The Issue: Dallas County is the fifth-fastest growing county in the United States and the population growth is affecting its schools.
Local Impact: Van Meter is handling its "inconsistent growth," but still may need to add new buildings in the near future.
Van Meter High School held its 2017 graduation commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 22 and had a graduating class of 46 students, its smallest in eight years, and was also the first to graduate in their brand new gym, which just opened up this school year.
Next year, the senior class will be considerably bigger, and is estimated to be in the upper 60s. It's clear that Van Meter is growing and changing and that is seen in the updates to the building. The new gym was a part of a new addition that was added to the High School for this year.
“We move into this new facility, it's obviously a nice gymnasium with a nice setup for graduation and you go from seating six-hundred-and-sum for graduation to 12 or 13 hundred,” said Van Meter Schools Superintendent Deron Durflinger. “You know, it kind of makes a difference.”
Durflinger said that this year's graduating class will be the last to have stayed “pretty small” and this classes numbers even dipped to 38 when they were in fifth grade and picked up some kids within the last several years.
He said that even with the growth, many people think of Van Meter as a small school, and that he said even back in 2006-07, only 10 years ago, they had a graduating class of just 29. From there it jumped to the mid-40s and then into the 50s by the time that Durflinger arrived at Van Meter during the 2009-10 school year.
Another sign of the growth is shown in the fact that this year's graduating class went through the Van Meter Schools in two sections through each grade, while now, they have three sections in each grade and even had to add a fourth section to Kindergarten and 2nd grade this year.
So where is this growth coming from?
Durflinger said that while there is a “misconception” that their growth is due to students open enrolling into the Van Meter School District, it is actually simply due to people moving to the district.
“I say it's a misconception because our open enrollment percent of kids is actually going down here in the last few years,” Durflinger said.
In 2014, 24 percent of Van Meter students open enrolled into the district. By the next year it had dropped to 23 percent before dropping to about 22 percent for this school year.
Estimations for next year are showing that the open enrollment percentage will go down even lower for next year.
While the City of Van Meter itself continues to stay “pretty small” many of the housing developments surrounding the city in rural Dallas County, are drawing new houses and residents.
Durflinger said that being a small school, when compared to Adel-DeSoto-Minburn, Dallas Center-Grimes, Waukee and Winterset, is what attracts some people to their district.
“I think that's what draws people here. They want their kids to go to a small school,” Durflinger said. “So people that have lived here or lived in this community, I think they understand that we've got a good thing going here, so they want to hold on to that because they provide so many opportunities for kids.”
In terms of providing opportunities for kids goes, Durflinger used his own son, who will be a senior next year, as an example. Durflinger said his son has earned a varsity letter in five different sports while participating in choir and the school play.
“All those opportunities that are there for kids because we're small… it's hard to do that at Waukee or [Dallas Center-Grimes]. You might play a couple sports, but you're not playing five sports… A few kids might, but not very likely.”
He said that growth is good, because it is needed to maintain their programs, create new programs and to support “learning at the highest level” but it could also be problematic.
“The negative is if it comes too quickly and you don't have the facilities for being able to manage all of that because the way school funding works,” Durflinger said.
He noted that school funding from the state is always a year behind. He said that receiving funds a year late makes it hard to plan for an increase of about 70 students district wide, which they estimate they will see for the next school year.
The Van Meter School District is currently working with FRK Architects and will host them at their June School Board meeting to hear some ideas of what they could do as far as expansion or building additional buildings go, in case there is the need in the future.
“There's definitely thoughts of, when we get to this point of growth, how are we going to handle it as far as building, or buildings,” Durflinger said. “Are we going to add on to this building, are we going to look at another site to build an elementary? And I don't know when that would take place.”
He said that its hard to forecast what they will have to do for buildings and space in the future because their growth has been inconsistent. This school year, the district only grew by 15 kids, while next year it is estimated they will grow by over 70 kids.
For the next three years, Van Meter will have graduating classes of more than 60 kids, before it drops down to the 50s for a couple of years. Then in the elementary school, three of the six grade levels have more than 70 kids, while the other three only have over 50 kids.
Durflinger feels that they are prepared to handle growth in the coming years, however.
“Through the renovations we've done, we feel like we can handle between 11 hundred and 12 hundred kids,” Durflinger said. “We could probably handle up to 13 hundred in the right situation.”