Top Grand Forks-East Grand Forks public school stories of 2010s

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of headlining stories from the past decade.

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The Red River High School concert choir under the direction of Brad Sherwood practices for the first time in the new Performance Hall in January 2013. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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The construction of state-of-the-art performance halls at Red River High School and Grand Forks Central High School has made a tremendous impact on the quality of education for local students, as well as the quality of life for area residents who attend the productions in those facilities, say leaders of the school district’s arts program.

The investment of about $20 million in the halls have fueled the growth of the schools’ music and drama programs, they say.

These additions, along with the upgrading Cushman Field at RRHS, were paid for through bonds available via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, otherwise known as the Stimulus Act, according to school district officials.

The projects, completed in 2012, represent a bold and significant commitment to education and extracurricular activities. Because of that effort, the Herald considers the broad scope of the expansion and dedication to extracurriculars the top education-related story of the past decade.

The Cushman Stadium Project involved replacing the running track, synthetic field turf, bleachers, concession area and scoreboard.


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File photo. A balcony has returned to the Grand Forks (N.D.) Central High School auditorium now that the school's building and remodeling project is complete. John Stennes/GrandForks Herald.

At Grand Forks Central High School, funds were used to remodel the existing theater, built in 1937, and recommission the balcony. The performing arts addition houses three practice rooms, a harmony room and a “black box” theater.

At Red River High School, the music and theater arts project involved the addition of a theater, a third practice room for the orchestra, instrument storage and music classroom space.

“Not since the WPA (era), when Grand Forks visionaries built an 1,100-seat hall in a community of 10,000 people, has this size investment been made in the arts and art education,” said Brad Sherwood, music coordinator for Grand Forks Public Schools, vocal music teacher at Red River High School and SPA program director.

His grandfather, Dwight Sherwood, who was from the Brainerd, Minn., area, decided to accept a teaching position in Grand Forks in 1941, he said, partly on the basis of the newly constructed 1,100-seat auditorium at Grand Forks Central High School. Dwight Sherwood taught at Grand Forks Central for 27 years.

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The Red River High School concert choir under the direction of Brad Sherwood practices for the first time in the new Performance Hall in January 2013. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald


“He thought any community that has an 1,100-seat hall had a commitment to theater and had to be a place he wanted to be,” Sherwood said.

Without his grandfather’s decision to come to Grand Forks, in “kind of twisted way,” the Summer Performing Arts program would not exist, said Sherwood, because his father, Ken Sherwood, “ended up teaching at Red River from 1967 to 1992, and now I teach there.”

Brad Sherwood is one of the founders of SPA, which received the 2018 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, one of 12 in the country to be so honored.

Since construction of the high schools’ performance halls, “thousands of students and audience members have utilized these facilities,” Sherwood said. “These spaces are busy 11 months each year and are used by each school’s fine arts departments, the SPA Company and the community at large.”

Dean Opp, SPA director for Grand Forks Public Schools, said: “One of the strengths over the years for the (school system) has been strong music and drama programs with many opportunities for students.

“In the past 30 years, the SPA program has added to those programs and opportunities,” Opp said. “As SPA grew and high school music and drama programs grew, a logical step for the district was to create performance spaces at the high school level that would support those growing programs.

“With the addition of the new performance spaces and rehearsal classrooms at the two high schools, students now have dedicated choir, band and orchestra spaces for daily use,” Opp said. “Both high schools have a performance hall and an alternative performance space so they can accommodate two productions at the same time, which is important because production schedules overlap during the school year.”

During the busy times of the summer SPA season, 10 to 20 separate activities are happening at Central and Red River, he said, which is possible with the new spaces.


Other top stories of the past decade:

Upcoming referendum: Grand Forks school district administrators and Grand Forks School Board members are gearing up for a referendum for the first time in about 30 years.

They are preparing to ask voters for an increase in the mill levy to deal with aging facilities and are grappling with many questions: Is it worthwhile to invest in upgrading schools that are in poor condition? Or, should old, small schools be razed and consolidated into a larger new one?

