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In heart of the Bakken, $53 million building opens this week

The new Watford City (N.D.) High School, a $53 million project, will hold classes starting Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. The 163,000-square-foot school features large windows to bring natural light into the classrooms. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service
In heart of the Bakken, $53 million building opens this week

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Students in Watford City will say goodbye to crowded hallways and portable classrooms as they transition to a newly constructed high school this week.

The completion of the $53 million school marks a new era for the school district that has seen enrollment nearly triple since the beginning of the Bakken oil boom.

Students in grades 7-12 will begin attending classes on Tuesday in the new 163,000-square-foot building, freeing up space in the district’s other two buildings for elementary grades.

“We’re excited to be back in what we’d consider a good position again with a little bit of room to grow and a little room to work with,” said Steve Holen, superintendent for the McKenzie County School District.

Though the district in the heart of the Bakken no longer sees enrollment jumps of 20 percent or higher, it’s still gaining students despite the recent slowdown in oil activity.

Enrollment was 1,325 last week, compared to about 540 in 2009-10, and most of that growth occurred in about four years, Holen said.

The rapid increases forced the district to exceed capacity at its two school buildings, even after building an addition to the elementary school and using portable classrooms.

“This building, it’s just packed,” said High School Principal Terry Vanderpan. “The hallways, kids can’t help but run into each other when you’re passing periods at the same time. There’s not enough space.”

As grades 7-12 move out of the former high school, fourth- and fifth-graders will move in and share the building with sixth-graders. Grades K-3 will stay at the elementary school and the district plans to get rid of its portable classrooms.

The district also plans to sell temporary teacher housing trailers that are next to the elementary school now that Watford City has permanent teacher housing available.

“It’s a nice evolution. We went through such a flux with housing units, temporaries, it happened so rapidly,” Holen said. “It’s a smart turn of the corner to the next phase, which is being more proactive than reactive to all that was happening so fast.”

The new high school, featuring technology-equipped classrooms, a college-style lecture hall and more science labs, is substantially complete, though some work will continue on the building and landscaping. The Watford City Event Center, under construction next to the new high school, is expected to be complete this fall.

The school district hopes to promote the fine arts with the addition of a performance theater, scheduled to open in April, that will be a first for McKenzie County.

Each of the three floors in the high school features a large area for collaborative teaching, which social studies teacher Eric Krogen said will help students become more immersed in the material.

“I think it will allow us to do more interdisciplinary lessons, making it more meaningful to the students,” Krogen said.

The new features also will allow the district to expand its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs.

“We’ll have a lot more opportunities for more classes,” said sophomore Iida Lehto, whose family moved to Watford City from Michigan for a job in the oil and gas industry.

Students said they’re also looking forward to a new gymnasium and larger cafeteria with more food options.

“It’s exciting,” said sophomore Avery Sundeen, a Watford City native. “Not a lot of people get to move into a new school.”

The community could see another new school in the future. The district is projected to grow about 10 percent each year and hit about 2,100 students in 2010-11, according to a demographic study by RSP and Associates, which was recently revised and takes into consideration the lower oil prices.

“We still think the prospect for Watford City in particular is still good for growth even in a slower environment,” Holen said. “We still are planning for growth.”

Vanderpan said many new students have parents who work in oil production and are less likely to move around than those involved with drilling. McKenzie County leads the state in oil production, accounting for about 35 percent of North Dakota’s total.

A Census estimate put the county’s population at 10,996 in 2014, compared with the 2010 Census population of 6,360.

“We are getting families that are looking to stay here, so that’s nice,” Vanderpan said.

If growth continues, the next step would be to build another elementary school, Holen said. But this time, the district would be able to plan for it, rather than react.

“If we grow, we have options to work into. If we don’t grow for a few years, this will service us great and we get back to a more normal situation,” he said.

Having new school buildings will help McKenzie County recruit and retain teachers, Holen said. The district filled all 26 of its teacher vacancies this year, and permanent facilities will help keep them, he said.

“It helps Watford to have be able to have facilities like this because we don’t want to be the stepping stone to the next district,” Holen said. “We want to be that destination district.”

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