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Grand Forks School District: Demographics show no class disparity between high schools

Recently, Grand Forks School District Superintendent Larry Nybladh stopped by the Herald to update the editorial board on the district's status. The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Grand Forks Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh speaks on August 18 to the Grand Forks Herald Editorial Board. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
Grand Forks Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh speaks on August 18 to the Grand Forks Herald Editorial Board. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Recently, Grand Forks School District Superintendent Larry Nybladh stopped by the Herald to update the editorial board on the district's status. The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q. What's new and different at the Grand Forks School District? What are some big changes that you see coming in the school year?

The "good news" answer is there's some new, but there's not a lot different.

The high-quality educational experience that our community is used to will be the norm again this year.

As for our focus in the administrative offices, it really is a strategic focus. Our friends in the military talk about military organizations having the strategic level, the operational level and the tactical level. And of course, in an education organization, strategic is what administrators and school-board members do: we try to develop a mission and a strategy-or a strategic plan, in our case-to implement that mission.

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And of course, we work to see that there are resources available to do that, and at the building level, principals and others are doing that.

The tactical area, of course, is where the rubber meets the road. In our organization, it's in the classroom, and that's probably where the most important work goes on, because the work of all the rest of us is to support what's happening in the classroom.

So our focus at the strategic level has been to develop and implement a strategic plan, which we've done since 2011. And each year, we have an addendum to that plan.

There are four priority areas to our strategic plan. The first relates to student demographics; the second to 21st century learning; the third relates to attracting and retaining high-quality staff; and the fourth relates to the school district communications.

Since 2011, we've been about the business of implementing the strategic plan, and we attach an addendum each year to update the tools and the strategy.

So when you ask what's new, for us it's trying to focus on the strategic plan, make sure that we are seeing progress on those priority areas and goal areas.

More specifically, we don't have any new schools opening this year. Last year, we had Discovery Elementary opening.

This year, we'll see a number of new sections because of some enrollment growth. So we'll see a few more students this year than last year.

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Q. What kind of numbers?

Not major growth; I would say mild growth, districtwide. We're looking at probably a 50 to 70 student increase this year over last year.

It's the kind of growth that's manageable-certainly mild compared to what some districts such as West Fargo are seeing.

Q. Is that kids who are already are in town, or are they new to town?

There are two ways you can have an enrollment increase: student in-migration, or birth rate. So if an enrollment increase is happening through the birth rate, you'd see that on the front end of the grade levels-kindergarten and first grade. And that's kind of what we're seeing.

Migration brings about more of an increase across all of the grade levels.

The role of demographics in our school strategic plan has been focused on pretty scientific work by the two demographers that we've hired; the results are on the district's website. They include some really nice modern tools that can illustrate where the students are, and the demographics of where the students are in terms of free and reduced-price lunches and thing like that. One of the reports has what's called a "heat map" where this shows up visually.

Those are some nice tools, and I think that by using them, we've really been able to get a handle on what's happening with demographics. That's something that I think historically, the district did not really have a good way of predicting-probably because the district was used to decline.

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We had 16 years of enrollment decline in the district, starting the year before the flood. And after those 16 years, we've started to see a kind of resurgence in student enrollment over the past four years.

Q. Are the results on the ground in town matching the demographic projections?

The demographers we've used have been very close-frankly, some of the best I've seen in my career. I think that's because they take actual live birth data and then triangulate it with household addresses. So, they actually can pinpoint births on the map, almost literally to the household.

That's why these are very accurate projections, because you have the actual birth data and other information.

And unless something changes with the trend-you know the old saying, "a trend is a destiny unless there's an intervention"-such as a downturn in the birth rate or net outmigration, it appears that those projections of mild growth are going to hold.

Q. Along with the demographic growth on Grand Forks' south side, are you seeing a continuation of the economic or class disparities between that area and some of the less affluent areas in Grand Forks?

In my mind and with the data I have, that assumption is not accurate. It's a kind of a myth.

You see, if you look at our information in terms of free and reduced-price meal counts, you find those students pretty much across the entire district. So there may be a perception that there is greater affluence on the south end, and in fact, that might generally that might be true for residents. But it isn't true for students.

We're seeing across the district that the free and reduced-price meal count is pretty uniform.

There's also the perception of a north/south disparity at the two largest comprehensive academic high schools, Red River and South. But that, too, doesn't get proved out in the data.

Q. That's worth pointing out in a news story or op-ed. It's such a widely held notion in town, and it's fascinating that it might not be true.

I think it somewhat relates to people's ability to afford housing. Think of families with school-age children, especially younger, elementary school-age children: Oftentimes, the adults in those families are not at the peak of their careers. So, a lot of those families are in apartments or starter homes.

So, even though the population as a whole may seem to be shifting to the south, the north-end schools are either at or near capacity, just like the south-end schools-because what counts is each neighborhood's population of students.

That's why there has been mild enrollment growth throughout the entire district over the past few years.

