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Small-town school adjusts to the oil boom: Housing a key to hiring teachers as school adds students, diversity

FNS Photo by Kathleen J. Bryan From left, first-graders Ty Womelsdorf, 6, Avery LaDue, 6, and William Heen, 6, listen to teacher Erica Turnquist read a story Thursday on the first day of school at Alexander Public School.

ALEXANDER — Leslie Bieber was fielding questions from parents and students Thursday morning, as the new year kicked off at Alexander Public School in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

Bieber, the K-12 district’s superintendent, then helped a new 10th-grader with his schedule and counseled two senior girls about taking a dual-credit course at Williston State College, 25 miles to the north.

“It was chaotic,” said administrative assistant Jami Hudson, who added it was pretty typical for the first day of school.

But unlike other first days at schools in the central and eastern part of the state, the district has seen its population swell from about 200 in 2010 to almost 1,200, according to city auditor Brittni Kawcak.

First-grade teacher Erica Turnquist attended the school during the state’s last boom and recalls the many single trailers that accompanied it.

This time, crew camps and families living in tight quarters in campers dot the landscape. Turnquist said the area is portrayed as “come and get rich here” and “glorified more than it is.”

To her, Alexander is where she was born and raised, and continues the family tradition of farming and ranching with her husband and children.

“I still think it’s a close-knit community. There’s a lot more cultural diversity,” she said.

First-grader Edgar Longoria Jr.’s father came to the area two and a half years ago to work in the oilfields. Edgar Sr. was born in Texas and grew up in Mexico. In February 2013, his wife and two sons joined him in North Dakota, and the family lives in a company-provided three-bedroom modular.

“Edgar learned a lot of English (his first year),” Edgar Sr. said. “He now speaks more English, understands more than Spanish.”

Bieber said last school year ended with 170 students, the same number of students enrolled as of Thursday. She’s projecting about 190, as enrollment will more than likely climb higher after the Labor Day holiday. Hudson said a lot of other states don’t start school until after the holiday weekend, and families coming from outside North Dakota will not enroll their student(s) until then.

Bieber has started the 2014-15 school year with 20 teachers, retaining all but two teachers from the previous year. The district still needs a vocational education teacher.

She said the community has rallied around the school, assisting with much-needed housing for staff and supplies for the students.

“There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the Bakken. We have people here who give cash for kids who need boots and lunch accounts that go low. You’d be amazed at the generosity of the people,” Bieber said.

Housing for staff includes two apartment duplexes on school property and seven family homes. The rent ranges from $550 to $850 depending on the type of housing plus utilities.

Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Dakotaland Lodging has sold the district homes. Bieber said the company doesn’t “make a dime off of us.” Without this option, the district would be hard pressed to provide housing.

Three members from the community also rent homes to the district, she said, adding the district, in turn, makes the rent affordable to teachers.

The goal is to provide comfortable homes so that teachers will stay. Bieber recently gained a teacher simply due to housing, an ongoing challenge to school districts in the Oil Patch.

“I don’t pay as much as Williston and Watford City. My lowest paid teacher takes home $1,900 a month, so we have to keep it as affordable as possible,” she said.

On July 31, the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands awarded more than $10 million to schools affected by energy development.

Alexander Public School received $331,800 for building renovations and $272,000 for teacher housing, money, Bieber said, is critical to the school’s survival.

“I am blessed. I’m almost afraid to say that. I have wonderful new teachers coming in and a knowledgeable teacher base. The key is: I have housing,” she said.