It’s the first day of school in Underwood. It’s also the last first day for Julie Driessen, who’ll be retiring after her 50th year.
“I started in 1972 at a school in Carpio, North Dakota and I taught there three years. Then I moved here and been here 47 years,” Driessen said.
In her half-century teaching, Driessen has seen the challenges rural schools face.
“We don’t have a huge variety of classes like some of the bigger schools do, but our kids get a well-rounded education in everything,” Driessen said.
Superintendent Brandt Dick says staffing shortages this year have led to different hiring approaches.
The school currently has 24 full-time employees and a part-time counselor.
“We’re waiting for our two teachers coming in from the Philippines. They’re flying in Saturday to be our special ed teachers. We just had to do that. We had that position open before, we just didn’t have any applicants,” Dick said.
Shrinking enrollment is another challenge rural districts face as more people move to cities.
2020 census data shows 30 North Dakota counties lost population this past decade, with the more urban parts of the state seeing gains.
That’s not the case for Underwood’s McLean County, which grew 9 percent.
“We’re starting this year with 211 kids K-12, if you include preschool that adds another 25 kids. It’s been pretty steady,” Dick said.
But the once-looming shutdown of Coal Creek Station, which employs much of the town, was a concern.
Roughly 64 students have parents employed by the power plant, coal mine or ethanol plant. But this summer’s announcement of its sale and continued operation brought a sense of security for the school.
“We’ve been fortunate, wonderful news this summer that our power plant was sold, so we’re looking for some stability there which we didn’t know how that was gonna affect our long term projections,” Dick said.
While Underwood will be one more teacher short next year, Driessen has some words for the next generation of educators.
“A lot of people shun away from being a teacher for lots of reasons, and I understand that. But if you really have the heart for being a teacher, go for it, because you’ll never regret what you’ve done for kids and how many kids will come back and thank you over and over and over again.”