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Growth means more kids and more classrooms for Grand Forks schools

Fifth grade teacher,Brandon Boemann, sifts through cardboard boxes as he organizes and gets his room ready Thursday afternoon in one of the two portable classrooms at Wilder Elementary. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 1 / 7
Fifth grade teacher Brandon Boemann organizes his book shelf in his new classroom Thursday afternoon at Wilder Elementary. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 2 / 7
A selection of books sit on one of the desks in Boemann's class waiting for sorting. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 3 / 7
The two portable classroom buildings to house four classes ranging from third to fifth graders sit behind Wilder Elementary School. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald4 / 7
Abby Black, fourth grade teacher, fills the rolling book cart while her 14 month-old son Tucker helps Thursday afternoon at Wilder Elementary School. Black's class is one of the four classrooms in side one of the portable classroom buildings at Wilder Elementary. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald5 / 7
Fourth grade teacher Abby Black, flips pages on a book to her 14 month-old son Tucker while setting up her new classroom inside one of the portable classroom buildings at Wilder Elementary. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 6 / 7
A variety of flexible seating options for Black's fourth grade students. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 7 / 7

The exact number of students in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks public schools won't be known until attendance is taken, but enrollment is up in Grand Forks and about the same in East Grand Forks.

Grand Forks Public Schools expects to have between 50 and 70 more students in 2016-2017 than it had during the previous school year, which would mean a total of 7,323 to 7,343 kids in school, according to the district's 2016 demographic report.

"About half of enrollment increase is at Discovery" Elementary School, said Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh, so the school is adding a section of kindergarten and first grade to its classes.

Wilder growth

Wilder Elementary School, where enrollment has increased significantly over the past three years, has opted to use two portable classroom buildings to house four classes of older students.

"We've been pretty tight in our classroom spaces and in our spaces for small-group learning," said Leslie Wiegandt, principal at Wilder. "And adding the relocatable classrooms allowed us to spread out significantly and utilize space in the best way."

About 75 students will be in the four portable classrooms this year, with one class each for third, fourth and fifth grades, and one mixed-grade class of fourth- and fifth-graders. Having more space allowed the school to keep class sizes small. For example, the portables will house one class of 19 students and three classes of about 16.

The classrooms in the portables don't really differ much from those inside the Wilder building, Wiegandt said, referring to them as spacious and new. Furniture, shelving and storage is still being brought in, and teachers are still in the process of setting up their learning material and decorating their spaces.

Some of the logistics of having portable classrooms haven't been settled yet. While they do have air conditioning, a feature the ordinary Wilder building lacks, they don't have plumbing, so students will need to use the restrooms in the main building.

"Safety is of primary concern when we're thinking about how it's going to operate," Wiegandt said, referring to supervision of students.

So far reactions have generally been positive, she said.

"Projections are that Wilder is growing. We're looking at being prepared for that, and this helps in the short term," Wiegandt said. "There have been space concerns at Wilder for a while. ... I do really feel like this is a great step toward solving that, because it definitely gives us the room to spread out and have more space for our students and our staff to do their work."


Grand Forks Public Schools aren't necessarily accustomed to enrollment increases. According to the district's demographic report, enrollment decreased every school year from 2004 through 2010 before it started rising again every year since. The report projects enrollment increases through the 2020-2021 school year, too.

The growth isn't necessarily where people expect it, either. According to Nybladh, schools on the north end of Grand Forks are at or near capacity just like those on the south end. In fact, he said, West Elementary School is the school not being filled by students from the surrounding neighborhood—the difference is made up with in-district transfers.

Long-term projections show that Grand Forks high schools should be able to handle the increased enrollment, perhaps with minor adaptations, and one of the district's long-term goals is to equalize enrollment between Central High School and Red River High School, Nybladh said.

Eastward bound

Across the river in East Grand Forks Public Schools, enrollment is expected to be either about the same as it was last year or slightly below that, said Superintendent Mike Kolness, and the student-teacher ratio for elementary school students seems to be in the low 20s.

Getting an exact count has been has been complicated by the early start date—with classes starting Monday for some students, parents new to the district may not have realized they needed to enroll their students yet.

Early kindergarten enrollment numbers were about 116, but had jumped up to 139 as of this week, prompting the school to consider adding another kindergarten teacher.

"We'll be good for space, but we'll need to find another teacher if the numbers stay where they are," said Kolness, who said it should be possible to do that before Monday.