Harrisburg school district remains flexible in rapid growth



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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Tanja Pederson will start this school year as principal of not one but two elementary schools.

It's the second time in her 12 years with the Harrisburg School District in which she'll pull double duty, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2bRdyce ) reported.

"If you like the status quo, this isn't the place for you," Pederson said.

Flexibility is the name of the game for educators in Harrisburg, one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state. Student enrollment has more than doubled in the last decade, putting the district on track to surpass Watertown this fall as the state's fourth largest school system.

Groundbreaking new school buildings or additions has practically become an annual affair for Superintendent Jim Holbeck, and as these new buildings continue to fill, the Harrisburg district faces the challenge of keeping a "small-school feel."

Harrisburg officials project enrollment to exceed 4,000 students this fall. Ten years ago, enrollment was less than 1,500.

Horizon Elementary School, Harrisburg's sixth K-5 school, opens this month in a new building near 69th Street and Bahnson Avenue, and Harrisburg High School — which filled last year— now has room for 600 more students thanks to a new wing on the west end of the building.

Growth in Harrisburg schools doesn't appear to be slowing down, as Lincoln County remains the fastest-growing in the state.

When North Middle School opened three years ago, an entire wing was left empty to accommodate future growth. Now, that wing is full, and the district has already purchased land south of the roundabout at 69th Street and Southeastern Avenue for a new middle school, Holbeck said.

Holbeck doesn't see Harrisburg's growth as a bad thing, but he does miss the days of knowing every staff member.

"Sometimes I run into them out in the mall, and they say, 'Hi,' and I'm not sure if they work here or not," Holbeck said.

Ronette Costain, high school volleyball coach and physical education teacher at Explorer Elementary, also remembers the days of knowing everyone's names when all of Harrisburg's K-12 students were housed in one building.

"You knew their parents' names," Costain said. "You knew who was related to who ... I don't realize how big we are (now) until we start going to athletic events, and you go places and don't recognize faces."

Costain has seen Harrisburg's student population outgrow buildings time and again.

She shared a memory from 2012, the year before Endeavor Elementary was built when Explorer Elementary was so full that two mobile classrooms were moved in to accommodate an overflow of students.

Pederson said the district works hard to predict needs, but sometimes quick decisions are necessary. She recalled a few years back when she hired two new teachers the night of a school open house just before school started.

"We do hire teachers up to the start of the first day of school," Pederson said.

With nine buildings in a district that 10 years ago had three, communication has been a struggle, especially for parents in a district that's housed partially in Sioux Falls with boundary lines re-drawn with every new building.

Pederson sees some parents confused about where to send their kids. Re-drawing school boundaries is also difficult because it forces students to switch schools.

For those outside the Harrisburg district, the growth may look shocking. Costain said she often hears from coaches in other parts of the state who can't fathom seeing so many new students, staff, buildings and programs in such a short time.

But for Costain and the rest of the Harrisburg staff, change is the only constant.

"If you think you know what's going on in Harrisburg," Costain said. "Give it a day, and it'll change."

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Argus Leader.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Megan Raposa

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