WILLISTON, N.D. – Williston Public Schools began classes with an estimated 229 new students Wednesday, nowhere near the potential 1,200 new students Superintendent Viola LaFontaine projected.
But LaFontaine and other school administrators were relieved that her guess was wrong as they scrambled to reopen an elementary school that is still a construction zone.
“I’m gladly admitting I’m wrong because it’s better to be prepared than not to be,” LaFontaine said. “The fact that we did get ready means we’ll have growing room for the future.”
The total enrollment so far for the school district is 2,822, but officials will be checking with some families who registered but didn’t show up on Wednesday. The district also expects to gain more new students and lose some students throughout the year.
“They keep coming, so it’s so hard to say,” LaFontaine said of the enrollment.
The district hired 52 new teachers, some for new classrooms and others to fill existing vacancies or replace staff who retired. LaFontaine said the district had many highly qualified applicants as a result of attending a Minneapolis job fair and other recruiting efforts.
A major challenge was finding affordable housing for the teachers. The district filled the eight apartments it owns and relied on community members to open up basement apartments and other housing options for teachers.
Community members also helped get McVay Elementary ready for the first day of school. The district stopped using the building about a dozen years ago as a result of declining enrollment, but reopened it this fall to accommodate the growing student population.
McVay, which most recently housed the Head Start program, required asbestos abatement, new floors, new paint and other upgrades. The district also is adding 24 modular classrooms onto the building, and eight of those were ready for Wednesday.
McVay Principal Keith Leintz said there was discussion about postponing the first day of school for that building due to construction delays, but that would have required students to make up those days on Saturdays.
Leintz, who begins his day at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 or later, said he and his staff worked long hours to get the building ready, and parents and community members stepped up.
“It took a lot of effort from everyone,” Leintz said. “It was just scrambling to get things cleaned up.”
Sidewalks to the new modular classrooms weren’t ready, so students walked on wooden temporary walkways that were lined with orange construction fence. The playground won’t be completed until the end of September, so students played in the staff parking lot with sidewalk chalk, hula hoops and other activities. The school also is waiting on computers and some furniture to be delivered.
“We’re making due,” said Leintz, who has been with the district for nine years.
Doria Brundage, who has two first-graders and one fifth-grader at McVay, said she was glad school started on time.
“It seems like it’s safe,” she said. “They’re making it safe.”
Students didn’t seem to be bothered by construction areas, Leintz said.
“The students’ biggest concern is when is the playground going to be done,” Leintz said.
McVay has more than 200 students, about the same number the district added this fall.
“I don’t know where we would have been able to put 1,200 kids,” Leintz said.
LaFontaine based her enrollment projection on the number of new housing units that Williston added.
“I don’t think the people that are coming here can afford the new homes,” LaFontaine said. “They’re just not bringing their families right now.”