The school board has hired a consulting firm, Unesco, based in St. Paul, to help with pre-referendum planning. A key part of its work will involve community engagement to determine taxpayers’ perspectives and values concerning the city’s public schools and their appetite for a mill levy increase.

Most recently, the date of the referendum election, which was planned for June, has been called into question and may be delayed until early fall 2020 or possibly February 2021.

Terry Brenner succeeded Larry Nybladh as superintendent of Grand Forks Public Schools in 2018. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Superintendent appointed: Terry Brenner was named as Grand Forks superintendent of schools and stepped into the job in July 2018. He replaced Larry Nybladh who retired after serving for 10 years in that position.

Before his appointment to the top leadership post, Brenner had been serving as director of curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development for Grand Forks Public Schools since 2008. From 2007 to 2008, he worked as director of school leadership in the United Arab Emirates.

He also brought experience as an elementary school principal for the Devils Lake and Grand Forks school systems.

He earned bachelor’s degrees in speech and communication and elementary education, a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in educational leadership from UND.

He has led the district’s efforts to gather community input concerning the future of the district’s schools, overseen the continued development of the school’s master facilities plan and has launched a districtwide strategic planning initiative.

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New playground equipment at East Grand Forks' Sacred Heart School basks in the summer sun on Wednesday morning. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)

Sacred Heart School addition: A $3 million addition was built onto the southeast side of Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks. The project, launched in summer 2018, was ready for occupancy in August.

The single-story, 10,865-square-foot addition was funded with a challenge grant from the Engelstad Family Foundation, which donated $2.5 million to the Sacred Heart Foundation. Betty Engelstad, of Las Vegas, is an alumna of the school. She was raised on a farm near East Grand Forks.

The donation was contingent on the Sacred Heart Foundation raising $500,000 for the project by Dec. 31, 2018. That goal was exceeded by $200,000, said Dennis DeMers executive director of the foundation.

The new addition houses six classrooms for grades 4 through 6 and preschool students, and a commons area for collaborative teaching and other school functions. The commons area is also used for a new after-school child care program and by the parish for activities such as meetings and Bible study groups.

East Grand Forks Senior High addition: East Grand Forks voters agreed to spend $20.6 million for an addition and renovation to the city’s public high school in November 2015. The referendum passed by a margin of 141 votes, with 983 votes in favor and 842 against.

The 70,000-square-foot addition houses a new gymnasium, weight room and fitness center, two locker rooms, band and choir rooms, two art rooms and a preparation area for drama students. It also includes a lab for STEM education and an administrative wing with a conference room and offices for the principal and superintendent.

The new commons area, next to the gym, features two large video screens used to promote upcoming events and a store where school-themed apparel is sold.

Inside the gym, a second-story running and walking trace, which encircles the perimeter, is available for the public to use during after-school hours.

The project was completed in August 2017.

Kelly Elementary named a RAMP school: J. Nelson Kelly Elementary School was named one of six schools in the country to be recognized as a 2017 RAMP School with Distinction.

RAMP stands for Recognized American School Counselor Association Model Program. Kelly was one of 104 schools in 27 states to receive the distinction. Six of those 104 received the “with Distinction” recognition.

Receiving the award is “a historic event for Grand Forks Public Schools,” Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson said at the time. “It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our schools’ counselors to meet high national standards.”

The award is given on the basis of how well school counselors are meeting the goals of the ASCA national model program, which includes measuring results in students’ academic achievement, behavior and attendance, said Ginny Blake, the counselor at Kelly Elementary School who spearheaded the application for recognition.

Re-drawing school boundary lines: Passions ran high after the Grand Forks school district changed the boundary lines for several schools in early 2015.

Parents of students planning to attend four of the city’s schools in fall 2015 were notified that their child would be attending a different school. The schools were Winship Elementary, South and South middle schools, and Red River High School.

Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson promised at the time that the district would “be as accommodating as we can, as long as we don’t run into class size issue.”

