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In N.D., Oil Boom Brings Student Boom and Schools Struggle to Accommodate

September 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As people flock to Williston, N.D., for jobs in the booming oil industry, the public systems struggle to keep up, converting one-room school houses to accommodate the rapid rise in student enrollment. Like much of Williston's infrastructure, there are financial hurdles to meet needs of teachers and students. Ray Suarez reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our American Graduate series on the high school dropout problem.

Tonight, we explore the pressures on a public school system in a city that’s unexpectedly benefiting from economic good times.

Ray Suarez has our story from North Dakota.

RAY SUAREZ: There is no better economic view in the U.S. than the one seen from above Williston, North Dakota. A rapidly expanding oil boom has taken root below, bringing with it widespread prosperity and an unemployment rate that sits at just 1 percent.

This city’s fortunes are in stark contrast to most of the nation. Real estate is profitable. Blue-collar jobs are abundant. And much of the globe, including Asia, the Middle East and Europe, is investing in the local economy.

But as opportunities and new residents pour in, it is clear that Williston, home to 12,000 people just a few years ago, is dramatically changing.

TOM ROLFSTAD, Williston Economic Development: We probably have already doubled in size in the last three years.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Rolfstad was born and raised here. He is now in charge of the city’s economic development.

TOM ROLFSTAD: It’s very conceivable that , within three years, we will be 50,000 people, and within five or seven years, we could be 100,000 people. So, it’s just incredible growth.

RAY SUAREZ: However, that incredible growth has brought some unexpected growing pains.

The cost of local government here is up by almost $3 million. And the town now has to borrow money to pay for things like new streets and infrastructure, since oil royalties go to the state government, not to Williston.

But the difficulties might be most apparent within the school system, which includes two sprawling districts that service both the town and the surrounding rural areas.

STEVEN GUGLICH, Public School District 8: I always make it very clear to any prospective teachers, bus drivers, cooks of what they are really getting themselves into.

I tell them this is the new Wild West.

RAY SUAREZ: Principal Steve Guglich, who grew up in Manhattan, now oversees two schools in the rural District 8 that for decades used one-room schoolhouses to educate its kids. Guglich says those days are long gone.

STEVEN GUGLICH: Just within the last 10 years, we had to start servicing not only the farming community, but now the oil community.

RAY SUAREZ: Guglich expects his student body to double in size in the coming years, as oil workers bring their families to Williston and more affordable housing becomes available.

Today, real estate prices here are on par with places like New York City and San Francisco. New residents are routinely paying more than $2,000 a month in rent.

Those prices were a problem for Guglich, who needed to increase his staff dramatically this year in a state that ranks next to last in the country in teacher pay.

STEVEN GUGLICH: We hired 14 new teachers, and we were able to find housing for most of them. But we still have five teachers who don’t have permanent housing. Some are staying on couches temporarily. Some are staying in homes that are in the process of being sold, so they are sleeping on air mattresses, kind of like squatting.

RAY SUAREZ: One of those squatting teachers is Melanie Burroughs, who recently moved to Williston from New Mexico to teach seventh and eighth grade language arts.

MELANIE BURROUGHS, teacher: I am sleeping on an air mattress. It’s an elevated aerobed, but I think it’s about seen its use, because I have to put air in it every day now. It’s about — the mattress itself is four years old.

RAY SUAREZ: The superintendent of Williston Public School District 1, Viola LaFontaine, concedes the high cost of housing has caused problems for her teachers and students too, and that it stems, in part, from a similar boom that eventually went bust.

During that period of growth in the 1980s, Williston schools expanded rapidly and built up to accommodate the increase in population.

But when the wells went dry, the school system was left with unneeded and sometimes unfinished construction projects.

Since then, it has been difficult to get approval to build permanent structures for a population that’s here today, but could be gone tomorrow.

The temporary solution to serve the influx of students is prefabricated classrooms, still under construction on the first day of school at McVay Elementary.

