Census finds fewer school-age children in Oklahoma

Thursday, September 18th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ As the number of school-age children in Oklahoma falls, some superintendents fear the need for consolidation will rise.

According to figures from the Census Bureau, there were 634,923 Oklahoma children between the ages of 5 and 17 in July 2002. That's 21,084 fewer than counted in April 2000.

Much of the loss came in rural counties where school populations are dwindling annually.

``When you don't have a lot of kids, your halls narrow,'' Butler Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Oldham said.

Butler is located in Custer County, where census figures showed the school-age population dropped by 611 children, or 13 percent, over the two-year period.

Oklahoma and Tulsa counties lost 1,584 and 1,479 school-age children, respectively, the figures show. The declines in either county only represented a 1 percent loss for their overall school-age population.

The number of school-age children in Roger Mills County in west-central Oklahoma declined 20 percent over the two-year period. It was the largest percentage loss of any county in the state.

Dewey, Harper, Greer and Custer counties rounded out the top five counties losing the biggest percentage of their school-aged children, according to the Census.

``We don't have jobs in this part of the state for young people that have children,'' Oldham said.

The average daily membership for her schools has dwindled to 99 students for the 2002-03 school year. The high school in Butler has dropped athletics because there were too few students to field teams.

State School Superintendent Sandy Garrett said she's not surprised that much of the decline in school-age children came from rural areas, particularly in the western part of the state.

``It's a natural evolution of the demographics of this state,'' Garrett said. ``We've lost jobs and we're changing where our jobs are.''

While many rural districts are seeing declining enrollment, Garrett noted that administrators and teachers in those districts have done well to ensure that their students still receive a quality education.

``They have been pretty inventive,'' Garrett said of rural districts. ``They were the first users of technology in terms of sharing (online) courses.''

Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Perry Adams said rural districts ``have to be economic development planners,'' too.

Adams' school district and city officials teamed to establish a sales tax in 2000 that benefits schools. The district has also passed six bond issues in recent years.

The sales tax and bond issues added classrooms to an elementary school, new roofs to each school, and other building enhancements.

Adams said the district must keep the buildings looking nice and maintain quality academic programs to attract anyone who moves to western Oklahoma to his school district.

``We have to make our school buildings and programs appealable to the public,'' he said.

``If they don't look nice, people won't come through the door.''

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