August 21, 2013

District braces for record enrollment

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Where to put the new students that are showing up daily at the Watford City Elementary School?
That was the problem facing the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 school board at its Aug. 12 meeting when members got a look at the new enrollment numbers that will be attending the district this school year.
As of Friday, Aug. 16, the district was looking at an enrollment of 980 students, an increase of 122 students from the last day of school last year.
It is a record enrollment that the district hasn’t seen since the mid to late 1980s.
And that record enrollment is causing its share of problems for the school district and its administrators.
“As of right now, we are looking at 511 students in the elementary school and 469 in grades 6 through 12 at the high school,” states Steve Holen, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 superintendent.
To put the elementary school’s growth in perspective, Holen says that the 511 students in kindergarten through fifth grade now rivals the district’s entire student population in 2008, just five years ago.
“Our preliminary estimate, which was provided by our consultant this summer, was that we would see an enrollment of 972 students this year,” stated Holen. “We know that we are going to be having more students coming in the first weeks of school, and that some students who have preregistered aren’t going to show, but the 972 number looks good to me.”
But according to Holen, the problem facing the district is making sure that the high school, and more importantly, the newly-expanded elementary school, can handle the numbers.
“Right now, the problem is at the elementary school,” stated Holen. “With the new addition, we planned on having four sections for kindergarten through the fifth grade with one additional spare classroom available. It is our intent to have 20 or less students in each of the classrooms.”
But with the elementary school’s enrollment now predicted to top 511 students this school year, the school board found itself struggling to keep class sizes under 20 students and determining which grade was going to occupy that one spare classroom.
The problem is that with both the kindergarten and first grade classes now exceeding 100 students, there is a need to increase the number of classrooms. But with only a finite number of classrooms, the only alternative is to increase class sizes for some of the upper grades at the elementary school.
“We need to have five first grade classes,” stated Nichole Johnsrud, board member. “It is critical to keep the class size under 20 students.”
Brad Foss, Elementary School principal, was also of the opinion that an additional first grade teacher should be hired and that the one spare classroom should be used for first graders.
“I think we can wait a week and decide on what to do with the kindergarten and how that impacts one of the upper grades,” stated Foss.
But if one of the upper grades is forced to have more than 20 students in a classroom, Holen stated that decision should be made by the administration.
“Is it better to have 17 students in the third grade or 24 in kindergarten?” asked Holen. “We can offset the higher student numbers by using another aide. You’re just going to have to give the administration the latitude to make the adjustments.”
While Holen acknowledges that the district was anticipating more students this year, he was surprised by the increases in the kindergarten and first grades.
“We didn’t expect to see those two grades be this big this year,” stated Holen.
In other business,
• Holen informed the board that the elementary school, which is undergoing a major $11 million remodeling, will be ready for the first day of school, and that the district is in the process of completing the paving of the north parking lot.
 • Holen informed the board that the district has access to 14 apartments in the Wolf Run Village for teachers and district employees.
• The board reviewed the first draft of a $12.6 million budget for the coming school year.
• Raised substitute teacher pay from $120 to $140 per day.