The Woodward News

February 10, 2013

Film, legislators tout smaller schools

Chris Cooper
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — The Professional Oklahoma Educators Foundation (POEF) held an event in Woodward on Thursday, Feb. 7 to showcase their recent film "We Are Rural," a documentary covering the topic of school consolidation in Oklahoma.

The film showing opened with an address from Ginger Tinney, the executive director of POEF and associate producer of the film.

Tinney explained the POEF group is around 9,000 members strong and comprised of professional teachers from across the state.  She said the group was in charge of lobbying at the capital for its members as well as promoting messages they think are important to Oklahoma teachers, such as the issue of consolidation explored in the film.

Tinney said the ultimate goal is to achieve what's best for Oklahoma students.

Also present during the showing was the film's director and producer Dylan Cox, associate producers Daniel Cox and Emily Wilkins, and Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Elaine Hutchinson from Fairview. State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne and State Rep. Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, were likewise present and afterwards served on the discussion panel following the documentary.

After the film, attendees had an opportunity to address the discussion panel with any queries they might have.

One audience member questioned a reference during the film in which some interviewees in favor of school consolidation suggested Oklahoma follow Florida's method of school consolidation. In Florida, school districts have been consolidated by county, meaning that each county is one school district with one overall administration system for all schools in a county.  The audience member asked the discussion panel what they knew about the effects of Florida's consolidation.

Tinney said that in order to see the effects, one needs to look at the end product and ask does consolidation result in an enrichment in the school system.  She said that means looking at Florida's graduation rate, which is one of the lowest in the nation, to see the end results.

Hickman said if people are looking for examples for schools to model themselves after, they should turn to rural Oklahoma schools.

"When you have businesses that are profitable, you don't close the ones that are successful, you look at the one's that aren't. We found during our study that the locations that aren't being successful are our larger metropolitan areas. Maybe it's not consolidation we need, maybe it's time we look into breaking these metropolitan school districts into smaller ones, because that is where we're seeing more success. Smaller schools are by far more successful than our larger urban districts," Hickman said.

The study Hickman referred to was an interim study on the issue of school consolidation which he had requested in response to Gov. Mary Fallin’s call for a debate about the structure of Oklahoma’s school systems in 2012.

According to a press release on the Oklahoma State Legislature's website, the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools reviewed the data from the State Department of Education and found that 11 of the top 20 schools with the highest ACT scores in the state were in districts serving less than 500 students. The survey also found graduation rates in districts with fewer than 500 students were also significantly higher than in larger districts, 7 percent higher overall and 21 percent higher than the largest districts in the state.

Another question asked of the discussion panel, was what can rural residents do to make others understand just how important the issue of consolidation is and how it can negatively effect rural communities?

Both Blackwell and Hickman encouraged people to get in contact with legislators as well as Gov. Fallin any way they can to let her know this issue is important to them. The representatives advised people make their arguments strong and concise.

Tinney assured the audience that POEF would be doing everything it could to make sure the voices of rural Oklahomans were heard.

"We're going to keep showing the film and we're going to do our best to get your message out there," she said.

In fact, Tinney said POEF is currently in discussion with OETA to have the film featured on the station.  She also expressed interest in showing the film in other rural communities across the state.

"Any community who requests us to show it, we'd be happy to do that. We don't charge any money to show the film, we pay this out of our own pocket to make sure our message about school consolidation and the negative effects it entails are heard," she said.

It was also asked if there were any plans to put the film online so that people interested in educating themselves on rural education and school consolidation might be able to use the film to do so.

Tinney said that while there aren't currently plans to do so, it was an interesting idea pending legal proceedings such as copyrighting to ensure their organization that paid to fund the documentary received the credit and that there was no editing done to alter the message of the film.

Communities interested in screening the film in their area are encouraged to contact the POEF at 888-331-2763 to inquire about opportunities to do so.