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Busting at the seams

Posted 9/09/14 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

With student enrollment at McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 now topping 1,300 students, Watford City school administrators aren’t surprised by the growth. But they are surprised by how rapidly the growth occurred.
“We knew that as more families moved into the area, we would be seeing an increase in student numbers,” states Steve Holen, district superintendent. “But what has been a surprise is how rapidly the growth has occurred.”
While the school district won’t be submitting its official student numbers to the North Dakota Dept. of Public Instruction until Sept.10, Holen is comfortable that over 1,300 students will be enrolled at the time.
“We have a record 1,303 students in the district right now,” stated Holen. “But we are going to continue to see that number fluctuate for the next few weeks.”
As of Friday, Sept. 5, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 saw its enrollment increase 27.6 percent from the 1,021 students who were enrolled at the same time last year.
For Holen, breaking the barrier of 1,300 students is significant for the district as McKenzie County School District No. 1 is now the largest Class B school in the state, and has overtaken Valley City and Wahepton, both Class A schools, in total enrollment.
But the growth in student numbers is not without its challenges, according to Holen.
“We’re seeing class sizes in both the elementary school and the high school larger than we would like,” states Holen. “We have classrooms with 25-plus students in the elementary school and 30-plus in the high school. While these numbers are workable, they are concerning, especially if we see more students come in yet this fall.”
An even bigger challenge for Holen and his school board is the realization that both the high school and the elementary school are filled to capacity with students, and the new high school won’t be open until December of 2016.
“Next year at this time, we could see up to 600 students in kindergarten through the third grade,” states Holen. “If that happens, those students would fill our existing elementary school.”
To further compound the district’s need for more building space, Holen estimates that there could be 500 students next fall in grades four through six and another 600 students in grades seven through 12.
If those numbers become a reality, Holen says that neither of the district’s existing buildings will be able to accommodate the influx of students. And the district will be forced to using portable classrooms at both sites.
“Our new high school building is now set at a capacity of 600 students,” states Holen. “With the numbers that we are projecting, unless we can increase that building to a capacity of 800 students, we will be too small the day that it opens.”
To get a handle on future enrollment projections, the district is working with a consultant to revise its possible growth.
“We are hoping that we will have the new enrollment projection numbers by December,” states Holen. “Those numbers will help us address our future building needs, and if we need to start working on plans for a new elementary school.”
While Holen acknowledges that the growth in student numbers has been a challenge, he sees the change as being good.
“It’s a good thing that our schools are completely full and every space is being used for education,” states Holen. “We’re using our schools to their maximum, and that is what we want.”
One of the other challenges that Holen and the school district could be facing in the coming years as enrollment increases, is the possibility that Watford City High School will move from Class B to Class A sports.
With 321 students in grades 9-12, Watford City is now knocking on the door of being forced to move up to the top tier in high school sports.
“The magic number for being moved from Class B to Class A is 325 students in those four grades,” states Holen. “We are just below that number.”
If Watford City High School would have had 325 students by the Sept. 10 date, it would have begun a two-year transition into Class A sports.
But, according to Holen, if the high school’s enrollment numbers were combined with Alexander High School and Johnson Corners Christian Academy, which the district has athletic co-op agreements with, Watford City would be above the 325 number.
“We don’t believe that our co-op numbers factor into our high school numbers when it comes to athletics,” states Holen. “But that will be a decision that the North Dakota High School Activities Association will have to make.”