One of the fastest growing school districts in South Dakota is that of Harrisburg. SDPB's Kealey Bultena sat down with Harrisburg superintendent Jim Holbeck to talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with that growth.
On how Harrisburg School District has changed in recent years:
I came here 10 years ago. 10 years ago, we had around 1200 kids. Today we're a little over 4200 kids. We've grown 3000 kids in those 10 years. The town of Harrisburg is now over 5000 people. There Harrisburg School District not only takes the kids from Harrisburg, but also the southern part of Sioux Falls. Matter of fact, a majority of our kids have Sioux Falls addresses. A lot of people probably don't understand that, that Harrisburg School District is also a Sioux Falls school district.
On how population shift in South Dakota has changed Harrisburg and the state:
That's one of those things that's happened in South Dakota. We're seeing that it's maybe some feast or famine going on. In our school district, we're very happy to have the growth. We are able to do quite a few things. Hopefully we'll have some time to talk about some of those things we can accomplish with growth. But I've also had my roots involved with rural, smaller schools. I know what that life is like. I know what happens when schools are losing kids and how that is tough to handle when you're finding a shrinking enrollment.
The state of South Dakota ... I grew up ... getting quite old here, now, but in the older days, we always said West River and East River. West River was not just geographic. It was also, you thought of that's sparsity. I think sparsity has creeped over across into East River in some cases, too. I've taken a look at 11 counties on this side of the river from the North Dakota border going down almost to Interstate 90. Between Mobridge and over to, not including, Aberdene. But if you take a look at that area, which is about a twelfth of the size of the state, that area has really changed quite a bit.
I think that other parts of the eastern part of the state have found that they're seeing some sparsity. They're seeing schools closing. They're seeing consolidations happen. They're seeing co-ops in sports. I know that's one of the things that you guys are talking about. They're seeing a lot of these things take place mainly because they're is this outward migration. People are coming to, in South Dakota we call these our metropolitan areas. Other states might kind of joke about that. Harrisburg is an area that, of course, used to be a smaller town. Now part of a large school district. We're fourth largest in the state and I believe soon to be third with the growth that we're seeing, behind Sioux Falls and Rapid.
What's making those people move? What's causing that? I can understand. I've got good friends in those areas. I've got people that I am close with and they say, "You know what, we don't want to live in the big city." And they consider Sioux Falls the big city. I understand that. I'm probably one of those people that really likes that laid back lifestyle of small town living. But I'm also seeing that those small towns are hurting.
What's causing that? I can speculate, but we're the melting pot here. We're just full of these young adults with starting their families. They're coming into our school district for a lot of reasons. I think one of those reasons, of course is that there's jobs available here. They might not be able to have that in their home town. They're looking to have a meaningful occupation and they're not willing to stay and take whatever there's available there. They want more opportunities. They want to be by hospitals. They want to be by parks. They want more than one restaurant to choose from at night. They want the night life. They want the churches. They want all of the things that some of the larger communities can offer. I know that's hard for some people to handle because they don't want to see their youth leave and yet their youth are doing that because they're looking for that lifestyle that maybe some of the bigger communities can give.
On the statistics of change in South Dakota:
I made a mistake. I said it was the twelfth. It's the eighth the size. It's 12%. Eighth the size of the state. Back in 2000, now that's just 17 years ago. Back in 2000, there was 5138 kids in these 20 school districts. Now there's 16 school districts, one is dissolved, three have consolidated with others. They've lost 1251 kids in these 17 years. They're at 3897 at our last fall count.
Harrisburg in that time, 17 years ago, had 794 kids. We had already started to see some growth during that time. But now we're at 4129. That's our last official count. We're probably closer to 4150. We're growing, it's sad to say, about a school district a year, 300 kids plus. In South Dakota, that's a median sized school district.
On how Harrisburg is preparing for continued growth:
People ask that question quite often. They always say, "How do you deal with that challenge?" And we say, "How do we deal with that opportunity?" That opportunity of growth is great. Sure, we have to come up with more buildings. When I came here, we had three buildings, school buildings. We have 10 now. We built some other outside buildings. Construction's been a big part of our life. We understand that.
The growth has happened. The tax evaluations have gone up to allow us to build those schools. So we have great facilities as a result of this growth. All of them almost, except for the one original building, all of the built within this century. That part is a great opportunity to be able to build schools that are in tune with today's times.
We're at a location when there's a teacher shortage. There truly is a teacher shortage. But we're in a location where we get those people applying for jobs. Every year, we have about 50 new faces in our staff. It's kind of exciting to see the new blood and people excited about starting a new job. I've seen the other side of that where it gets to be a little stagnant at times when schools are dying and falling lower in numbers.
On why people choose to move from rural South Dakota to Harrisburg and the surrounding area:
I think the typical family that you'll find in the town of Harrisburg, Southern Sioux Falls might be just a little bit different. But the typical family you find that moves here, they're a young couple. They have young kids, sometimes their not yet in school, or soon to be in school. It's their first house. It's a starter home. They're proud of the fact that they're a home owner. They're both working. They're both very busy. They're chasing their kids around to a lot of events. They're looking for a school that can offer their kids a great education and they don't have to worry about that too much. I think they have a lot of worries that they have to deal with.
We feel that it's our job to try to provide that for them. At the same time, we have the luxury of growth and have the luxury of numbers. So we can do some innovative things. We can provide for some things that schools that don't have those numbers can't do. I know there's a great education taking place in small school districts in South Dakota. I'm just very proud of the fact that we can do some things because of that size.
On some of the innovative opportunities that Harrisburg has been able to provide in recent years:
Technology is key. Kids learn fast. Everybody wants things faster. Just think of how we do meals at night. It's a community climate, a culture now of we want things quicker and faster. You can't have kids sitting in a desk and just having the teacher stand up front and talk all day long. They're not used to that. They're used to getting a lot of information at them in a hurry. We have to adjust to that.
We've done some things, more individualized instruction. You call that mod customized learning. We have in all three levels, our elementary, our middle school, and now all four grades of our high school. We're seeing very good results from that. We're seeing that some kids are really connecting where they might not have connected before because they have more ownership, more choices in what they do in their learning. That's exciting to see.
Then you throw in this mix of this younger crowd of teachers that are coming out with having lived some of that in their life. Knowing technology, knowing what it is that kids need. It's really exciting to see. Old school guy like me, it's kinda hard to give up some of that control. That idea that everybody's gotta be neatly in rows and it's gotta be quiet. It isn't quiet. Our schools aren't quiet. The kids, when you walk through our halls, some people would look at that and say, "Oh no. It's out of control." It's not out of control. Our test scores are showing it's not outta control. Our kids are learning better because they have more choice and more responsibility. We're teaching them self responsibility which I don't think we've done a very good job in the past.
On the vision for Harrisburg's future:
If you don't change, if you stand still, you're falling behind. That's a philosophy I have that we cannot just do status quo. The easiest thing for me to do is to say, "You know what, let's not change anything. Let me sit back in a rocking chair and wait until the last day I work here. Let somebody else do that." But, we don't change for change sake. We change for better. Doing that change isn't always popular because sometimes it takes people outta comfort zones.
The change is necessary. When we've had a population in our country that 50% of kids that start college don't finish? We've been doing something wrong. We need to engage those kids to be more responsible for their learning. That's what that culture allows. That's what we're trying to accomplish with our kids because we want them to be lifelong learners. We want them to be successful when they walk outta here, that they can walk into post secondary or even in the job market and they can make decisions on their own without somebody up front dictating every decision for them.