Q. Look down the road 20 years. What do Red River and Central high schools look like, in terms of size?

Based upon the demographer's projections, we'll see continued growth. That was in part why the district commissioned a demographic task force back in 2012. We had broad stakeholder involvement; I think it was a 40-person committee that studied that issue and ended up recommending the construction of one new elementary school, retaining all the existing elementary schools, making the additions to some of the high schools, and then also redrawing the attendance areas or boundary lines. And so that was implemented last year.

We've really just come through one year of that new pattern. But that was all done in anticipation of the growth that's coming through the system-because as I said, most of the growth tends to be on the front end, in the elementary schools.

Based upon the current demographic projections, there should be sufficient capacity between the two high schools to accommodate-again, unless some kind of complications happen.

Q. Meaning, do you see them being still where they're at now? Will they be equal in numbers, or will one start to pull away?

That was in part why the boundary lines were adjusted, and why the decision was made about limiting the in-district transfers. starting this year. The goal was to equalize the enrollment between the two schools.

At least that's the plan; we'll see whether it's working or whether it needs tweaking as time goes on.

Q. How did the new boundary go over with parents? There were some who were screaming bloody murder about it; but overall, what did you think?

I think overall, it has been well accepted because it's understood. Obviously, there are case by case situations where someone feels it's bad for them personally. Oftentimes, this seems to relate to people's patterns of getting to and from work. They're used to a convenience.

Most people are much more willing to tolerate an advantage than a disadvantage, and the advantage for the past 20 years has been that you could pretty much pick which school you wanted to go to in Grand Forks, because they all had excess capacity.

That was a remarkable advantage in terms of both choice and parental convenience.

But now when our schools are at capacity and we're trying to balance this, it becomes a disadvantage, and there have been a handful of people who have expressed their concern.

But at the end of the day, I think they understand the rationale. We are not trying to harm anyone; we are just trying to run a district in an effective, efficient and equitable manner.

Q. We know people who at first were distraught over it, but who now say it's not that bad. That's common, and generally speaking, I think it speaks to the quality of the educational experience at all of our schools.

Maybe I'm overstating this because of where I sit, but I do believe that regardless of where your child attends school in Grand Forks, you're going to have a very high quality educational experience, and you're going to be happy.

So once a parent and student gain experience in the new setting, their concerns often go away. And again, in a lot of cases, the concerns had to do with the commute to work. Eventually that gets figured out, even though it might be a hardship at first.

Q. Higher education, to some extent, uses sports as a kind of proxy for excellence, because accountability is so absolute, and there are win-loss records and championships and the like.

So at both UND and NDSU, the schools take excellence in sports as one indicator of excellence overall. It reflects the ambitions on the part of the schools to win national rankings-and not only in sports, but also in academics.

Is there a place for a public school district to have that kind of ambition-to be the best?

To look for hard measures of excellence that the community can brag about, including sports records, and use those achievements as a motivational tool?

If you look at our website, you'll actually see a list that we try to update every year of examples of excellence. And what we're trying to indicate as best we can collect it, is that we have the types of things you're describing.

It includes awards that have been won by teachers or students and others; as well as the naming and recognition by different groups. There are hundreds of examples on that list.

Of course, to have these external indicators is nice, but what I like to hear as a superintendent is what I heard on the way into your building. That's when a businessman bumped into me, and then offered the immediate response that I get almost all the time from within the community, which was an anecdotal story of his own children's education in Grand Forks public schools and how well they've done, where they're at now and how successful they've been at their college and career.

That's hard to get an award for, but I think that's really what we're about: preparing children to be happy, healthy productive adults. Sometimes, that's hard to measure.

Q. Speaking of measures, tell us about ACT scores. How does Grand Forks rank? Where are we now, and do you have a wish to see the scores at a certain level?

I think we do very well, compared to national and state averages; we're typically above or at. I think that's generally a good place to be. Would it be good to be better? Yes.

But our focus has been on trying to provide educational opportunity as well, which means offering at the high school level a depth and breadth of curriculum that allows students to delve into areas of interest. So, our current technical education programs are second to none in this state and region. That's really important, I think, because it allows kids to get turned on to areas of interest. Also, our comprehensive academic high schools provide dual-credit and AP opportunities that likewise are second to none across our state and region.

The assumption is that through those things, ACT scores will rise or be maintained constant. But unless you have some kind of intensive teach-to-the-test program-and we do have those available for students who want them-it's hard to affect the raw score of an individual student.

I think what's more important is to provide the depth and breadth of curricular opportunity that gets kids turned on to a field. That will help them over a lifetime, as opposed to an ACT score that will help them get into one college or another.

Q. Are open-enrollment numbers from outside the district about the same as usual?

Yes, they're pretty static.

Q. Do we see a net gain or net loss with open-enrollment?

A net gain. We have hardly any students who open-enroll out. And I don't have the exact number, but I think there are around 100 students who annually open-enroll into the district.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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