Courses: Core classes for all areas (17 credits)

T & L 532 Leading Teacher Learning (3 credits)

T & L 569 Action research/ or Classroom-Based Inquiry (3 credits)

EDL 515 Education Law & Ethics (3 credits)

EDL 513 Leading Curriculum in Schools (3 credits)

997 Independent Study – 2 credits

EFR 506 Multi-Cultural Education 3 credits

Concentration: 13 credits per concentration

SCHEDULE: Two courses per semester (the five-semester schedule will be provided upon acceptance into the program)

TUITION: Tuition support will be available provided by the Burgum Foundation

DELIVERY: Asynchronous & Synchronous weekends and/or weeknight depending on instructor

      • Complete in five semesters
      • Possible of Wednesday evenings
      • We are planning to be on Watford School District campus with at least one class per semester beginning in the fall 2020

TECHNOLOGY NEEDS: Computer, Internet, and Zoom

Q & A INFORMATIVE Introductory ZOOM Session:

We will send out a link invite to those who contact Dr. Houdek or are interested)

Date: SUNDAY, February 14, 2021 (yes, evening time on a weekend to avoid those school activities)

Time: 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. CENTRAL TIME

IF you need further information or would like to discuss via phone, please send Dr. Houdek an email

We invite you to learn more about the Rural Schools School Collaborative's Rural Teacher Corps Network!

Read more about intentional efforts to prepare rural teachers.
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