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Published August 29 2013

Forum editorial: Oil Patch schools step up

Increasing public school enrollment is a good sign for a community, but the huge bump in student populations in North Dakota’s Oil Patch is a startling flip of entrenched trends. The change poses unique challenges.

Numbers from oil cities and counties show student increases in multiple 100s, not just a few dozen here and there. School districts that, up to about five years ago, were routinely losing students, today are scrambling to accommodate more kids and more teachers. It’s a nice problem to have, but given former trends, it is a knotty problem.

For example, Williston in the heart of oil country expects to add 350 students this school year. Thirty- nine new teachers have been hired. The district prepared for growth by renting 32 modular classrooms last year. And as an indication of how things were in the recent past, the district reopened an elementary school that had been shuttered for more than 10 years because of declining enrollments.

The story is the same all over oil country. Watford City is planning for another school building. Enrollment is up 19 percent, or 162 students, in McKenzie County. The numbers translate into more classrooms and 20 more teachers, counselors and other staff members.

Be assured, increasing student enrollments are welcome. The numbers reflect an influx of young families into communities that had been losing young families for decades. But the speed of the enrollment increases means districts cannot address the new needs immediately because it takes time to add classroom space and hire teachers. Unlike rapidly growing schools in other parts of the state that have been accommodating growth for many years (West Fargo is the best example), oil country school boards and administrations have had to completely retool their approach to management. Instead of a long-standing pattern of decline, they now confront the challenges of accelerating growth.

They are getting it done. They are mustering resources to deal with the new realities of public education in the Oil Patch. When it all settles out – and that won’t happen in only one or two school years – schools will be bigger, better and prepared for even more growth.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.