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Bringing new approaches to teaching and learning to remote districts

Fairbanks is proud to call itself a leader in Alaska for personalizing learning. Despite some initial setbacks, the district is embracing the positive momentum that the practice is providing to Fairbanks students.


88% of teachers report that they frequently target instruction to address groups or individual needs


of teachers report feeling comfortable innovating and taking risks with instruction in order to personalize learning

Fairbanks North Star Borough
School District, AK

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (FNSBSD) serves an expansive, remote community in central Alaska. The district serves about 14,000 students from a very diverse population, including indigenous people. With this number of students, Fairbanks is one of the Big 5 in Alaska and a bellwether for teaching and learning.

The rurality and remoteness of Fairbanks could potentially create a gap in preparing the students for 21st-century jobs and technology.

The Challenge

As a remote district, Fairbanks faces the challenge of providing opportunities that connect and prepare students for their futures.

In 2016, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (FNSBSD) decided it was time to rethink teaching and learning to help each student reach their potential. The school district designed a strategic plan that included the responsibility of “providing an excellent and equitable education and preparing students for the future.” Personalized Learning was determined to be key in meeting these needs.

Despite a sense of urgency and good intentions, some in the community felt unsure if this was truly the right direction for the district:

  • Some teachers felt that a shift to personalizing learning meant that prior instruction had been sub-par
  • The community felt concerned about the allocation of scarce resources as the state faced a financial slump
  • With a statewide challenge to “modernize the education system”, the entire state turned its eyes to Fairbanks to watch

How We Helped

We started our work in January 2017 with an initial wave of 19 elementary schools. Working alongside the district, we spent time bringing together teams from each elementary school for a series of Foundations workshops. During these half-day sessions, we helped the district consider “the why” and “the what” for personalized learning. We introduced the concept through a three-station rotation model, considered strategies to support the work, and created plans to support teachers in implementing it. We outlined next steps for the teams including replicating foundations-style workshops in schools across the district.

To better connect with the community, we worked with the district on a communication strategy that included information sessions, movie screenings, and small-group discussions, among other things.

As the elementary schools entered the design phase, they led their own plans to personalize for their schools. Middle schools began their implementations in the fall of 2017 and high schools started in January 2018.

The Results

Since we started in January 2017, the district’s efforts to personalize learning have made a positive impact:

  • The schools found an increase in autonomy as they planned ways to design around the needs of their students
  • Principals found ways to continue the best practices that had been used previously to create synergy with personalized learning
  • The community saw and heard value from our work as students, teachers, and principals opened their schools for visitors

In August 2018 FNSBSD Superintendent Dr. Karen Gaborik was named Alaska’s 2019 School Superintendent of the Year for being a leader “ “who is making change”. The Alaska Superintendent of the Year program, now in its 32nd year, pays tribute to a school system’s top leader who exemplifies effectiveness, knowledge, leadership, ethics, and commitment.

There is a shared belief, across schools, that personalized learning is the best way to meet student needs.

  • Classroom visits this spring revealed widespread adoption of the Core Four of Personalized Learning tactics into daily instruction. Some teachers have chosen a specific area to focus on, while others are working all four.
  • 88% of teachers in the initial wave of 19 schools report that they frequently or almost always target instruction to address groups of students or individual needs within lessons.

FNSBSD is proud to call itself a leader in Alaskan Personalized Learning and is eager to continue this work for all schools within the district. The work has also created ripples across the state as we have been able to meet many other districts pursuing innovative strategies for students.

“I have lived in Fairbanks for a long time, and I have been involved with the district for many years, and I’ve never seen anything quite as exciting as personalized learning. The training that I participated in this week made me feel empowered, and the process our school teams have gone through this week has been truly customized to meet us where we are. This is an amazing opportunity."

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