District increasing enrollment and educational experiences for youth

The educational infrastructure in Spearfish helps attract people to the community, but according to one local administrator, the educational system itself has benefited from those who have relocated here.

“Spearfish is a great place to live and because of that, we are able to attract talented staff for our school district,” said Superintendent Dave Peters. “People like to be a part of a successful system, and our reputation is great. People know that.”

The Spearfish School District consists of four schools, 150 certified teachers, 100 non-certified, non-teaching staff, and nearly 2nd Grade, Mr. Suiter reading to class2,100 students.

Student enrollment had remained fairly stable for the past ten years with an average 1,975 students per year. Over the past year, however, the district has experienced a five percent increase in enrollment.

“We have had 24 new students over the past two months and I think we will continue to see that growing trend throughout the school year, and even into next year,” he said.

While the cause of this year’s increase cannot be precisely identified, Peters said at least half of the new students are directly connected to the Bakken Oil Boom in North Dakota. Affordable housing options have also contributed to the increase.

The school structures are feeling the pressure from the increased enrollment. School administration and school board members are considering options for expansion at current schools and reconfiguring what grades are served in each building. Creekside Elementary School, the district’s newest school, was completed in 2011; it houses third, fourth, and fifth grades.

University Influences District

Each year nearly 4,500 traditional and non-traditional students choose Black Hills State University for continued education, which also expands the community’s population. Some students stay for the few short years while they obtain a degree; others – like Landphere – stay for a lifetime.

“It’s home – I grew up here,” said Abby Landphere, a third grade teacher at Creekside Elementary and a Spearfish High School graduate. “Spearfish is a small community, but it has lots to offer. You have the opportunities of a big city with a small-town feel.”

The Spearfish public school system benefits greatly from having the Black Hills State University campus located in town. Each year the Spearfish School District welcomes 12 to 15 student teachers from the BHSU College of Education. These future teachers spend time shadowing current teachers, honing their teaching skills and working with children in Spearfish.

Landphere says the student teachers coming into the district hold the current teachers more accountable. “We have to be able to teach both the kids and future teachers. We have to be on top of our game to effectively teach both types of ‘students’ to help them succeed.”

The Teammates program is another way BHSU works with the public school district to enhance education. Trained, screened BHSU students act as a buddy or teammate to a student in any grade, K-12, to help them socially and educationally. According to Superintendent, Dave Peters, the program is designed to give youth safe, quality adult contact.”  The mentoring gained from this program instills confidence in these students and creates stability.

Small Community Supports Education Foundation

In the late 1990’s, the school district experienced a brief period of declining enrollment with smaller incoming kindergarten classes than graduating senior classes while the city experienced an increase in total population. The increase was credited to retirees moving into the community.

A decline of this type presented large financial challenges for the school district because at the same time the state of South Dakota was also cutting educational funding. A group of concerned citizens formed the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education in 2001 to combat these financial woes and promote academic programs.

“The foundation is a way for teachers to find innovative enrichment programs for their classrooms and receive the funding to carry them out,” said Mary Pochop, Foundation board member and parent of four children enrolled in the Spearfish School District. “We are able to help provide opportunities kids otherwise would not get.”

The Foundation raises funds through an annual endowment campaign and passes them on to teachers. Community residents and businesses donate money to the Foundation to support the goals and mission of the group. Most of the donations are unrestricted, which can be used for any project as deemed by the board; others are restricted for one specific project.

This year over $50,000 was awarded for educational enrichment. The funds are used for a wide variety of academic opportunities including healthy school programs, art and math projects, science-related experiments, camps and field trips, drama and theatre experiences, music programs, gifted and talented educational programs, and dozens more.

“Some of the funded programs are ongoing and some are one-time programs or projects,” according to Pochop.

Pochop and her husband Jon relocated to Spearfish almost 20 years ago. “We knew Spearfish was a great place and knew it would work to start our family,” she said. “Now, I have a passion for education and being a part of the Foundation board is a way to put into action the things I believe in.”