September 4, 2013

Breaking the 1,000 barrier

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

After decades of falling enrollments and closing schools, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 is seeing numbers they have not seen since the ’80s oil boom. Just a week after completing construction on an elementary school addition that was supposed to give the district ‘room to grow,’ the Watford City Elementary School found itself needing more classrooms than the building project actually gave them.
“Technically, the elementary school can house 625 students, faculty and staff,” states Steve Holen, district superintendent. “But the problem with that number is that it assumes unilateral growth,”
What happened in the case of the elementary school, according to Holen, was that they did not experience unilateral growth. Instead, the enrollment numbers for first grade and kindergarten rose above 100 students and forced the district to add a fifth class in both grades.
“We made the decision to go to a fifth first grade teacher earlier in the enrollment process,” states Holen. “But when we saw the kindergarten numbers rise, we did not have an extra classroom available for another kindergarten class.”
Though Holen was hoping the new elementary school addition would allow the district not to have to use portable classrooms for a second year, that is not going to be the case.
“We expected around 100 students in kindergarten,” states Holen. “When we reached 113 and we knew that number was going to remain steady, we made the decision to add a fifth class and move the computer lab out to the portable to make room.”
According to Holen, the elementary school renovation project was designed to handle five classrooms in each grade, but only at a K-4 level, not K-5.
Currently, there are 541 students enrolled in the elementary school and 485 enrolled in the high school, bringing this year’s beginning enrollment total to 1,026 students, 163 more than last year’s ending enrollment of 863 students.
“Being over 1,000 students is a whole new tier for us,” states Holen. “And the thought of someday being over 1,000 students was incomprehensible five years ago.”
Growth Forces District To Plan For New Building
So far, the district has done its best to stay ahead of the growth in student numbers. But Holen states the district has done all it can do with its two existing buildings.
“We had a demographic study done this summer, and when it was completed we put a building committee together,” states Holen. “It is an 11-member committee and they are working to answer the question of what the district will do next in response to our continued growth.”
Holen states that since the demographic study, the school district has put out an RFI (request for information) regarding the availability of land for a new school building and a RFQ (request for qualifications) regarding a building architect.
According to Holen, what that means is that the district is actively looking for land and actively looking for an architect.
“We can’t shift students around anymore than we already have,” states Holen. “We can only do so much because both buildings will be at capacity soon.”
And according to Holen, building a larger elementary school was not an option and adding onto the high school is not an option.
“There is no room available to add onto the high school, and building a larger elementary building is not conducive to a healthy learning environment for elementary students,” states Holen.
Additionally, Holen states that most, if not all districts that serve more than 1,000 students, have more than two school buildings.
“We are not committing, but we are planning and we are moving forward,” states Holen.
Should the district move forward with plans for a new building, Holen states it will not be complete until the 2015-2016 school year. Which, according to Holen, means that continued growth will remain a challenge to the district until more classroom space is made available for the increasing number of students.
More Students Pose Bussing Issues
This year’s enrollment numbers also threatened to be a problem for the district’s Transportation Department. But Holen states that the hiring of more drivers before school started,  along with the expectation of hiring more drivers in the coming month has allowed the district to meet its students’ transportation needs.
“This summer we were down six or seven routes and we were wondering whether we would be able to continue our door-to-door service,” states Holen. “Thankfully, we had four drivers come on line this summer and more will start in the next few weeks. In about a month, we expect that we will see improvements and be where we want to be.”
This does not mean that the district does not need drivers.
“We have routes that we are not covering at the level we would like to,” states Holen. “More drivers means less drive time, which means students get home earlier. And, hopefully, as people step up, our outlook will look better and better.”
All-in-all, Holen states the first week of school went well, even down to tracking a student who had gotten on the wrong bus.
“We couldn’t find the student at first, so we followed all the proper procedures,” states Holen. “We took it very seriously and got the police involved. Eventually, we discovered that she was at the Lutheran Preschool’s After School Program, and she was supposed to go to Wiggles & Giggles.”
Holen states that the student was a new student and everyone was very cooperative in making sure she got to where she needed to be.
In the days and weeks to come, parents can expect aesthetic finishes at the elementary school, as well as a new playground, parking and new signage.