VIOLA LAFONTAINE, Superintendent, Williston Public School District: We have added 32 modular classrooms to our school district, and 24 of them are going to be at McVay. Eight are going to be at the middle school.

RAY SUAREZ: The district is also seeing a rapid increase in both transient and homeless children, as more unemployed parents arrive in Williston looking for work.

VIOLA LAFONTAINE: Our homeless numbers, I want to say from probably five years ago, we may have had 19. Last year, we ended the school year with 170.

We have been really focusing on that they have the proper books, that they can get showers, because many of the kids are living in campers.

RAY SUAREZ: But the school district says the largest effort has been geared towards getting the hundreds of new students registered and ready to take classes that will allow them to graduate in four years.

Stacy and Susanne Kitzman are enrolling their daughter Cady, a senior this year, at Williston High School. The family just moved from Arizona to join Stacy, who has been working in the oil fields for the last year. The trip to the high school is a homecoming of sorts for Stacy, who went to school here during the first boom.

STACY KITZMAN, Williston, N.D.: My locker was just right down there, and my algebra class was right there.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Stacy, though, like many of his classmates at the time, dropped out when the economy was strong. He eventually earned a GED and retired with a pension from the Navy.

But now he’s trying to convince his children not to follow the same path.

STACY KITZMAN: I always tell my kids that it’s important to get an education, because back then, it was a different age. And kids nowadays, I mean, some kids, they can’t even get a job with a GED.

RAY SUAREZ: That message seems to be resonating with 18-year-old Cady.

CADY KITZMAN, senior, Williston High School: I’m not going to drop out. This is my main goal, that I want to finish my senior year and graduate.

RAY SUAREZ: Those are also goals of the Williston School District.

Teachers and staff are working hard to convince students not to dropout and jump early into a job market where the median income is more than $50,000.

Ann Koperski is a student adviser at the high school.

ANN KOPERSKI, Williston High School: I know, in the previous boom that they had, it was the big push. The kids would — they would say, you know what? I quit. I’m 17. I quit school.

And they’d hop into the oil field and make twice or three times what a normal person would make. We’re not seeing that as much.

RAY SUAREZ: That may be due, in part, to the fact that most oil companies in the area now require a high school diploma or GED for many jobs.

 

Koperski also says the district has gone to great lengths to show students the importance of staying in school.

ANN KOPERSKI: We try to give them not only the realistics of what you are going to make in each of the levels as you continue in your education, but we also try and talk about, OK, right now, Williston is booming with everything.

But we also try and make them realize that, you know, OK, as we grow, some of these things are going to start to die off.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Rolfstad thinks there is enough oil below the surface to drill for up to 50 years, and, because of that, Williston will continue to have needs that go far beyond the oil fields.

TOM ROLFSTAD: We need more doctors, we need more dentists, more chiropractors, more attorneys, more accountants. You know, pretty much, if you open the yellow pages in a book and look at any kind of business, we need more of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Going forward, the job of educating a population with some of the most unique challenges in the country will fall to superintendent Viola LaFontaine.

She admits that the oil boom has been a burden at times for her district, but she says students in Williston are benefiting from the diversity that has come with it.

WOMAN: Would you please tell me you are from? Utah? All right, now four states. Mississippi, that’s five.

STUDENT: Oklahoma.

WOMAN: Oklahoma.

VIOLA LAFONTAINE: We have had the experience to meet kids and families and teachers from all over the United States.

So when we are teaching in our classrooms and somebody is talking about Texas or the Alamo or Washington, D.C., you can have a little kid raise their hand and say, that’s where I’m from.

And so tell us about what it’s really like. And so you get those true-life experiences.

RAY SUAREZ: Since school began, enrollment is up by 7 percent at Williston District Number 1 and has increased by about a third in the rural District 8.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, we take a closer look at the role bus drivers play in rural Williston. They often serve as a school’s eyes and ears looking out for homeless kids.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.