Local students face changes on first day of school year after budget cuts

A year ago, Cassidy Coffey was one of the fortunate students to claim a desk when she arrived at history class at U.S. Grant High School.

With more than 30 students entering the south Oklahoma City classroom, a handful of students had to take their seats around a folding table.

Coffey can’t image even larger class sizes but expects to find them when she enters her senior year Monday. A slow economy mixed over time with specific policy decisions at the state Capitol created a $1.3 billion state budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

State agencies like Oklahoma State Department of Education were hit with cuts that trickled down to school districts across the state. Leaders of Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) were forced to cut $30 million as fewer funds flowed in from state and federal government sources.

At U.S. Grant, 20 teaching positions were eliminated and an administration position was terminated.

“There was one teacher to every 30 students last year,” Coffey said. “I can’t imagine a 35-to-1 ratio. It’s hard for a teacher to make sure 25 students are focused. How can a teacher get students to focus when the student ratio gets bigger?”

An honor roll student with plans to attend college, Coffey said she is troubled by the public education trends she has witnessed. Each year, Coffey and her peers find overcrowded classrooms, school administration turnover and favorite teachers who leave the field for better pay.

Last spring, Coffey listened to U.S. Grant’s student council advisor warn of looming budget cuts. Students should expect a reduced school staff and fewer dollars pumped into activities like student council.

The conversation spurred Coffey to organize a protest. On May 16, Coffey and nearly 600 students walked out of classes and spoke out about cuts and their impacts. Following their lead, around 550 students from Northwest Classen High School, Star Spencer High School and Jefferson Middle School also staged walkouts to protest budget cuts.

“We are told every day to ask questions,” Coffey said. “We have a say in our education and our future. So we ask questions to be better educated about the situation. The second we ask or voice a complaint, we are reminded we are just students.”

The walkouts received local and national media attention as well as praise from Oklahoma City Board of Education members.

Coffey wanted to raise awareness of the significant cuts and prevent some teachers from losing their jobs. She also wanted school leaders and state lawmakers to consider other options to balance the budget.

This academic year, OKCPS students return to a district with drastically reduced school staff, larger class sizes and consolidated bus routes. Additionally, its fine arts budget holds half the funds it did a year ago. The district’s athletic budget also was reduced.

Students fear larger classes will inhibit teachers from delivering high-quality education, possibly hurting students’ chances of attending college or receiving academic scholarships, explained Coffey.

Transferring to other high schools or enrolling in vocational programs is a popular topic among students this summer, said Coffey, who explained some students might drop out.

“Students are going to be less likely to show up for school,” she said. “So many of the things they loved were taken away.”

Senior perspective

When Helen Sanders enrolled at Southeast High School in Oklahoma City during the 2012-13 school year, she never imagined herself playing lead in the school’s spring play three years later.

As a senior, Sanders earned the role of Van Helsing in Dracula.

It was by coincidence that Sanders became attuned to Southeast’s drama program. Two years ago, Sanders found herself miserable in a computer class and was desperate to switch into another course. The only option was drama. She enrolled.

“Over time, drama class changed how I saw going to school,” Sanders explained. “I felt a closer connection to the school.”

The class introduced Sanders to new students, who quickly became her core group of friends, and began staying after school for rehearsals and to help with set design and costumes. In other classes, her speaking skills improved and she was confident speaking in front of people.

In March, through media reports, Sanders and her friends learned 208 district teaching positions were at risk due to budget cuts. They frequently wondered which ones might not return for the 2015-16 school year.

“You heard students say, ‘Hope it wasn’t my favorite teacher,’” Sanders said.

Students, unfortunately, were used to speculating, especially since leaving the district after a school year ended wasn’t a new trend.

Each August, they met new teachers in the classrooms of those who left for new careers or moved to districts outside the state, Sanders said.

In May, students learned about changes to their drama program. Southeast High School would no longer offer a drama course. Drama would be limited to an afterschool program with an advisor leading it instead of a drama teacher.

“It worries me,” Sanders said. “With these cuts, the spirit in the school gets lower and lower. Students are not motivated to get involved because they are worried it will get shut down because of budget cuts.”

Next month, Sanders begins studies at the University of Oklahoma and plans to study aviation and join a student theater group.

Her advice to Southeast students is to stay involved in clubs and activities because that is where lifelong memories and friendships are formed.

Statewide hardship

Jayden Mills can only speculate on how budget cuts will impact Chickasha High School, located about 40 miles southwest of OKC, this school year.

As a junior, 35 students sat with him in science class. Every seat was filled, and a handful of students found space to sit in the lab area.

When dry-erase markers or paper supplies ran low, teachers purchased replacements. Theater and choir programs received fewer dollars, and certain high-level courses, like trigonometry, were only offered online.

“You long for the interaction you have between yourself and a teacher,” Mills said about learning trigonometry via computer. “You lose the ability to got to a teacher and have them help you through a problem one-on-one.”

Mills, a senior, expects similar conditions when Chickasha High School students return to class in mid-August. He also predicts deeper cuts to fine arts programs and some athletics teams as well as increased online courses.

About three years ago, Mills began chatting on Twitter using the #oklaed hashtag. He was instantly connected to teachers, administrators, politicians and community members, and the interaction inspired him to pen advocacy letters to state lawmakers.

His sophomore year, Mills launched his From the Desk of an Oklahoma Student blog, where he writes about proposed education policy and its impact on schools. He describes what belt-tightening looks from a student perspective.

Students can use their voices to shape the future of public education, Mills said.

“If students see a problem or have an issue with larger class sizes, taking classes online or losing a teacher they love to a better paying job outside of education, they can’t be silent,” Mills said. “Legislators don’t hear from students very often. When they do hear from students, I think they might be more likely to listen to them. We are in a very trying time now. I think a legislator hearing from students would push them to look into real solutions for our state.”

Print headline: Student voices, Trying times spurred budget cuts in public education. Three Oklahoma students share their experience.