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STANLEY, N.D.: Oil boom boosts schools

STANLEY, N.D. -- The map hanging in the school office here says it all. For local students, the reflection of the United States isn't just a map. It's a snapshot of themselves. In this northwest North Dakota community, home to just 1,300 people 1...

In One School District
The Stanley school district office displays a map to show where its students were born. Due to all of the workers moving to the area for jobs, the district now has students from about 35 states and a handful of foreign countries in grades 7-12, Superintendent Kent Hjelmstad said.

STANLEY, N.D. -- The map hanging in the school office here says it all.

For local students, the reflection of the United States isn't just a map. It's a snapshot of themselves.

In this northwest North Dakota community, home to just 1,300 people 10 years ago, a steady stream of new students are arriving from across the country as their families seek job opportunities in the Oil Patch.

A school district once dominated by North Dakota natives now has students from about 35 states and a handful of foreign countries, Superintendent Kent Hjelmstad said.

To celebrate the school's diversity, a map in the high school office is proudly plastered with pins to highlight where students were born. Hjelmstad welcomes the influx of students.

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"They bring new ideas, experiences and different backgrounds," he said. "I find it exciting."

Once seen as a declining town, Stanley has grown from 395 students in 2008 to 556 in 2011. If the pattern continues, Hjelmstad said the K-12 system could reach 876 students by 2013.

Under the state's definition of rapidly growing enrollment, Stanley had the fourth-biggest percentage increase in enrollment from fall 2010 to fall 2011 at 16.5 percent.

Rapidly growing enrollment means the number of students increased by at least 7 percent annually, and that increase resulted in at least 25 more students.

Only the districts in Divide County, McKenzie County and Minot's South Prairie saw bigger percentage gains among the 10 rapidly-growing districts, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. All are in oil country.

School expansion

To accommodate Stanley's growth, the School District will break ground in several weeks to expand the school that houses grades 7 to 12. The estimated $7 million project will include several more classrooms there, as well as additions and improvements at the elementary school.

Residents support the expansion, but there have been concerns about whether the enrollment increase will last, Hjelmstad said. That's why district leaders decided to hold off on a second expansion of the high school that would include a wellness center, cafeteria, offices and commons area.

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"It is a conservative community," Hjelmstad said. "They like the fact that we're only doing half of it (construction) and that we're taking it slow and that we're being pretty conscientious about not overdoing it."

School Board Vice President Kelly Hanson said they "desperately need" additional classrooms to accommodate the growing student population. He also hears the need to be cautious.

"It's good to see more students in the school, but, you know, is this going to sustain?" said Hanson, a 1985 Stanley graduate. "What happens if this ends tomorrow? What are we going to do? We all know what a boom-and-bust situation is like."

Hjelmstad said it's difficult to predict Stanley's future. Some estimates say the city's population has doubled to nearly 2,400 residents and could reach 10,000 in eight to 10 years, he said.

"If later on, we say we have to do the other half of the (construction) project, then we'll do that," Hjelmstad said. "At that point, it won't be a choice. We will have to."

Although the number of students is increasing, the district also sees a lot of student turnover due to the boom.

"About the time we get a new student and that student is getting situated, it's not impossible the student might be leaving based on job needs or housing needs of the parents," Hjelmstad said.

To help students adjust and get along, the district uses an anti-bullying program so they can learn positive ways to treat each other, Hjelmstad said. He thinks the program is effective.

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"We've had very, very limited confrontation or contentious behavior. We have a community with really good kids," he said. "I think they have been very helpful in sort of setting a tone and communicating expectations so that incoming students fit into and seek to have a constructive experience in school."

The housing shortage forced the district to build two duplexes with eight apartments to create affordable housing for teachers. There are 11 new teachers this year, which Hjelmstad sees as an asset.

"One of the reasons a lot of our staff are so positive and constructive with new students is they know what it feels like to be new," he said.

Although the challenges and uncertainties that come with the oil boom can be frustrating, Hjelmstad said it's also an exciting and interesting time to work for Stanley's schools and make way for more students.

"I think it gives us flavor. It gives us diversity," he said. "We have great kids, so it's pretty easy to be positive about the change."

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