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Educating a Boom

Williston, N.D. — Stacy Kitzman is an oil worker who lives year-round with his wife and kids in a nice house on a quiet street. That’s unusual in this dusty stretch of rolling prairie, an area often in flux.

Kitzman was raised in Williston, but he moved away to join the Navy when a previous boom period in the early 1980’s went bust after oil wells in the region dried up. At the time, Kitzman was a high school dropout with few options for employment.

But in the past six years, oil exploration has expanded rapidly in Williston, creating a steady stream of new jobs and resurrecting many businesses once left for dead. And as a result, thousands of people like Kitzman have poured into the area searching for better opportunities.

The growth has largely been sparked by new technologies in oil drilling, namely hydraulic fracturing, an environmentally controversial extraction method that has allowed the industry to tap into previously elusive reserves in an area dubbed the Bakken formation — a resource-rich area that sprawls across the North Dakota, Montana border and into Canada.

Since 2006, North Dakota has surpassed seven states and now sits behind only Texas in domestic oil production.

Kitzman returned to Williston last year to take a job with a company that does pressure tests on oil rigs, and well completion —  a process that makes a well ready for production. In the year that he’s been back, Kitzman says he’s seen dramatic changes to the hometown he used to know.

Williston now boasts a one percent unemployment rate and some of the best economic numbers in the nation. The average oil worker is estimated to make more than $90,000 a year. Many of these jobs require no more than a high school education.

Yet the widespread prosperity comes with a price.

The massive influx of new residents has created housing and schooling headaches for a town that was home to just 12,000 a few years ago but could grow to 100,000 in the coming decade, according to Williston’s economic development office.

Cindy Sanford, who works at the state-run employment center, Job Service North Dakota, says their Williston office sees roughly 150 people a day looking for employment.

“Those that come in range from the guy who ran away with the circus at 16 … to just last week we had a gentleman in here who had an [engineering] doctorate,” Sanford said.

Despite the growth, Williston has been unable to cash in on much of the rising fortune. That’s because all oil royalties go to the state and not to the local government, which has seen its costs go up by almost $3 million annually.

The demographics of the once-sleepy town have also changed. Newcomers are almost entirely male, and many workers with families have left their wives and children elsewhere, taking up residence in modular structures known as “man camps” rather than pay real-estate prices that are currently on par with places like Manhattan.

The camps are prefabricated units, often subsidized by oil companies who pay rent and food costs for workers who live dormitory-style near drilling sites.

Temporary buildings are also being tested within the school system to accommodate the growing student population.

“We’ve added 32 modular classrooms to our school district,” said Viola LaFontaine, the superintendent of Williston Public Schools.

The district has added more than 450 students in the last couple of years, and LaFontaine expects more to come as additional housing is built and workers begin bringing their families to the area.

She said the 1980’s boom and bust complicated their efforts to get approval to build permanent structures for the new students. During that period the district chose to expand, but when the bottom fell out of the economy and people fled town, they were left with unneeded construction projects.

Space, though, is not the biggest challenge currently facing the district.

Also on the rise are the numbers of transient and homeless children in Williston due to housing shortages. And state funding targeted toward helping these populations has been cut in recent years, LaFontaine said.

“Five years ago we may have had 19 [homeless children],” LaFontaine said, “last year we ended the year with 170.”

This latest boom, however, has forced current students eyeing employment in the oil fields to reconsider their future.

School officials say they are thankful that a high school diploma or GED is now required to work for most oil companies in the area.

Ann Koperski, a student advisor at Williston High School, said that requirement is helping to prevent students from jumping too early into a job market where the median income of any employment exceeds $50,000.

“In the previous boom, kids would say ‘I’m 17, I quit school,’ and they’d hop into the oil field,” Koperski said, “and they’d make twice or three times what a normal person would make. We’re not seeing that as much.”

And the man who dropped out and made fast money from the last boom says that he’s lucky to be making a solid living again in a community that desperately needs his services, despite never finishing high school.

Stacy Kitzman eventually earned his GED and now has a pension from his time in the Navy. However, he strongly advises Williston teens to avoid the path he took.

“Younger kids,” he says, “Don’t look at the older generation, because things are completely different. Take advantage of as much education as you can.”

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.

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