MOORHEAD — Superintendents of local public and private school districts gathered Thursday, Sept. 9, to update business leaders on enrollment growth and their responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Eggs & Issues event, put on by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead. Nearly 100 area politicians, teachers and business leaders attended.
The superintendents reported that student enrollment is increasing as the metro area grows, but they're still concerned about the workforce shortage and hope that new ideas like career academies can retain local talent. Another concern was the pandemic and the lingering mental health effects that months of social isolation and distance learning have caused among students and staff.
Fargo Public Schools, the area's fourth largest employer with 3,796 employees, said the district works with a $200 million general fund budget every year, of which $30 million comes from federal grants, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said, adding that there were 11,419 students for the first day of school this year, an increase of about 100 students from the year before.
West Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Beth Slette said district enrollment has grown “by leaps and bounds,” and this year has 12,300 students. Last year, the district had 11,931 students on the first day of school.
Moorhead Area Public Schools Superintendent Brandon Lunak reported that the district reached an “all-time high” with 7,336 students for the 2021-2022 school year. “And you can see that trend moving upward,” Lunak said.
Oak Grove Lutheran Schools, Park Christian School and St. John Paul II Catholic Schools also reported record enrollment numbers.
“As the community grows, we continue to grow and continue to have capacity to grow,” said Oak Grove Lutheran Schools President Mike Slette.
To “stay ahead of the curve,” all school leaders who gave reports Thursday said they’re expanding existing buildings or have plans to construct new brick-and-mortar buildings.
Future career academies in all three public school districts will soon be an option for students and adults to learn more through hands-on experience, and will aim to retain a local skilled workforce.
Questions asked of the school leaders focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Nellermoe, president of Park Christian School, said his students spent much of last school year in face-to-face classes. “We determined we needed to get our kids back in school and I can tell you the relief of those kids walking back into the building, there was so much joy,” Nellermoe said.
All districts had a remote learning option last year, but agreed that face-to-face instruction was preferred.
Beth Slette said she is seeing an increase in mental health issues among students and staff.
“We know learning is social and without that … our students and staff struggled. I struggled. Other leaders in our district struggled. Students and staff are struggling with depression,” Beth Slette said. “We also found that our students' sense of hope in the future is sadly lowered, so providing students with opportunities to enjoy learning and explore their passions will help them with their mental health."
Mike Hagstrom, president of JPII Schools, said that at the beginning of the pandemic the district first identified all families who needed help and began providing online learning devices.
Likewise, Fargo’s first investment at the start of the pandemic was in personal learning devices, especially at the elementary level, Gandhi said, and now any family having difficulty with internet access or learning devices can be assisted.
When it came to such devices, the district worked to resolve disparities among Fargo families. “There is an economic disparity that continues to challenge our community, but disparities have been reduced because of collaboration across the area and state,” Gandhi said.