Record year: Dickinson Public Schools breaks ’80s boom peak for student enrollment

At around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, only hours before the new school year began, another family stopped by the Dickinson Public Schools administrative office to register a student.

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Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Dickinson Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Vince Reep works in his office Tuesday, a day before the 2014-15 school year began. The district shattered the previous student enrollment record set in 1985, he said; 3,521 students were enrolled as of Friday.

At around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, only hours before the new school year began, another family stopped by the Dickinson Public Schools administrative office to register a student.
It was no surprise to Assistant Superintendent Vince Reep: students have been trickling in all summer, including about a dozen last week alone.
The 2014-15 school year, which begins today, will bring in the school’s highest number of students in the district’s history, and administrators are preparing themselves to handle the rapidly changing district.
Reep said Tuesday that although the growth has been “a little bit stressful” for faculty and staff, he views the coming year as a positive challenge.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” he said. “It’s been a very challenging last couple of years with this kind of growth, but if you look at it from a big-picture standpoint, with growth comes new opportunities.”
Among the major projects ahead for the district this year are an addition to the year-old Prairie Rose Elementary and an Oct. 7 special election on a bond referendum to fund a new middle school.
“We’ve had to ask our teachers and other employees to step up and work harder, and we all have,” Reep said. “(The students) are here, and they’re our responsibility.”
Enrollment totals as of Friday were at 3,521 students, breaking the previous record of 3,360 set in 1985 during the last oil boom.
That’s well ahead of the earlier projections of a 7-percent growth in grades kindergarten through six and a 4-percent growth in grades seven through 12. Reep attributes the 9.4 percent increase over May’s final enrollment numbers to an unexpected jump in kindergarten and high school students. Dickinson High School is “larger than they’ve been in seven or eight years,” he added.
The district overall has seen a 22.8 percent increase in enrollment since fall 2012. The schools have the space and materials to handle all of their students, but classrooms are nearing capacity, Reep said.
Construction on the Prairie Rose addition will begin early September and wrap up in time for the new school year next fall. Reep said he didn’t expect the school would need an expansion so soon, - he previously predicted it for four or five years down the road - but a surprising growth spike in 2013 quickly put the school at 397 students and class sizes edging toward 30 students per class in some cases.
“That’s the biggest frustration that we have at this time,” Superintendent Doug Sullivan said Tuesday. “We have some large class sizes.”
He said some Dickinson High School classes exceed 30 students, above the ideal range. Kindergarten classes, which the school ideally wants at 20 students, are up to 26 at Lincoln Elementary, but there’s little administrators can do now.
“It’s just not possible to hire any new faculty at this time,” he said.
Rapid growth funds have helped to cover the Prairie Rose expansion, with another anticipated $680,000 from the fund going toward the project this year.
But additional faculty will have to wait until the next hiring season, Sullivan said.
As Prairie Rose gets underway to alleviate some issues with classroom space, attention will turn to Hagen Junior High School, which is at the center of a bond referendum election in October.
“Right now, the focus needs to be on the middle school,” Sullivan said.
The school has topped 500 students, up from 459 at the end of the last school year. Students cross between Hagen and next-door Berg Elementary for 21 classes; with the sixth-grade school also poised to outgrow itself, the shuttling solution won’t be practical, or even possible, much longer, Hagen principal Marcus Lewton said.
“That’s going to go away eventually too,” he said. “Berg’s going to need room.”
The bond referendum, if passed, would raise $65 million to build a new 900-student middle school for grades six through eight and restructure Berg into a kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school.
“Oct. 7 is an extremely important day for us,” Reep said. “Our seventh and eighth grade facility is totally out of space. It’s outdated space, at that.”
Informational material about the bond issue was passed out at registration, and more will be sent home with students during the first week of class. Reep said school officials are hopeful that DPS parents and families will take in the facts and show up for the vote later this year.
“You need to look at Hagen and Berg as one,” Lewton said. “If things continue, there will be 850 students together if things go the way they are.”
By the 2017-18 school year, continuing to keep Hagen and Berg as they are will be “just physically impossible,” he said.
But with three new teachers and the addition of Cassie Francis, the school’s first vice principal since the early 1990s, Lewton said he’s looking forward to the coming year, challenges and all.
“The district’s doing what they can, they truly are,” he said. “There’s a lot of adversity being thrown at us.”

Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at (701) 456-1207 or tweet her at NadyaFaulx

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