School district downsizing

North Dakota State Roundup

Published November 1, 2001  | November 2001 issue

Many schools have to deal with overcrowded classrooms. In North Dakota, they're dealing with just the opposite. Between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 1999, enrollment dropped by 3,611 students throughout the state. That's a loss of 10,555 students since 1994, according to a state Department of Public Instruction report. Enrollment is expected to drop by 3,000 students this year, and the agency predicts a decrease of another 12,865 students by 2006. These reductions are based, in part, on news from the latest census that 27 of 53 North Dakota counties lost more than 40 percent of people 20 to 34 years old over the past decade.

As a result, the department director said sharp reductions in the number of school districts and schools are needed to more efficiently deliver education. The state has about 170 high schools, but that number should be reduced to 70 to create economies of scale that may save taxpayers' money, said the director.

In addition to lacking students, schools face a teacher shortage. A June study reported only three curriculum areas in the North Dakota education system that are not experiencing teacher shortages: elementary classes, secondary social studies and physical education at all levels. Many specialty programs, including vocational and technical classes, have been closed due to shortages.

North Dakota teachers have an average of 16 years' experience. About 40 percent, or 4,000 educators, are expected to retire in the next decade. The state graduates about 700 teachers a year, yet only roughly 250 remain within its borders. The imbalance could be offset by declining enrollments, but that remains to be seen. Major reasons teachers cited for leaving were low salaries and benefits.

To help alleviate the teacher shortage, the state introduced an initiative called the Clinical Practice Option, which allows elementary teachers to move to a high school setting and teach a subject they minored in, in college.

Rosie Cataldo