Jaelin Cox, 6, attended prekindergarten three miles from her home in rural Cimarron County. She would get on the bus at 8 a.m. and be home a little after 3 p.m.
Then Plainview Elementary School District closed in June 2011, sending about two dozen students to surrounding districts.
Now Jaelin takes the bus about 25 miles to Boise City for school, getting home at 4:30 p.m. Bedtime is 7 p.m. so that she can catch the bus at 6:45 the next morning.
“That's two and a half hours that I can see her and be a part of her life,” her mother, Jennifer Cox, said. “I don't like it.”
In the Panhandle and other rural areas of Oklahoma, school district consolidation can mean longer bus routes — leading to long, tiring days for schoolchildren and thousands of dollars in added fuel and insurance costs for districts.
Jaelin's grandmother, Christy Cox, drives the school bus from the old Plainview district to Boise City. The new route is 55 miles each way.
“It is really, really hard on our kids,” she said. “By the end of the week, they're dead tired.”
Christy Cox worked for the Plainview district for 11 years, driving about five children to school in a red Chevrolet Suburban.
Now she drives about 15 students, including high schoolers, in a yellow school bus. The long drive is taxing on the children and on her, she said. She wakes up an hour earlier than she did last year — 4:30 a.m. — and gets home at 5:30 in the evening.
She said that when Plainview closed, “it broke everybody's heart.”
She sees some benefits, though. For example, she said the Boise City School District can offer the students more activities.
Plus, the students are pretty excited that they upgraded to a school bus.
“Why? I don't know, but they are,” Christy Cox said.
The Boise City District has been transporting students to and from the old Plainview District for years, ever since the high school there closed.
But the upgrade from a Suburban to a school bus means the route costs double what it used to, said Ira Harris, superintendent of the Boise City School District.
For starters, the bus is much less fuel-efficient, Harris said.
Throw in higher costs for insurance and the driver, and the route costs $5,000 more per year than it did before consolidation, he said.
Adding a bus route is more costly for school districts. In Washita County, population 11,000, about 50 students started attending Cordell Public Schools after Washita Heights School District closed in May 2010.
The Cordell District had to add a route to accommodate the new students, which costs about $11,000 in fuel alone, Cordell Public Schools Superintendent Brad Overton said.
The district also had to add a bus driver to its payroll at a cost of $5,500, he said. The driver keeps the bus at home at night, which saves money for the district, and added per-pupil funding offsets some costs, he said.
In addition, the districts are close enough that some parents and students are willing to drive to school.
In rural areas, long drives are the norm. As populations shrink, Panhandle communities become less and less like their downstate counterparts, where there are schools every several miles, said Sherri Hitchings, secretary to the superintendent of Keyes Public Schools.
“We feel like we're just withering away,” she said.
Parents and teachers make adjustments. Jaelin Cox's parents, for instance, make sure their daughter is rested for school after the 50-mile drive back from church on Wednesday nights.
“We just take her PJs and she sleeps on the way home,” Jennifer Cox said.
Christy Cox said her early mornings used to faze her, but just as with any other inconvenience of rural living, she got used to it.
“By the second semester, I had kind of settled into it,” she said. “If you live out here, that's what you have to do.”