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NDSU releases forecast for student enrollment in Oil Patch schools

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Predicting the future is no easy task, especially for cities in the booming western North Dakota Oil Patch. Predicting the future number of students at any given school in that same area may seem a daunting chore.

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Predicting the future is no easy task, especially for cities in the booming western North Dakota Oil Patch. Predicting the future number of students at any given school in that same area may seem a daunting chore.

But with enquiring minds wanting to know, North Dakota State University took up the effort and released this week a study commissioned by the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties using three different models to provide a five-year forecast for student enrollment in Oil Patch schools.

"The reason why there wasn't a single model chosen as the definitive answer is because there's not a lot of good data out there," said co-author Dean Bangsund, a research scientist at the NDSU agribusiness and applied economics department. "We tried to use the models in a way that would provide some context to what we know has happened in the Oil Patch."

The rapid pace of change required the use of three models, said Nancy Hodur, study lead and research assistant professor in the NDSU agribusiness and applied economics department.

"We needed to find some new metrics to do this," she said. "Because we needed to find something that we could go to quickly enough, that we could update the metrics on. If we used the standard cohort model that takes a look at birth rates and death rates and in-migration and those kinds of indicators -- that data lags so much that by the time that would be updated, it would already be obsolete again."


The first model in the study looked at current growth trends for Dickinson, Ray, Stanley, Watford City and Williston and continued them for five years. This put more than 500 more K-12 students in Dickinson and more than 1,100 new students in Watford City.

"Because our high school had been reducing in size or shrinking, she assumed that would continue and that won't be the case," said Vince Reep, Dickinson Public Schools Assistant Superintendent. "We have 160 seniors. That is the smallest class in the district. ... It's going to be reversing starting next year."

The second and most conservative estimate based public school enrollment on permanent employment trends, Hodur said.

"We know there's a lot employment out in the region right now that falls into the category that we call 'temporary,'" she said. "That is, folks that are just here for a short period of time -- maybe a few months to a few years -- or they're people that are here that work in North Dakota but don't live in North Dakota."

This model put 2017-18 enrollment in Dickinson at 3,391 and estimated that 1,167 students would be attending classes in Watford City.

"Model two is perhaps a little conservative in the near-term, but probably in the long-term is a pretty good estimate," Hodur said.

The third model, the most liberal of the three, is based on the housing potential of each community, Hodur said.

The team took an inventory of all of the housing developments planned for each city and compared that to a houses-to-students ratio based on historic data, she said.


"I think, considering the state of affairs out there right now, that's a pretty good number for eventually," Hodur said.

Enrollment estimates based on the third model for Watford City are pending. Dickinson could see as many as 5,262 students in the district by 2017 according to this model. That's an 87 percent increase over this year's enrollment.

Steve Holen, superintendent of McKenzie County School District in Watford City, said having good data to work with is crucial for school officials to plan.

"We know we're going to grow, it's just trying to articulate how much," Holen said.

Holen said the challenge will be determining which model provides the best estimate. He anticipates the realistic number will fall between the conservative number and the estimate based on housing units.

To create a more accurate growth estimate, Reep took information from the estimates of enrollment projections study, along with another study Hodur headed for the city of Dickinson to estimate total population.

"I think we'll see a more gradual increase in enrollment," he said. "Our annual increases, I'm predicting, will range from 4 to 7 percent."

The district also looked at factors such as births at St. Joseph's Hospital and Health Center to estimate kindergarten class size five to six years later, Reep said.


Dickinson has added an elementary school, Prairie Rose, to deal with the growth in the younger classes. That school should be ready for the next school year.

The next step is to create more middle school space, Reep said. The district is planning to put out requests for proposals to create a facilities planning strategy.

Another school will have to be built. It will either be a new high school and then the middle school will be moved to the current Dickinson High School campus, or a new structure will go up to replace the 78-year-old Hagen building.

"For decades we dealt with stagnant enrollments or in a lot of cases we had substantial school consolidations as a strategy to deal with declining enrollments," Bangsund said. "That kind of put the school districts in a position where a lot of them weren't prepared to handle this onslaught of students that has just showed up as a result of huge immigration of workers into the Williston Basin."

This study did not look at socio-economic or demographic changes that could affect the schools, such as larger families moving into the districts, Hodur said.

"At this point in time we have absolutely no data with which to try and take a look at those things," she said, adding that taking a closer look at demographics moving into Oil Patch communities would be the next step.

As far as Dickinson is concerned, Reep said that most families in the district have a "traditional" amount of children. The average American family has two to three children.

"We're recognizing the different levels of diversity," he said. "We currently have over 50 students that are identified as English language learners. Two years ago we maybe had four or five."


One of the more unique issues to the Oil Patch is student mobility.

In the 2011-12 school year, there were nearly 1,000 students in Dickinson who either moved in or out of the district during the school year, Reep said.

"Our net gain in enrollment was in that 140 area," he said.

Many of the families found that they could not afford to live in Dickinson anymore, but could find affordable housing in some of the nearby smaller cities.

"We had 17 different students that were enrolled in Dickinson public and they moved to smaller area towns," he said. "There were still little grandma houses for sale in Regent and Mott. And in Dickinson those little grandma houses, people want $190,000 for them."

As prices come down, Dickinson could see more students moving in, Reep said.

"Eventually, when our area becomes more affordable, people will come and stay," he said. "For now, there's a lot of flux in that."

NDSU staffers Bangsund, Hodur, Richard Rathge and Karen Olson all contributed to the study.


Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this story.

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