School bus

A school bus drive down a road near Copper Ridge Loop off Rimrock Road on Wednesday, October 11.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

In Copper Ridge, a neighborhood perched below the Rims on Billings’ West End, 58 new lots were approved in July. In Falcon Ridge, an adjoining subdivision, 35 new lots were approved in August. Just to the southeast, 67 lots for Silver Creek Estates were approved in October.

Those subdivisions already have hundreds of homes, and that sort of growth isn’t new to the West End. It was a driving factor behind School District 2’s decision to build a new middle school more than two miles west of any other school in the district. Ben Steele Middle School opened with about 750 students — about 100 more than district officials initially projected.

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Concrete foundation

A concrete foundation its on a lot on Wednesday, October 11.

While SD2 added four more students this year — total — the district has fallen short of projections created in 2013 calling for major growth, especially at early elementary grades. At the same time, enrollment has gone through the roof in other school districts in western Yellowstone County that funnel most of their kids into Billings high schools. 

Combine that with large classes in middle schools in Billings, district officials are pitching a new vision:

“We need to take care of our high schools,” said SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck in a recent facilities meeting.

Younger grades

Before Billings had built new middle schools and remodeled elementary schools in 2013, the district had recently hired a new superintendent, signed off on a new facilities master plan, and had to make decisions about how to grapple with growth.

Billings’ westward sprawl means that students aren’t necessarily clustered near already-existing neighborhood schools — and in some cases, that growth has leapfrogged Billings’ school boundaries.

Growth in SD2 has leveled out in the past few years, and incoming elementary classes haven’t matched their larger cohorts that entered the district in preceding years. K-5 enrollment saw a net decline this year.

Meanwhile, enrollment in other school districts in western Yellowstone County is rising.

Elder Grove, a K-8 district, is pitching a bond to build a new middle school. 

Laurel is offering a $52.5 million bond to deal with booming enrollment.

Both districts have already exceeded their growth projections — and Laurel’s were created by the same firm as Billings’.

Elysian already extensively remodeled its K-8 school, which had an enrollment of about 200 students when a $10 million bond passed in 2013. The school added 43 students this year, up to 351. 

In SD2, Bouck will be retiring at the end of the school year. The district is revising the facilities master plan and getting new demographic projections. And again, trustees will be asked to create a plan to grapple with growth — but of a different kind.

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For sale sign

A for sale sign sits near an empty lot on Wednesday, October 11.

Billings still has room to grow within school boundaries; some developments are filling up, some still have vacant lots, and housing growth has been slow-going at others. And there is still undeveloped land. Active West End subdivisions — including Copper Ridge, Falcon Ridge and Silver Creek — are all in Ben Steele’s attendance area, and a handful of active subdivisions in the Heights will funnel into Billings schools.

Even when growth is limited to nearby K-8 districts, those students eventually make their way to Billings’ high schools.

'The pig in the python'

Brian Carter, an architect at Integrus, will admit it’s not the most popular phrase, but it’s an accurate representation of Billings’ enrollment picture. Class sizes in middle school and early high school are unusually large. Combined with growing contributions from K-8 districts, existing high schools are likely to get squeezed.

School enrollment is rarely a uniform picture, and classes can fluctuate from year to year. In 2015-16, the SD2’s fifth-grade class was 1,160 students. Third grade was 1,301. The next school year, the rising sixth-grade class gained 20 students. The rising fourth-graders lost 10.

The picture gets murkier after sixth grade for Billings. Students from Blue Creek, Canyon Creek, Independent, Pioneer and Morin school districts flow into the Billings system. For the past two years, the sixth-grade class has added about 95 students when it began seventh grade. In high school, students from Lockwood, Elder Grove, Elysian and Canyon Creek join the spigot. The eighth-grade class added about 200 students when beginning ninth-grade last school year, and about 170 this year. 

So middle school classes are typically larger than elementary classes, and early high school classes are even bigger. But junior and senior classes shrink as students drop out or graduate early.

High school principals say they’re doing OK with enrollment now, but they were apprehensive about future additions. A grandfathering process allowing more students than usual to attend schools outside their boundaries has scrambled enrollment a bit, but the process will filter through in a few years.

“In two years, we’re going to hit 1,900 kids in our building,” said Skyview High School Principal Deb Black, citing projections adding students from Castle Rock, Medicine Crow and Lockwood middle schools. “We’re built for 1,700.”

Skyview converted a pair of computer labs to classrooms this year to cope with growth, and Black said they’ve largely been able to meet class size accreditation standards — for now.

Senior High's principal said students were packed into rooms like sardines — two years ago.

West sends more students to the Career Center than any other school does, giving West a little more breathing room. And enrollment at the high school, about 1,830 this year, came in below expectations. But growth is on the horizon, since Elysian and Elder Grove funnel most of their students into West. (Some students typically opt to attend Laurel.)

“This building could not function with 2,100 kids if we didn’t have the Career Center,” said principal Dave Cobb. “No way.”

The Career Center is as full as it's ever been, with about 530 kids attending in the morning and 570 attending in the afternoon. That’s not including the scores of children who attend the Career Center’s preschool, which functions as a real-world lab for high-schoolers studying early childhood.

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Under construction

A house sits under construction off Golden Acres Drive on Wednesday, October 11.

“We’re definitely about as tight as this building can get,” principal Scott Anderson said. “We’re all the same. Everyone’s getting stretched now. We’ve addressed that at the elementary and middle school. Now we need to look at addressing that at the high school.”

Longer-term growth

Impending growth doesn’t necessarily mean permanent growth, though students from Elder Grove and Elysian will likely buoy high school enrollment for years to come even if SD2’s elementary classes don’t boom. And recently, they haven't. 

At this year's fall count, enrollment for grades K-3 is between 1,217 and 1,224 for each. Last year, only one grade level in the elementary district was smaller.

But even if those numbers hold stable, and a similar number of students filter in from K-8 districts, class sizes will be about as large as the ones high school administrators today are watching warily. 

As for grades four and five? With enrollment approaching 1,300 before any students from additional K-8 districts, they'll likely be the largest classes in recent memory.

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For sale sign

A for sale sign sits near a plot of land on Wednesday, October 11.

The enrollment projections that called for bonkers growth in SD2 are due for a full-on revision this winter, according to district officials, and may be available in December.

District officials are also awaiting results from a November Lockwood vote to create a high school district that would pull about 10 percent of Billings high school students out of SD2. If that vote passes, Lockwood residents would have to pass a second vote with a price tag for the new district.

What if numbers don't hold up? There's no indication that the local economy is perched on a cliff, ready for a swan dive that leaves those empty West End lots undeveloped, halting housing growth within SD2 and surrounding K-8 districts.

But expansion makes some folks nervous — a Billings trustee who feared the district was over expanding with new schools quit in 2014 — and there are good reasons why. 

Coming tomorrow: How schools in a Wyoming town have struggled with enrollment — and if Billings could have the same problems.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.