Pawhuska Public Schools is seeing a rebound in student enrollment numbers, and district officials explain it’s not because they adopted some clever or insightful enrollment strategy.


Instead, they have a sort of community strategy that focuses on listening carefully to needs and desires expressed by the local population and making those things happen.


Superintendent David Cash mentioned reopening the junior high school, and offering more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) content at the elementary school level as examples. He also mentioned, as something important to numerous families in the community, getting rid of the $50 deposit that families used to have to pay to have a Chromebook computer issued to a student.


“A lot of people have made mention of that,” he said.


The enrollment numbers reflect that narrative of improving school district engagement with the public. Pawhuska’s total enrollment as of Oct. 31, 2019, was 748 students. That was up four students from Oct. 1, when the number was 744, and up 61 students from Oct. 1, 2018, when enrollment was 687.


The Pawhuska Board of Education hired Cash as superintendent and Beverly Moore as assistant superintendent in the summer of 2018, shortly before the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. Cash recalls that almost all the transfers he approved from the time of his hiring until about October 2018 were for students leaving. Since that time, almost all the transfers he has approved have been for students coming to Pawhuska Public Schools.


He and Moore recall they spent a lot of time in meetings in 2018-19, listening to community members, parents, students and teachers.


“People had a lot of thoughts,” Cash said. “I think a lot of it was simple communication.”


Teachers had been welcomed into the superintendent selection process in the summer of 2018, and they had voiced concern that leadership of the school district needed to work to develop greater trust on the part of the local community. One teacher commented in a board session that she feared the schools were on the verge of losing the community’s trust.


Another crucial change the Pawhuska school district has made is to move away from teaching students to pass state standardized tests, replacing that approach with a focus on determining student academic needs and teaching to the students’ needs. The district has used MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing, pioneered by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit based in Portland, Ore., to help determine student needs and measure student academic growth.


“Our staff had been drilled so much with teach the test, teach the test, teach the test,” Moore said, explaining that the focus has changed entirely and Pawhuska Public Schools administrators met at length with faculty members to help them understand they had been freed up to teach students rather than teaching state standards.


“That’s all we care about,” Cash said of student academic growth, adding that state assessments are no longer a significant factor in Pawhuska’s teaching decisions. He said Nebraska has adopted MAP as its state testing approach, and Oklahoma could save money if it did so.


“Our state could do it for 25 percent of what we’re spending on testing right now,” Cash said. He noted that gifted students are frequently losers in any teaching approach that focuses on state standards. If a school district’s primary goal is making sure all students meet a particular standard, that district may not provide any challenge for students who easily, without learning anything new, can meet that standard.


Cash acknowledges that Oklahoma public schools have been losing students to online virtual schools.


“Quite honestly, they are serving a need in the state,” he said. “But we need to provide those kinds of options. We can do it better. I am quite familiar with their model. We can provide all the activities they cannot.”


Pawhuska is trying to develop a sense of community in the schools and encourages communication between students, teachers and administrators


“We really do try to stay in touch with our kids,” he said.