BELGRADE, Montana — School enrollment in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and there is no projection of it slowing down. As we talk more and more about families leaving bigger cities to move to more affordable communities, we are noticing the effects this can have on those school districts that grew much faster than they expected.
Belgrade, Montana, is a great example of a community affected by the current population boom. They have a brand-new school which is nearly a year old and already at capacity. Right down the road, new construction is being built that's supposedly bringing in at least 7,000 new families. This should be an exciting time for Story Creek Elementary as they embark on their second year.
"The school is new. We came from a building that part of it was over 100 years old. Helping be part of the design team and having shared learning spaces, and some other unique things that other elementaries don't have," said Lori Degenhart, the principal.
Degenhart can't help but worry when she glances at the new construction down the road.
"I mean, I love coming here and seeing the smiling faces but I can't help but have that 'ugh'. I feel like I've been punched right in the chest bone looking at what happens if they all show up come August," Degenhart said.
In the past 10 years, U.S. school enrollment has increased by 14%, and by the year 2100, the nation's schools are predicted to have to find room for 94 million students. That would nearly double the number of school-age children our country has now.
"We had, oh gosh, I think 25 or 30 new students enrolled last year, and at that rate, I'm like I'm going to be completely out of space," Degenhart said. "They predict, I don't know their calculations, but that I will get 40 more students this school year. I have a feeling it's going to be more than that, the way I see all these little kids running around these neighborhoods that are going in."
Story Creek Elementary already got a taste of what things feel like when you have more students than space. Jennifer Andres, a kindergarten teacher, explains last year they had to hire a sixth kindergarten teacher and start a whole new class in the middle of the school year.
"I began the year with 18 kiddos in my classroom and it was wonderful. That worked out great. By November, I was already at 22 students and that was all five sections of kindergarten we were all at 22 at that point," Andres said. "When you start getting away from having that ability to give that one-on-one support, that differentiated instruction that those students need, you're compromising what they're learning."
Marion County in Florida, Amarillo, Texas, and Clarksville, Tennessee, are just some areas facing similar struggles. Increased enrollment is just one of the effects of more and more families moving to these smaller communities.
"My biggest fear right now is the affordability in the valley. It's not affordable, and our teachers can't find affordable housing and we're already not having enough staff in certain areas," Degenhart said.
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 purchase new land for schools, solutions are nearly impossible.
"We get priced out to try to purchase land and that's going to be our biggest hurdle is to get land in a place where it would make it better for families to commute to the school," Degenhart said.
We all know it takes time for things to get passed, decisions to be made, and schools to get built. But as Degenhart points out, time is not on their side.
"We thought we'd have probably a little more time before we needed to build that fourth elementary but that time is now," Degenhart said.