Small Towns Getting Smaller - Can They Make A Comeback? - Valley News Live - KVLY/KXJB - Fargo/Grand Forks

Small Towns Getting Smaller - Can They Make A Comeback?

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It's a story many rural communities in our area are facing year after year. High school graduates go off to college and never come back, leaving the town's population to dwindle. And after decade of this happening, many of those towns and school districts are being forced to make cutbacks, close down and shrink in size.

Inside the Wimbledon-Courtenay school, down the hall, up the stairs and to your left, you'll find Mrs. Sako's science class.

Teacher Lauren Sako says, "You and the class, they just, you just click."

She loves her job and students, but admits her classroom has a few flaws.

Mrs. Sako says, "Every classroom is probably a different temperature... They've had problems with the boiler... It's so old they don't have replacement parts... The faucets in my science room turned off because they drip."

There's one more problem. Many of the desks are empty.

Barnes County North Superintendent, Doug Jacobson, says, "The projections had us declining."

Jacobson says the Spiritwood, Wimbledon-Courtenay and North Central of Barnes schools started to go down in numbers, so to gain strength, in 2007, they combined into one school district called Barnes County North. Years ago, all three school district combined had about 600 students, and that number has continued to drop. Now that they're all together they have about 300.

Jacobson says, "By combining the district, we can extend the life of our district."

The numbers are down so much, that instead of these students just moving on to their next grade level, they'll be moving across the countryside to a brand new building with the rest of the school district, hoping that in greater numbers, they'll have greater strength.

Jacobson says, "Everybody is starting to get excited about the new building."

But Mrs. Sako won't be going with them.

"It was not a surprise when they told me," says Mrs. Sako.

With less students, they need less staff. When school gets out for the summer, over all, 15 teachers will have lost their jobs.

Jacobson says, "An assessment that has rubrics in different areas of instruction."

"Your value to the district. Do you coach or do you drive bus?" says Mrs. Sako.

Jacobson says, "That's the most challenging part, because you're changing people's lives and it's tough."

Mrs. Sako says, "How can you be upset about something that's done fairly. They only have so many teachers, and I'm low man on the totem pole."

So where are all these students going?

West Fargo School District Superintendent, David Flowers, says, "We are growing drastically.

Flowers says his schools have seen the opposite problem of Barnes County North.

"It's a great problem to have. I would much rather be managing growth than decline," says Flowers.

Classrooms are so cramped and space is so limited, that they are in desperate need of new schools.

Flowers says, "We grew more students in our distract, probably than 90% of districts in North Dakota have in their district."

According to the U.S. Census, Barnes County and Stutsman County, the two counties that make up the BCN district, have had populations steadily drop since the 1930's. In the last ten years, population has gone down 1500 people or almost 5-percent. During that same time, Grand Forks' population has gone up more than 7% and Fargo's has risen nearly 17-percent. Mainly because of job opportunities.

Jacobson says, "There's a lot of good things happening."

He says the area will soon have more opportunities with a new hybrid ethanol plant. It's expected to bring jobs, and more importantly, more people.

"We're all feeling the impacts of the oil out west, and some people are moving away from that," says Jacobson.

Good news for the region, that is in dire need of growth. And hope for Mrs. Sako, who's family is rooted in the area. And when she says goodbye to her students for the last time in May, she'll start a journey of finding a new job in her small community.

"There's about three teaching jobs and about 30-40 teachers right now. So that's what I'm up against," says Mrs. Sako.

The story of Barnes County North is just one of many communities that are seeing this issue. Farms have continued to grow in size, leaving fewer jobs in the agriculture based communities and sending people to bigger cities.

According to census experts, many current small towns will continue to decrease in size, but are expected to level out with a core group of people to keep the communities functioning. But if they can find a way to bring in new jobs to support their existing population, they can still thrive and continue to give people the small town way of life that many love.

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