Small-town population boom has ripple effects on school districts

BELGRADE, Montana — School enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high, and there are no projections of a slowdown. As we talk more and more about families leaving big cities to move to more affordable communities, we’re noticing the effects this can have on school districts that have grown much faster than expected.

Belgrade, Montana is an excellent example of a community affected by the current population boom. They have a brand new school that is almost a year old and already full. Just down the road, new buildings are being built, expected to accommodate at least 7,000 new families. It should be an exciting time for Story Creek Elementary as they enter their second year.

“The school is new. We come from a building that had part of it over 100 years old. Helping to be part of the design team and having shared learning spaces, and other unique things than other basics haven’t,” said Lori Degenhart, the principal.

Degenhart can’t help but worry as she glances at the new construction at the end of the street.

“I mean, I love coming here and seeing the smiling faces but I can’t help but get this ‘ugh’. I feel like I got punched right in the chest watching this what would happen if they all showed up in August,” Degenhart said.

Over the past 10 years, enrollment in the United States has increased by 14%, and by the year 2100, schools nationwide are expected to have room for 94 million students. This would almost double the number of school-aged children our country currently has.

“We had, oh my, I think 25 or 30 new students signed up last year, and at this rate I’m like I’m going to completely run out of space,” Degenhart said. “They’re predicting, I don’t know their math, but that I’m going to have 40 more students this school year. I feel like it’s going to be more than that, the way I see all these little kids running around in these neighborhoods that are entering.”

Story Creek Elementary already has a taste of what it feels like to have more students than space. Jennifer Andres, a kindergarten teacher, explains that last year they had to hire a sixth kindergarten teacher and start a whole new class in the middle of the school year.

“I started the year with 18 children in my class and it was wonderful. It worked very well. In November I was already at 22 students and it was in the five sections of kindergarten, we were all at 22 at that time,” Andres said. . “When you start to move away from that ability to provide that one-to-one support, that differentiated instruction that these students need, you compromise what they’re learning.”

Marion County in Florida, Amarillo in Texas and Clarksville in Tennessee are just a few of the areas facing similar challenges. The increase in enrollment is only one of the effects of the growing number of families moving into these smaller communities.

“My biggest fear right now is affordability in the valley. It’s not affordable, and our teachers can’t find affordable housing and we already don’t have enough staff in some areas,” said Degenhart.

In Montana, the accreditation standard for kindergarten classes is 20 students.

“We were over accreditation. We were running out of space,” Andres said.

Without teachers, and without being able to buy new land for schools, the solutions are almost impossible.

“We are being charged for trying to buy land and that will be our biggest hurdle is getting land in a place where it would be easier for families to get to school,” Degenhart said.

We all know that it takes time for things to be adopted, for decisions to be made and for schools to be built. But as Degenhart points out, time is not on their side.

“We thought we would probably have a little more time before we had to build that fourth primary, but that time has come,” Degenhart said.