In 2012, school administrators had also redrawn the lines, with the help of an 18-member Demographic Task Force, redefining the attendance area for several schools to adjust for significant growth on the city’s south side.

New lines are drawn based on enrollment projections, population growth in the city and an effort to better balance the student population at schools, school administrators said.

White cloaks, pointed hats: A group of Red River High School students caused a widespread uproar when they wore white KKK robes with pointed white hoods to the state hockey tournament in March 2013.

They donned the garb and white face paint for the semifinal game between Red River High School and Fargo Davies High School.

A picture of the students was shared on social media by the photographer, Shane Schuster, who tweeted, “I guess the Red River highschoolers are racist?”

The photo reached other social media sites and national news websites, including USA Today, the Huffington Post and the sports website, Deadspin.

The Fargo school is named in honor of U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies who issued rulings in favor of integration at Little Rock, Ark., in the 1950s.

Kris Arason, principal of Red River High School, said: “We are extremely disappointed with the behavior of these three students. This behavior is not a representation of our school or our student body.”

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a fatal bus-train accident near Larimore in January, 2015. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Larimore bus-train accident kills two: The driver and a student passenger were killed when the bus in which they were riding struck a westbound train in January 2015 east of Larimore.

The driver, Max Danner, 62, and Cassidy Sandstrom, 17, died as a result of the accident in which a dozen other student passengers were injured -- 10 were admitted to hospitals across the region.

The children riding the bus ranged in age from kindergarten to grade 12.

The bus was traveling north on 36th Street Northeast, a gravel road near the intersection of Grand Forks County Road 4, at about 3:40 p.m., when it failed to yield at a stop sign and struck the Burlington Northern Sante Fe train. The intersection was marked with railroad crossing signs.

Several children were ejected from the bus, which was totaled in the incident.

Eight months later, the crossing where the accident took place was outfitted with lights and arms by the North Dakota Department of Transportation at a cost of $423,000. The transportation department funded 90% of the cost, BNSF Railway, 5%, and Grand Forks County, 5%.

Discovery Elementary School built: With the latest designs to enhance learning and maximize energy-efficiency, Discovery Elementary opened in August 2015.

The $15.6 million school on the city’s south side was touted at the time as a solution to managing the crowded south end schools.

About 360 students in grades K-5 were expected to attend the school, which boasted a more collaborative learning environment, technology-equipped classrooms and other modern features of the “school of the future,” said then-Principal Ali Parkinson.

Special features included incorporation of natural light in nearly every classroom, multifunctional furniture and six acres of green space, including nearby Kiwanis Park.

The concept of collaboration with students and teachers was central to the school’s design, as evidenced by new “learning commons,” surrounded by six classrooms at each grade level. The idea is to provide students with a more comfortable learning space that fosters communication and collaboration, and allows teachers some room to move and express their teaching style.

Defining the Decade schedule

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of headlining stories from the past decade.

Already online: Herald reporter Ann Bailey recaps the top agriculture stories of the decade, including the recent historic losses as farmers left massive numbers of crops in the fields due to adverse weather.

FRIDAY, Dec. 27: Herald journalist Pamela Knudson highlights the issues the Grand Forks school district has faced in the past 10 years , including a revitalization in arts facilities and a look at school building needs.

SATURDAY, Dec. 28: Grand Forks business writer Adam Kurtz tabulates the area's t op financial and economic moments and noting the positive impacts created by Grand Sky .

SUNDAY, Dec. 29: Herald photographer Eric Hylden shares the top photos of decade , and Brad Dokken takes aim at the top 10 stories in the outdoors .

TUESDAY, Dec. 31: Herald reporter Hannah Shirley turns the key on crime and courts , and the Herald's sports department kicks off its top 10 stories .

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 1: Community editor Sydney Mook chooses the UND stories of the decade.

THURSDAY, Jan. 2: Grand Forks reporter Joe Bowen looks at the top issues for Grand Forks.

FRIDAY, Jan. 3: Reporter Sam Easter puts the spotlight on East Grand Forks.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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