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Posted 8/23/16 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman

Like most people, who are concerned with the impact that low oil prices and the subsequent slowdown in the oilfield is having on western North Dakota communities, I was anxiously waiting to see how many students would be showing up at Watford City’s three schools this fall.
There is no doubt that there have been workers that have been forced to leave the area due to the decline in the oil industry. We’ve seen the impact that the slowdown has had on city and county sales, as well as the number of apartment complexes that are now lowering their rents in order to increase their occupancy levels.
But the big question on everyone’s mind is how has all of this impacted the city’s population, and what will it mean to school enrollment? While getting a good handle on what Watford City’s population is still is pretty much a guessing game, one piece of the demographic puzzle that helps answer that question is the number of children that are enrolled in our school system.
Well, the unofficial numbers are now in. And on the second day of classes this year, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1’s enrollment welcomed a record 1,448 students to classes in kindergarten through 12th grade compared to 1,361 enrolled on the second day last year.
A record growth in student numbers during this downturn in oil activity in western North Dakota is both good news for our school district and Watford City. While other school districts in the state’s oil patch are predicting steady or declining enrollments, our district’s enrollment has been increasing each and every year for the past six years.
When demographers take a look at a community to determine whether its population is growing or declining, and whether or not it is getting younger or older, one of the first areas that they look at is what is happening in its school system. And as our school’s enrollment numbers have shown over the past years, Watford City is rapidly becoming a much younger community than it was just a few years ago. And that is a positive sign that even with the slowdown in the oilfield, more and more young families are making Watford City their home.
To put McKenzie County Public School District No. 1’s growth into perspective, not all that long ago Watford City had 582 students in its entire school district. This year there are 658 students in just kindergarten through fourth grade.
But an even more promising figure is the comparison of how the grade sizes are beginning to level off with between 120 and 145 students in each grade in the elementary school, while all grades in the middle school range from 105 to 124 students. Only three grades in the entire district, which happen to be in the high school, now have class sizes of less than 100 students.
While hardly scientific one could assume, based on McKenzie County Public School District No. 1’s 2016 enrollment data, that Watford City’s and McKenzie County’s core population is steady and growing. And that core population is families with school age children who are attending our local schools.
Being at the very center of the Bakken Oil Shale development has been a blessing for Watford City and McKenzie County. While the slowdown in drilling and completion of wells has slowed considerably with the low oil prices, this core area of the state’s oil patch has been more resilient to job loss than have those communities that are on the fringe. When it once was economical for families to live 100 miles away in another town while the husband commuted to work in McKenzie County, today those families are now relocating to Watford City and surrounding communities to where the jobs and work are.
Which is why our school district continues to show enrollment growth. And why, when oil prices improve and drilling and production activity resumes, our student numbers and city population will continue to increase.