Posted 8/19/15 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
While classes won’t officially open for McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 until Thursday, Aug. 20, the preliminary enrollment numbers are indicating that Watford City schools will see yet another year of record enrollment.
As of Aug. 14, according to Steve Holen, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 superintendent, the district had an enrollment of 1,396 students, which is 171 students more than the district had one year ago at this time.
“While we won’t know for sure how many students we have until opening day on Aug. 20, we are pretty comfortable in saying that this will be another record year for enrollment,” states Holen.
Holen says that the district typically sees some changes in student numbers the first two weeks of school as some students who had registered move to another district, while other students are still registering for classes.
The official day for student count is Sept. 10,” states Holen. “The number of students that we have on that day is the number that we submit to the North Dakota Dept. of Education, and is the number on which the district is reimbursed by the state.
Last year, according to Holen, the district had 1,301 students enrolled on Sept. 10. And he is reasonably confident that the district will have over 1,400 students on Sept. 10 of this year.
While the growth in student numbers this year is slightly smaller than the projections that the district was expecting, Holen is still pleased with the growth.
“Our enrollment projection study, which was done by RSP, forecast we would have an enrollment of 1,540 this year,” states Holen. “But we are still confident in the projected long-term enrollment numbers.
According to the RSP study that was completed last year, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 is projected to have 2,584 students at the start of the 2019-20 school year, and 3,933 students by the start of the 2024-25 school year.
“RSP says that those projected student numbers are still viable,” states Holen. “The school district will be receiving a new set of enrollment projections in January, and at that time we will see if there is any significant change from the earlier projections.
Elementary School Fueling Student Growth
For the past three years, the growth in the school district’s enrollment numbers has been fueled by the large number of new students in the elementary school. However this year, the number of students in every grade is beginning to level.
“For the first time, we will have over 100 students in every grade with the exception of grades 11 and 12,” states Holen. “But the largest classes are still in the elementary school.”
According to Holen, this year, the district is anticipating over 140 students each in the kindergarten, first and second grades.
“The extra sections that we’ve allocated to those three grades has worked out well,” states Holen. “We now have six sections for each of those three grades.”
With the current elementary school only having a capacity for 600 students, the district has installed enough portable classrooms this year to house the entire fifth grade, as well as other programs.
According to Holen, with the new high school scheduled to open in January of 2016, the district is moving forward with plans to shift elementary students into the existing high school.
“Our plans, right now, are to have kindergarten through the third grades in the elementary school, and move grades four through six into the existing high school,” states Holen.
That shift, according to Holen, will give the district the breathing room it needs now to handle the current student numbers.
Continued Growth Will Require Another Elementary School
While the new high school will finally give the school district some breathing room to accommodate its current enrollment, Holen says that the district is now looking at the possibility of needing a second elementary school.
“The board will be interviewing architects the end of August for a new elementary school in the Homestead Subdivision,” states Holen.
According to Holen, the decision as to whether or not to proceed with a new elementary school is going to be driven by the increasing number of elementary school students.
“We’re finally turning the corner on being able to get a handle on where we need to be,” states Holen. “And we are definitely ahead of where we were four years ago.”
According to Holen, as a result of the demographic studies that the district has done, it has been able to identify where families are living.
“We have more permanent families moving into Watford City with the gas plants and other production jobs that are associated with the oil industry,” states Holen. “But we also know that Watford City needs to have more single family homes built to accommodate these families.”
While Holen says the district sees the need for a new elementary school in the near future, it is moving forward on the planning cautiously.
“We were cautious with our plans for the new high school,” states Holen. “And we will be cautious with plans for a new elementary school.”
The reason for moving forward cautiously, of course, has been the drop in oil prices, and what that could mean to school enrollment numbers.
“There are so many unknowns right now,” states Holen. “Is oil going to slow down? Or is it going to ramp up again? Those are the big variables.”
But at the end of the day, according to Holen, the district has to have a long-term plan. And that plan indicates that another elementary school needs to be built.
“We can’t get caught up in the day-to-day enrollment numbers,” says Holen. “The trend shows that we are going to have more students and that the core of Watford City’s population will be related to oil production jobs.”