Get ready for the most obvious statement ever written on this blog:
Campbell County High School in Gillette is a big high school.
Ready for something less obvious? Gillette’s large enrollment stands alone in the region for a one-high school city.
Not only does CCHS have more students than any other Wyoming high school, CCHS is the largest school in an eight-state region for cities that have just one comprehensive high school.
With an average daily membership — the projected enrollment number the Wyoming High School Activities Association uses to classify its high schools every two years — of 2,439 students in grades 9-12, CCHS is about 255 students larger than the state’s second-largest high school, Natrona in Casper.
For years, the Campbell County School District has been faced with a tough decision: when, or if, to split Campbell County High School into two standalone comprehensive high schools.
So far, the district has not done so.
However, at a meeting last week, board trustees began to investigate the potential for a second high school, all while noting that a new school would only be implemented with two years’ advanced notice to the city.
The board said basically the same thing in March 2011.
Almost four years’ wait gave us, well… the same thing the board announced almost four years ago.
The critics of this delay — a delay some view as well more than four years overdue — are numerous and vocal. They point to Gillette’s size: If split right down the middle, Gillette’s two high schools would still be among the state’s top 10 largest high schools, both larger than fellow 4A all-sport schools Sheridan, Laramie and Evanston and 4A non-football schools Green River and Riverton. They point to Gillette’s projected 9-12 enrollment in a decade, slated to be nearly 3,000 students. They point to Gillette’s athletic dominance, specifically in basketball and wrestling but also in a variety of other sports, that’s somewhat attributable to the school’s size.
Gillette’s defenders are not as numerous but just as vocal. They point to Gillette’s efforts to make the student experience more comfortable: The school has had two campuses, the North main campus and the South satellite campus, for more than a decade, easing the strain on infrastructure. They point to Gillette’s other educational needs and previous investments, which have been significant — the district built Hillcrest Elementary in 2009, Prairie Wind Elementary in 2010 and Buffalo Ridge Elementary in 2012, rebuilt both Lakeview Elementary and Westwood High, the district’s alternative high school, which both re-opened this fall, all while trying to address the need for a third junior high in addition to looking at a second high school. They point to Casper, where Natrona County School District No. 1 officials opted to keep two high schools — and keep the “school of choice” option going — rather than build a third standalone school, at least in part (in Gillette’s view and the views of many others) in an effort to keep the city’s athletic programs (specifically, Natrona football) strong.
The arguments for and against a second high school in Gillette go beyond the fiscal and the educational. The arguments invoke emotion, tradition, competition, opportunity — topics that can’t be debated logically.
The regional fit
The quandary Gillette faces is not unique. Numerous cities in the region with only one high school have had to confront the same dilemma: When is the right time to add a second high school?
No one in Wyoming has had to face that question since the 1960s. In 1960, Cheyenne East high opened to give Cheyenne two high schools; Kelly Walsh opened in 1965 to give Casper its two high schools. (Cheyenne South, of course, opened in 2011 as Cheyenne expanded to three comprehensive public high schools.) No other Wyoming city has more than one standalone comprehensive high school.
Here are the largest schools in cities in the region that have just one comprehensive public high school (per 9-12 enrollment or projected 9-12 enrollment, based on figures provided by the states’ respective high school activities association or state department of education):
Montana: Bozeman, 1,961 students (largest high school in Montana)
North Dakota: Minot, 1,979 students (largest high school in North Dakota)
South Dakota: Aberdeen, 1,193 (estimated) students
Nebraska: Grand Island, 2,265 (estimated) students
Colorado (outside the Denver metro): Castle View HS (Castle Rock), 1,850 students
Colorado (outside Front Range): Fruita Monument (Fruita), 1,706 students
Utah (outside metros associated with SLC/Logan/Ogden/Provo): Box Elder (Brigham City), 1,839 (estimated) students
Utah (outside Logan/SLC/Provo corridor): Uintah (Vernal), 1,571 (estimated) students
Idaho: Lake City, 1,491 students (although Coeur d’Alene, Lake City and Post Falls are basically one big city)… Outside of the Boise metro and the CdA metro areas, the largest is Lewiston at 1,388 students.
Of these schools, a couple are near a crucial tipping point. In Nebraska, Grand Island school officials have been discussing adding a second high school; in Montana, the school district in Bozeman spent $1.1 million this summer for a tract of land on which to build a second high school.
But those are the communities on the edge. A few other cities in the region have gone over that edge.
