West Fargo

A former West Fargo teacher serving out an education fellowship on Capitol Hill said the school district has denied her application for another teaching job.

Michelle Strand, 54, has less than three months remaining as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator fellow.

“It’s been an absolutely incredible experience,” Strand said in an interview by phone from Washington, D.C.

The physics teacher was one of only 15 K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, teachers nationwide awarded the honor last May, and the first ever from North Dakota chosen in the program’s 32-year history.

But Strand left for the nation’s capital in August with a sour taste in her mouth, because West Fargo Public Schools denied her request for unpaid leave because of a shortage of teachers.

“I’m still sort of in a state of disbelief,” she said. 

As she prepares to return home to West Fargo in July, Strand recently applied for an open science position at West Fargo High School, a job she heard about from her former colleagues.

However, she said she was told her application would not be considered due to “HR concerns.”

“I interpret that as the superintendent doesn’t want me back,” Strand said.

The Forum requested an interview with West Fargo Superintendent Beth Slette, but that request was not granted.

West Fargo Public Schools spokesperson Heather Leas said neither the director of human resources nor the superintendent play a role in hiring teachers at any West Fargo school.

Instead, those decisions are made by hiring committees established at each school, she said.

The district received 13 applications, including Strand’s, for the open science job at West Fargo High, and six made the cut as finalists.

Strand’s application did not score above that cut line to be interviewed by the committee, Leas said. It’s not clear what score Strand received, as all names below the cut line are redacted.

Leas said North Dakota law dictates that the school district is only able to share information of people considered finalists for a position.

Having an impact

Einstein fellows receive a “pretty generous” stipend and health insurance while serving in Washington, D.C., Strand said.

She was able to take over an apartment from a previous fellow that’s only a 10-minute walk from the building where she works and a half-block from the D.C. Metro station.

“That will take me just about anywhere I want to go,” she said.

The 15 fellows have professional development each month, held in places such as the Library of Congress and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Ten of them are assigned to federal agencies and five, including Strand, are assigned to offices on Capitol Hill.

Strand works with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat from California who serves on a committee involving education and workforce issues and a subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education.

She said she answers constituent mail, flags bills she thinks DeSaulnier might want to sign onto and has introduced bills for the congressman into the House of Representatives.

When she arrived in Washington, D.C., in August, she met with a constituent pushing for a new law relating to married couples who had been advised under a Department of Education program to consolidate their student loans in exchange for a lower interest rate.

In 2006, Congress eliminated the program but didn’t give participants a way to separate their loans, even in cases of domestic violence, economic abuse or divorce.

A bill allowing loans to be separated passed in the Senate but hadn’t gotten traction in the House.

Strand wrote up a legislative action report for DeSaulnier, who co-sponsored the bill that was ultimately signed into law by President Joe Biden in October 2022.  

The law also opened up the possibility for those borrowers to have some of their student loan debt forgiven or monthly payments lowered.

Strand was able to inform the constituent she originally met with that the bill would become law.

“It was amazing to be part of that process,” she said.

Currently, Strand is working on a bill that focuses on K-12 teacher recruitment and retention, a matter she said hits close to home.

Time to step away?

Strand said part of the reason she applied for the Einstein fellow program is that she hasn’t felt valued as a professional in the classroom for a while.

“Unfortunately, that’s happening all over; … (it’s the) reason we’re losing so many teachers,” she said.

When seeking unpaid leave for the fellowship last year, Strand said she had the support of previous West Fargo High School Principal Jennifer Fremstad, but Slette had the final say.

Leas said West Fargo Public Schools did not approve any extended leave requests during the previous school year due to a “severe” labor shortage and has not approved any such requests this school year, either, as the shortage continues.

However, Strand said, before she even applied for the fellowship, she made sure someone in the department was capable and willing to take over the advanced placement, or AP, physics classes she taught.

With 30 years of classroom experience, Strand spent 12 years in West Fargo building the physics program, including those AP courses.

Strand said her recent application might have been turned down because she spoke out against certain decisions, including one to make masks optional for students and teachers coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite conflicting guidance from Cass County.

She also spoke out against initiatives, some being implemented on the heels of the pandemic, that involve changes in grading, learning plans, teacher evaluations and scheduling.

“When your teachers are stressed and not feeling valued and the kids are stressed, it’s a bad combination,” Strand said.

She also applied for and was offered a teaching job at Fargo Public Schools, which she ended up declining, thinking it might be time to step away from the classroom.

Her focus may turn to impacting teacher retention on a broad scale.

“We’re just sort of seeing what happens, having faith in the process that … the stars will align,” she said.

Readers can reach reporter Robin Huebner at rhuebner@forumcomm.com