Ten years ago, Elkhorn Valley School’s 6-man football team didn’t have enough players on its roster to even have a scrimmage.
This fall, the Falcons will compete in Class D1.
The bump up in class is a reflection of how enrollment at the Tilden-based school has increased over the past decade, so much so that voters in the school district passed a $17.2 million bond in 2016 to pay for construction of a new school addition, renovation and demolition.
The increase in enrollment at Elkhorn Valley Schools is a reflection of the kind of growth happening in the Tilden and Meadow Grove communities that the school district serves.
“Younger families have moved back — people in their 20s and 30s, people with children,” said Keith Leckron, who has served as superintendent at Elkhorn Valley for eight years.
Leckron said that in his first year at Elkhorn Valley, there were about 275 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. But the school expects to have more than 400 students for the upcoming school year.
“We’re graduating numbers like 20 (in a class), and we’re bringing in the 30s and, in one case, 40-some students,” Leckron said, referring to the incoming kindergarten class that will have more than 40 students. “We hope that trend continues.”
The addition to the school — which is currently underway — includes a variety of state-of-the-art features, including an outdoor learning area and space to add an agriculture program its curriculum.
It was built with the expectation that Elkhorn Valley could reach about 500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the future, Leckron said.
Leckron smiled at the speculated reason for the growth: “I’ve joked with the previous superintendent that the enrollment started growing when I got here, and then when he retired, it exploded.”
In seriousness, Leckron said he believes there are multiple reasons leading to the growth occurring in Tilden, Meadow Grove and at Elkhorn Valley. They include the two communities’ proximity to Norfolk, the goods and services available, the desire more young people are expressing to be closer to family, the environment of the communities and, of course, the school, itself.
Sam and Danielle Johnsen don’t need to speculate on reasons. They are the parents of three young children — Abe, 8, Hank, 6, and Archie, 4 — who opted to come back to Tilden after spending their first few years out of college in a small Iowa town about 20 miles east of Omaha.
Danielle grew up in Clearwater and met Sam, an Underwood, Iowa, native, after he moved to Tilden for his last few years of high school.
After graduating, they both went to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Sam pursued a degree in radiology and then did two years of clinicals in Omaha. Danielle became a registered nurse and eventually took a job at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. When their third child was born, they made the decision to return to Tilden.
“I think a lot of people thought it was because I wanted to be closer to my family, but it was about getting back to where there were other couples that were in the same place in their life that we were,” Danielle said of the reason for their return.
Sam, who works for the Omaha-based Brown’s Medical Imaging, travels frequently for his job. Danielle now serves as manager of the Surgi-Center in Norfolk.
The Johnsens said their decision to return to Tilden required planning and sacrifice, but it ultimately was based on the quality of the life they could provide for themselves and for their children.
“To me, it was worth it to make that change — bringing the kids up in a good group of families and friends,” Sam said.
Sam said he believes living in a community like Tilden will provide his boys with opportunities they might not have if they were raised in a larger community and school system.
“If I was in a (Class) B school or an A school, maybe I would’ve played in one sport or — if I’m an elite athlete — two or three. But they can participate in as many sports as they want. There’s 4-H. There’s after-school stuff, before-school stuff,” Sam said. “They can maximize what they want and need and not feel like they’re missing out on a few things because of geographic locations.”
Danielle said Tilden’s size also has fed her desire to make an impact on the community because it’s easier to get involved.
“I feel the love and support of so many people here, people we don’t even know,” she said.
Danielle said she believes the desire to make Tilden a great place was reflected in how the bond to improve the school passed without the strife and discord that other communities have experienced.
Sam agreed and added that he hopes the sense of community they are experiencing in Tilden and at Elkhorn Valley Schools is something his children carry with them into adulthood.
“I hope they don’t look back and say, ‘I didn’t get an opportunity because I’m from a small town,’” he said. “I’d like them to look back and say, ‘I got to do all of this stuff because I was in a small town.’ ”