Several one-school cities in the region have recently opened a new, second, comprehensive high school. Two cities — Twin Falls, Idaho, and Kalispell, Montana — opened their second high schools in 2009, with Twin Falls opening Canyon Ridge High and Kalispell opening Glacier High. Elkhorn, Nebraska, on the outskirts of the Omaha metro, opened its second high school (Elkhorn South) in 2010. And West Fargo, North Dakota, on the edge of the Fargo metro area, opened its second high school, West Fargo Sheyenne, in 2013.
Together, the combined enrollments of three of the four recently split high schools are smaller than Gillette’s current enrollment. The only one that’s larger is the 2,781 students between Flathead and Glacier high schools in Kalispell; in Twin Falls, Twin Falls High and Canyon Ridge have a combined 2,228 students; in West Fargo, West Fargo and West Fargo Sheyenne have 2,273 students; and in Elkhorn, Elkhorn and Elkhorn South have 1,401.
Utah, Colorado and South Dakota have not had any non-metro cities open second high schools recently; Lehi, Utah, which is between Salt Lake City and Provo, had a groundbreaking for its second high school in April, but that groundbreaking came in a school district (Alpine) that already has 10 other comprehensive high schools.
Logic and emotion in Gillette
At an estimated 2,439 students in grades 9-12, Gillette has the largest single standalone high school in a one-high school town in an eight-state region of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
By every mathematical measure, Gillette should have a second comprehensive high school. The district’s size, both current and projected, justifies a new high school. Regional comparisons only further justify this stance.
However, as noted, Gillette’s delay in adding a new high school isn’t mathematical or logical.
Gillette’s decision-making process is specific to Wyoming, a state with significantly fewer large schools than its regional brethren. Only eight high schools in Wyoming have more than 1,000 students, and only two are larger than 1,600. (After Gillette and Natrona, the third-largest school in Wyoming is Rock Springs at 1,562; Cheyenne East is fourth at 1,468.)
Casper’s decision to forego a second high school in favor of the CAPS (Center for Advanced and Professional Studies) building was, in some small part, a counter to Gillette’s hesitation to open a second high school. Gillette’s counter-move has been to delay its new high school plans even longer — now almost four years, and counting, from the Gillette school board’s initial commitment in March 2011.
In 2010, I called out the Natrona County School District for making what I thought was foolhardy move to open the CAPS campus rather than a third high school. I still feel the NCSD messed up with CAPS. But since 2010, Gillette’s K-12 population has continued to grow beyond its limits.
Logically, I don’t think Gillette can wait much longer to open a new high school. The numbers back that idea.
Emotionally, though… Gillette’s residents are strong and proud. CCHS has a unique place as the biggest, burliest, and arguably most successful top-to-bottom athletic program in the state. With the exceptions of boys golf, boys soccer and volleyball, every athletic program at Gillette has won at least one state title since 2008. Who wouldn’t want to preserve that? Statistical trends don’t change pride.
I still feel Casper’s CAPS decision has pushed back a third Casper high school by at least three decades.
Gillette may not be able to afford to wait that long.
TIMELINE: A SECOND COMPREHENSIVE HIGH SCHOOL IN GILLETTE
If the timeline below doesn’t show up, go here.
March 2011: Campbell County School District No. 1 approves a motion to build a new comprehensive high school, the city’s second.
June 12, 2012: In its annual request to the School Facilities Commission, CCSD makes the new high school its No. 1 priority (along with refurbishing of CCHS and rebuilding of current CCHS South Campus to be a junior high).
Sept. 6, 2012: In a special meeting, CCSD “engaged in discussion” about conversion of South Campus to a junior high.
Oct. 23, 2012: The board received an update on a study of the school’s proposed Enzi Drive location in relation to a fire station there.
March 26, 2013: CCSD approved a new option for its schools: Move ninth graders into the high school system; convert South Campus to a school for ninth and 10th graders and convert the North (main) Campus to a school for 11th and 12th graders. CCSD also addressed renovation of junior highs to meet capacity requirements and to build new K-6 schools. The board approved the change and notified the SFC.
Sept. 24, 2013: CCSD’s school board addressed an update to South Campus, in which the board said the architect hired to refit the school for ninth and 10th graders should be “thinking of needs for athletic fields as the building will likely be a stand alone high school at some point.
March 11, 2014: CCSD’s school board heard an update on the South Campus remodel, where “”lots of planning (is) completed, design to begin in the
summer and continue through the fall.”
Dec. 9, 2014: CCSD begins to re-examine the need for a second high school.
From information posted at http://www.campbellcountyschools.net/admin.cfm?subpage=1181847 (except the March 2011 and the Dec. 9, 2014, updates).