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Posted 8/22/12 (Wed)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Five years ago if you would have asked school administrators in Watford City what the future for school enrollment held, they would have told you that the outlook was not very promising. After all, the demographics of rural North Dakota were working against them. The population of Watford City was aging rapidly. There were fewer and fewer young families with school-age children moving into the
community. And each year’s graduating class of seniors was
considerably larger than was the incoming class of kindergarten students.
McKenzie County Public School District No. 1, like so many other non-urban school districts in North Dakota, was literally in a slow and agonizing death spiral because of declining enrollment. The school district had already shuttered the doors of the elementary schools at Johnson Corners and Grassy Butte. And while the school administrators and the school board, at that time, weren’t openly
discussing it, they knew that if the district’s downward enrollment trend continued, it wouldn’t be long before the school had to
seriously consider closing its last elementary school and figure out how to educate all of its students in the high school building.
The enrollment trends for the school were quite sobering. From a record enrollment of 1,051 students in the district in 1983, the
numbers had dropped to just 512 students at the end of the
2007-2008 school year. And based on the demographics of that
time, school administrators were predicting that by the 2010-11 school year the district’s total enrollment could actually drop to below 300 students.
But thanks to a surging oil economy in McKenzie County, the school enrollment numbers have so dramatically reversed that
suddenly the McKenzie County School District No. 1 is struggling
to find room for all of the students that are showing up to attend classes. Last year, 705 students attended classes on the first day of school and this year, the school anticipates 868 students on the first day of class. For those who don’t want to do the math, that is an increase of 286 students, or a 49 percent increase, in just two short years.
In fact, the growth of students in the school district is so strong that last year the school board decided they had to move the entire sixth grade class to the high school to make room for an ever increasing elementary school population. And two weeks ago, the board broke ground on a new $11 million project that will completely remodel the elementary school.
The rapid increase in student numbers is posing some very new and unique problems for school administrators and the school board. Problems like needing to hire more new teachers and ancillary staff, purchasing housing so new teachers have a place to live, purchasing more busses for more bus routes, and planning for new buildings to accommodate a growing student population.
But these are some very good problems to have considering where our school system was heading over the previous decade.
What is happening in our school system is a reflection of what is occurring in our community. Once again, our demographics are rapidly changing. While single men still make up the majority of the work force in the oil patch, the trend that we have been seeing over the past two years is that wives and families are now coming to
Watford City and McKenzie County to join their husbands and
fathers and make this area their home.
And that positive change in the makeup of our community is not only going to fuel a continued increase in student numbers in our school system, but it is what is also going to be the catalyst that drives the future demand for more apartments units, more new single family homes and more retail shopping.
All of which are signs of a growing community.