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Pushmataha County Scholar Blazes Trail To Become 'So Much More'

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PUSHMATAHA COUNTY, Oklahoma -

Saturday night was a glittering night to celebrate Oklahoma's top public school students and educators.

The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence academic awards banquet has been called the Academy Awards of public education in the state.

During the ceremony, the state's top 100 public high school seniors were honored for their academic work with thousand-dollar scholarships and medals.

One of those Scholars honored is also the first chosen from her little school district in Pushmataha County.

It's proof that in the drive to be So Much More, it's not a swanky school building that brings success, but rather the heart and soul of the student, and all those who stand behind them.

In her senior year in high school, Rachel Birchfield is a history-maker.

She's the first Oklahoma Academic All-State Scholar from Rattan High School.

“You're now setting the course for the kids to follow,” she said. “I've always wanted to be a good leader and just set good examples. I don't know how they think of me, but being a trailblazer wasn't really what I set out to do in the first place, but it'd be great to see all these other kids come along and succeed, too, in these things.”

If you're like Rachel and have attended Rattan schools your entire career, it means your life unfolded from pre-kindergarten to senior high school along the same quarter mile-or-so collection of buildings along State Highway 3.

It means your mom's the counselor and nurse, and your dad's the high school principal.

And Rachel's not mortified by that, at least on our hallway stroll.

“Definitely, it's been just support and encouragement from my family and all the teachers around here, they've been great just pushing me to learn more,” she said.

Schools scrape along in Pushmataha County, so rich in physical beauty and yet struggling mightily with all that comes from lost opportunities and dreams delayed.

“It is difficult for us living in this part of the state because there's not a lot of industry, there's not a lot of business and we don't have much of a tax base for our kids,” superintendent of schools Shari Pillow said.

Which makes Rachel's accomplishment, one of Oklahoma's top one hundred high school seniors as chosen and honored in Tulsa by the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, that much more noteworthy.

It's an accomplishment that reinforces that along with their own hard work, good students have lots of help and encouragement along the way, and it needs to start before birth and continue for decades, with involved and supportive parents.

“I just think exposing your kids to activities it lets them have the opportunity to grow up to be more of what they're supposed to be, not necessarily what I as a parent think they should be, but what's right for them,” Michelle Birchfield said.

Sixty percent of grandparents in Push County are raising their grandchildren.

Neil Birchfield deals with all sorts of broken families and kids needing an anchor.

“I mean, they have to have some type of figure they look toward as a role model,” he said. “And if they think that their parent or whoever is just their buddy, then they treat 'em like their teenage buddy, and it's not a good formula.”

And his daughter's history-making evening is also a reminder that success isn't built on shiny new school buildings, but on the people inside those schools, even if they were built by the WPA.

The folks who know you and care about you and help you along.

“And the smaller the district, the more you're gonna know your kids, and that is a huge asset to me from a small school perspective,” Pillow said.

And just as they're all about to send Rachel off on her life's adventure, she's already making plans to come back.

“Cause then I want to be a pediatrician, so then I was thinking I might even could open my own clinic here in southeastern Oklahoma,” she said.

Her skills and her heart would still be desperately needed there years from now.

The history-maker come home, lessons remembered.

I” know we're not definitely the richest, or obvious we're the poorest, I guess, but we still have good people, good teachers, great community,” Rachel said.

The formula to be So Much More.

Visit the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence website

All-State Scholars are selected as part of Oklahoma's most rigorous academic competition that started in 1985, by then U.S. Senator David Boren, as a way to recognize and encourage academic excellence in the state's public schools.

"We honor great entertainers, we honor great athletes [and] we honor great business leaders,” said OFE Founder David Boren. “The annual banquet every year [honors] the greatest teachers in Oklahoma and the greatest students in Oklahoma. I think our greatest students, our academic All-Staters, are every bit as important as our sports All-Staters and I think they need to have a day in the sun as well."

The great educators that Boren mentioned being honored include: Beth Howard of Tulsa's Mark Twain Elementary, Jason Proctor of Tahlequah High School and Lloyd Snow, the superintendent of Sand Springs public schools.

The ceremony will be televised statewide May 23 on OETA.

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