You cannot drive far in Oklahoma without occasionally seeing large rectangular buildings with slightly curved roofs. Some of them are empty in fields, but many have been turned into barns, churches, or workshops. There’s one northwest of Cogar on HWY 37, and there’s one in Hitchcock, just a few miles north of Watonga. They are all over Oklahoma, old school gymnasiums leftover from a formerly thriving school and community.
It’s a chicken-egg argument. Do small towns disappear because their schools close, or do schools close because their small towns have dwindled? Both eggs and chickens fry up tasty, so I am not sure I can choose between the two, but the outcomes are the same: either bones or shells. Oklahoma has systematically regulated small, rural schools out of existence for the past 30 years under a variety of democrat and republican initiatives. All that remain in many places are empty shells of buildings and dried up bones of communities. Our state has always dealt with this problem as an educational issue, but at some point, we need to acknowledge the devastating economic impact of losing our small, rural schools. I am not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but they do seem to die together.
If you have any doubt, drive through places like Eakly or Fay or the dozens of other communities whose property values and businesses have withered next to these empty schools. You could also drive through places like Hollis, the only school district left in the entire county or Boise City School District, which covers over 1,100 square miles. For perspective, if Tulsa Public School children were spread out like children in Freedom, Oklahoma, the Tulsa school district would cover an area the size of Kansas and Oklahoma combined. For such places, further consolidation or closures are not a realistic option. Despite these challenges, however, these small districts do amazing things like graduating students with enough college credits to start college as sophomores, but the cards seem stacked against them in the coming years. A huge percentage of educators will retire at the end of this year, so teachers will not be available in many areas. Their budgets have also been wrecked by the pandemic. Rural schools will close, and their communities will dry up.
As this happens, parents will have no option but statewide virtual online schools. Virtual learning has a place, but it should not displace entire towns. If we continue down our current path, there will be nothing left in many towns but dangerously isolated rural children on spotty internet connections. Shells of old schools. Dried up bones of formerly vibrant communities. Rural poverty is isolating, and if we have learned anything from the COVID pandemic, it is that kids need to be around friends and caring adults in their own community. The isolation of rural poverty can be especially crippling, so our rural kids may need schools more than most children.
When you take your next road trip, keep an eye out for those empty shells of gymnasiums and the skeletons of communities surrounding them. If you stop in the next small town for gas or a bite to eat, it likely has a school – a key economic factor in keeping that community viable. Those old gymnasiums are not a sign of educational progress, they are a sign of economic devastation. COVID has taught us how much we need brick-and-mortar schools – even more so in rural communities. They are not only educationally critical, they are economically crucial.
We do not need any more schools turned into hay barns or workshops; we need to preserve and protect our rural communities. Do not pity them, however, and do not discount their resilience, for I believe that our small communities can survive this if Oklahoma rallies around its smaller districts. If we give them a level playing field, they can compete with anyone. I am not sure which comes first, a community or a school district, but we know they often disappear together. As a state, we recently rallied to protect rural hospitals. It is time we do the same for small schools and small communities. They are the spirit of Oklahoma, and we cannot afford to lose anymore small towns or schools or children to a computer screen.
Dr. Deighan is the Superintendent for Duncan schools. To contact Dr. Deighan, email to email@example.com.