Oil patch’s fringe towns see jump in school enrollments

2012-05-13T22:45:00Z 2012-05-14T23:39:42Z Oil patch’s fringe towns see jump in school enrollmentsLAUREN DONOVAN | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

RHAME — Lindsey Fossum is everything the small town of Rhame could hope for in a daughter.

She’s winsome as a rodeo princess and educated to boot. She moved back home and recently, she and her husband added one of the town’s most welcome residents, a baby girl, born in February.

In the blink of an eye, that baby — her name is Tommi —will be old enough to go to Rhame Elementary School. It’s where her mom teaches a combination classroom of energetic fourth- through sixth-graders. She’s so proud to teach where she was taught herself.

Tommi Fossum will be among a small tide of children who are reversing a long-time trend in Rhame. A town and school that have been shrinking for two decades or more are slowly rebounding.

There were just 22 students in the elementary school during the 2006 reorganization with Bowman, when junior high and high school students were absorbed there into a county-wide school. Today, there are 35 students.

In the fall, to make room for a stand-alone kindergarten, Lindsey Fossum’s class will move over to a room that’s been unused for years in the old high school building.

It seems like a miracle that dark shades will be open to the sunlight, jumbled furniture straightened into neat rows of desks and children filling the room once again.

“It’s a good surprise that I can be here. I lived here, I grew up here and now I get to teach here,” Fossum said. “It’ll be nice to use that building.”

Other schools like Mott, with 20 more students than two years ago, and Halliday, with 11 more than last year, also are seeing a small swell of new students after years of shrinking enrollments.

Like Rhame, they are outliers, not bull’s-eyes in the oil patch. Some people move there to find housing and commute to the oil field for work. Others, like the Fossums, are moving home again.

In South Heart, School Superintendent Riley Mattson will bring in four portable classrooms for two kindergartens, and first and second grades this fall.

“I couldn’t tell you if there ever were two kindergartens before,” Mattson said last week.

Many of the newcomers in town are 20- and 30-somethings with younger children.

South Heart now has a preschool and Mattson said he could easily add a dozen more to that program based on the phone calls he gets every week.

It wasn’t long ago that Mattson and the school board were talking about laying off teachers.

Now, with 30 more students than last year, more teachers are needed, not fewer.

Mott-Regent School Superintendent Myron Schweitzer said the new students are a stabilizing factor, especially once they reach high school, where the smallest class numbers are now.

Rhame has hired another teacher, too, said Principal Liz Peterson.

“It’s easy here to keep track of numbers. When someone has a baby, we write it down. We’ve got a class of 11 coming up,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of young families with little ones. Many are locals but we have had some new families come in with oil.”

In South Heart, it’s not quite as simple as counting newborns.

“We’re putting up portables because we don’t know what to build for. There’s so much uncertainty,” Mattson said.

He doesn’t have to look beyond the school’s backyard to see where growth could come from, or maybe not.

A new developer in town, Wig and Weflen, of Spokane, Wash., has zoning and blueprints for a 113-unit development just behind the school, overlooking the golf course. It’s grass now, with a few orange survey stakes here and there. That should start changing soon when earth-moving equipment roars in.

Mike Weflen, who’s set up in a fifth wheeler and office trailer not far south of the school, said he’s optimistic about the development’s success. He’’s planning for a phased approach, a mix of larger and smaller single-family homes, and townhouses.

“The way all these other little towns are taking off, I don’t know why it won’t work,” he said. “South Heart is just a nice, clean little town, with a great school, golf course and it’s close to Dickinson.”

Mattson said the town could easily grow from about 300 to more than 1,000 in population.

Some of the development planned for the west side of Dickinson will spill into the South Heart School District. Dickinson broke ground for its fifth public elementary school this past week, but Mattson said his board is taking a wait and see approach before adding on to the school.

Mattson’s excited about the development, at the same time he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of it.

“We should have a good idea in two to three years,” he said.

These are interesting times, especially in a state that has seen the number of school districts shrink by almost 50 in the past 20 years alone.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, there were 364 districts in 1973, down to 238 by 1995. Today, there are 183 districts.

Peterson said the Bowman-Rhame reorganization never talked about closing the elementary at Rhame.

Now, with growth, not only will it not have to, the schools also have an emergency overflow should a massive number of students suddenly show up.

“I don’t foresee that, but at least we would have the option,” she said.

Further north of Rhame, McKenzie County is in the heart of the oil patch and oil rigs are punching in new wells virtually every day. It’s the largest county in the state and geographically, the largest school district.

Unlike Rhame, the district closed and sold an elementary school in Grassy Butte in 2003 and one at Johnson’s Corner in 1999.

McKenzie County Public School District Superintendent Steve Holen said it’s unlikely those schools would be used again, even if they hadn’t been sold off.

He said most of the school’s new students live within five miles of Watford City and to deal with them, the school will add seven more elementary classrooms, library, music room and cafeteria space.

Holen said five years ago, the board was trying to catch hold of a rapid decline in enrollment. The plan then was to put all students in one building. Now, the board’s planning to spend $8 million to add to the buildings it already has.

“What a dramatic change,” Holen said.

For Rhame, change is less dramatic, but no less welcome.

It’s a sweet little school, where kids get off the bus in the morning and lunchroom cook Lynette Schaefer greets them with a hot breakfast and sets them to an art project before class begins.

Fossum’s generation of friends and others who are moving into Rhame will keep a good thing going.

“There are so many of us who were pregnant at the same time. Our kids will definitely be making the population grow,” she said.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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