SLES ‘makes history’ with 1,000th student, record growth for district

Friday, October 18, 2019

Storm Lake’s school population has expanded faster than ever, according to newly-certified numbers reported to the board of education this week.

Enrollment is 2,470 resident students, up 132 students from last school year, which was already overflowing the elementary and middle schools.

“I don’t think this [growth] has ever happened, and we’re feeling it at every level in every building,” Superintendent Stacey Cole said. “So when the teachers tell you they’re tired, they are.”

The district is “knocking on the door” of 5A status - generally considered the state’s most urban districts. The lower end of 5A class averages 211 students per grade - Storm Lake’s lower elementary grades are already at or above that level.

Much of the growth seems to be coming from families moving into the district, partially due to new hires at Tyson Foods. “We’re a little shocked this year - we don’t anticipate this same amount of growth for next year,” Cole said.

The district is open enrolling nine more students out this year, but is taking in 18 more than a year ago. “We’re feeling the love,” the superintendent said of the attraction.

All told - “the technical term we like to use is ‘butts in the seats,’” she smiles - is 2,532, by far the most ever.

Two more new students arrived on the day of the meeting, and on Friday, the elementary is expected to enroll its 1,000th and 1,001st students.

Principal Barb Lange joked of the crowded conditions that “the roof is our next classroom.”

Trying to put a happy face on the situation, the school will celebrate its 1,000 students milestone, including placing the kids in the form of that number on the playground, for an aerial picture to be taken by a drone. “We’re making history,” she said.

School board members termed the growth, “incredible.” Apart from a few suburban districts around Des Moines, none in the state are experiencing the rate of growth that Storm Lake is, they felt.

They noted that with the higher numbers comes one positive - almost a million dollars more in per pupil funding coming from the state for the coming year. “There’s a lot of staffing we can do with that money,” board chair Peter Steinfeld said.

“It’s remarkable but wonderful. This growth is a great problem to have.”

The growth is spurring much conversation from building teams on what to do about sections and staffing moving forward. A kindergarten section will be added back in, and an extra teacher for first grade will be retained. But when those overflow classes move to higher levels, and eventually to the middle school, decisions will have to be made.

The Early Childhood Center approved recently by voters will take the kindergarten level out of the elementary, but the building isn’t projected to be done until January of 2022.

“When does the 5th grade move to the elementary [from the middle school]? That’s a really important decision. Where will we need to relieve the pressure the most” in 2022/23 and beyond, Cole wondered.