August 19, 2014

School braces for record enrollment

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

With the start of the new school year in Watford City set for Thursday, Aug. 21, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 administrators are bracing themselves for a record enrollment.
According to Steve Holen, district superintendent, the rush of new students into the district this year has been nothing but staggering.
“As of Aug. 13, we have 1,301 student enrolled in the district,” states Holen. “That is an increase of 276 students from last fall’s enrollment of 1,025 students.”
And with those kinds of student numbers, the school district has firmly planted itself as No. 1 with the largest enrollment of any Class B school district in North Dakota, and has also overtaken two of the state’s Class A school districts.
“We became the largest Class B school district in the state last year,” stated Holen. “And we are continuing to separate ourselves from other Class B schools in terms of enrollment.”
According to Holen, with more than 1,300 students anticipated to show up on the first day of school, McKenzie County School District No. 1’s enrollment far exceeds the enrollment of Grafton, which had the second highest enrollment last fall with 916 students.
“Our school district’s enrollment now exceeds the student numbers at Valley City and Wahpeton, which had enrollments of 1,096 and 1,237 students, respectively, last fall,” states Holen.
The growth in student numbers at the school district has been on a rapid increase over the past five years as more and more families are moving into Watford City and the surrounding area to work in oilfield jobs. Since 2010, when the school district had 582 students, the enrollment has swelled by nearly 200 students a year.
According to Holen, this fall’s enrollment will be the largest in the school district’s history. In 1963, the district had 1,200 students and in 1982, the district had 1,150 students. But since then, the district’s enrollment has been on a steady decline.
“It is hard to believe that today we have 693 in kindergarten through fifth grade, when five years ago we only had 582 in the entire district,” states Holen.
And that steady influx of new students has forced the district to not only increase teaching and professional staff, but add more classrooms as well.
Last year, when the elementary school opened its new $11 million addition, the building was too small to accommodate the influx of students, so the sixth grade class was moved to the high school. The remaining 498 kindergarten students filled the elementary school to capacity.
With a capacity of 625 students in the elementary school, Holen thought that moving the sixth grade class would give the district some time to adjust. Unfortunately, that extra time to plan evaporated very quickly. And the school board made the decision this summer to bring in portable classrooms to house the 95 students in the fifth grade class.
That early decision to use portable classrooms was a wise one as there are currently 693 students registered to attend the elementary school.
While Holen says the greatest problems are at the elementary school, the overcrowding issues are at the high school as well.
“Our capacity for students at the high school is 550 students,” says Holen. “With 608 students already enrolled to start school at the high school on the first day of class, we are literally out of room at both schools. The computer labs and teacher lounges in both buildings are now gone.
And Holen doesn’t believe the growth in student numbers is going to slow down.
“The district hired a consulting firm to help us get a handle on our projected student numbers a couple of years ago,” stated Holen. “And we are now 200 students above those projected numbers.”
This is why the school district is now bringing the consulting firm back to help reassess the growth potential for the coming years.
“We can’t wait for the new high school to get built,” states Holen. “And we need to get the capacity of the new high school to 800 students instead of 600.”
In July, ground was broken for the new 600-capacity high school, which is expected to cost $50 million and to be completed by December of 2015.
According to Holen, the district is also giving serious consideration to constructing an additional elementary school to meet the growth in enrollment numbers.
“We are not seeing a leveling off of enrollment,” states Holen of the need to add an additional elementary school or to increase the capacity of the new high school. “When you have this many kids enrolling in our schools, you know you have a family base and we’re becoming a city.”