Volume 123, Number 33
Increased enrollment makes Minnewaukan School unique
BY RYAN BAKKEN Grand Forks Herald
Four years ago, the water was way up and the Minnewaukan School enrollment was way down.
"It was looking pretty bleak," said Ron Carlson, the high school principal. "We were financially hurting, with only a $10,000 carryover one year. We were not too far away from closing the school."
In the four years since, the water level of Devils Lake has continued its rise, now claiming one-third of the school district’s land. But the enrollment has almost doubled in that time.
From a low of 117 students entering the 2002-03 school year, Minnewaukan now has 223.
Once desperate for students, the school is turning them away.
Thirty-two additional students were denied entrance because of a lack of teachers and space.
The school district already is using the former St. James Catholic Church for kindergarten and pre-school. They use the main church space for gym class, while the former sanctuary is the weight room.
"The school board will be looking at adding both staff and portable classrooms," Carlson said. "If we want to, I think our numbers could go sky-high in the next couple of years."
So, why is Minnewaukan bucking the trend of falling enrollments across the state, especially in rural towns that have suffered from having fewer farm families and other factors?
A portion of the gain is attributed to a tourism boom from the robust fishing on Devils Lake. Seven of the new students are from families moving into the area to take jobs in the guide/resort business.
Although the lake still threatens, the city of Minnewaukan has stabilized, not only economically, but also by adding protection from the water.
But open enrollment, not the economy, is the top reason for the growing student numbers. Only 46 of Minnewaukan’s students live within its school district boundaries.
The vast majority of the other 177 students live in the Fort Totten School District. Minnewaukan received additional transfers this year as a result of the merger of the New Rockford and Sheyenne schools.
The merger was controversial and divisive, including walkouts by students over laid-off teachers and a petition for the school boards to reconsider.
Under the merger plan, Sheyenne went from a K-12 school to a K-6 school, with a K-12 school remaining in New Rockford. The consolidation led to Sheyenne students, many of whom live in the Fort Totten district, transferring to Minnewaukan.
The Sheyenne elementary has 30 fewer students than it anticipated, according to its superintendent, Kurt Eddy.
It’s common for schools to send buses outside their district lines to pick up students. But Minnewaukan takes that to a new level, sending buses to Sheyenne, Fort Totten, Devils Lake, Oberon, Warwick and St. Michael.
Some of Sheyenne’s switch is because of geography, with Minnewaukan closer than New Rockford for some students. Some students prefer a smaller school, and New Rockford has almost double the enrollment of Minnewaukan. And others feel Minnewaukan provides more of what they’re seeking.
Deb Jetty of Sheyenne is sending her two high school sons to Minnewaukan rather than to New Rockford. "This is a lot closer than New Rockford, which is 45 minutes away," she said. "And I didn’t want to send them to Devils Lake because I think there’s more one-on-one attention than in the big schools."
Vickie Gourneau of Sheyenne said race was a factor in enrolling her seventh-grade daughter at Minnewaukan, where 70 percent of students are American Indians.
"We lived in New Rockford for a year and weren’t happy there . . .
And a lot of my daughter’s friends were going to Minnewaukan, so she felt she would fit in better there," Gourneau said.
Two mothers who live in the Four Winds School District in Fort Totten say their children attend Minnewaukan because of its learning environment.
Neither wanted to be identified, but they said the same thing. Their children were getting a better education and better grades, with more one-on-one attention and fewer discipline problems.
Jean Callahan, the Minnewaukan elementary principal, credits the enrollment gains to programs added in the last few years.
The reading and math curriculum is not based on what grade students are in, but instead on their developmental levels. So, reading and math classes have students in varying grades.
"It’s difficult for a sixth grader reading at a third grade level to function in sixth grade," Callahan said. "We are one of only a few schools in the state with our reading and math programs. When we talk to kids and their parents, they tell us they get more help. The word of mouth has really spread."
The biggest elementary classroom has 22 students. Classrooms with more than 15 students receive help from a para-professional.
Another crucial decision was made a few years ago when a local day care closed. Parents considered sending their school-age children to towns that had day care available for their younger siblings.
"We added full-day, everyday kindergarten; full-day, everyday pre-school and an after-school program," Callahan said. "Our goal is to start kids here when they’re little so they’ll always think of this as their school. We’re seeing the results of that, too."
In Carlson’s 33 years at the school, he’s experienced the entire cycle. His first year, the 29-member graduating class was the largest in school history.
Enrollment declined steadily until the 2002-03 school year, when the top four grades had only 30 students. Now, the freshman class alone has 26 students.
"Students are pretty much free to go to school wherever they want to these days," Carlson said. "Enrollment crunches are everywhere, even in bigger schools, so no one is turning down kids if they can get them."
Jean Callahan, elementary principal at Minnewaukan, works a math problem with seventh grader Mitchell Greene of Fort Totten. Seventh grade math class increased by eight students this year. (Photo by Jackie Lorentz of the Grand Forks Herald)
Minnewaukan third grade teacher Melissa Benson (center) works with her students during math class. (Photo by Jackie Lorentz of the Grand Forks Herald)
Kindergarten student D’Ondre LaBlanc jumps with a large ball during a structured play time in the former St. James Catholic Church building. The former church is now used for gym classes and houses kindergarten and pre-school classes for the Minnewaukan School.
(Photo by Jackie Lorentz of the Grand Forks Herald)
Foreigners learn about rodeo
John Grann of Sheyenne presented the history of rodeo and an overview of the different competition categories in rodeo to the international students at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. The students also saw some roping first-hand and learned other rodeo basics from Grann. Rodeo is a brand new activity to many international students who hail from Poland, Mongolia, Serbia and Montenegro, among other places. They plan on seeing more rodeo action at the Roughrider Finals Rodeo in Devils Lake this week. Left to right are Bilguun Jargalsaikhan of Mongolia, Amber Winn of Toronto, Ontario, Canada (front), Olufnmilola Adegboruwa of Toronto (back), John Grann, Rebekah Hove of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, Veljko Lalovic of Montenegro, Ivana Savic of Bosnia, Konrad Wisniewski of Poland and Munkhjargal Gonchigsuren of Mongolia.