OKLAHOMA CITY — Until this year, seventh-graders in Wellston who didn't quite fit into athletics or music might find their niche in agriculture class.

“It’s been a very successful program. Students enjoy it. They can find things that they’re interested in," said Superintendent Dwayne Danker, who leads the district of about 645 students 40 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

That all ended this year when 30 seventh-graders who'd signed up for the elective discovered that it was no longer offered for credit.

The reason was a new law that only allows public schools to offer agricultural classes to students in eighth through 12th grades.

The law freezes out students in agricultural classes in Wellston and five or so other districts across the state.

In all, about 300 students were inadvertently affected by the law, said its author, state Sen. Jason Smalley, R-Stroud. He has since filed another bill seeking the Legislature’s blessing to include youth in sixth and seventh grades.

Smalley said he's reacting to an outcry from parents, schools leaders and students upset over the lost classes, which he described as an inadvertent effect of the new law.

“I really felt horrible,” he said. “This may be the only thing they participate in or want to."

The current law was adopted last year, when the Legislature stepped into a fray over who should run the state’s robust agricultural education programs, which serve 30,000 students — the state’s career technology programs or public schools.

As the dust settled, legislators gave local schools authority over their programs, but also limited the grades in which students could enroll.

The bill prohibited technology center school districts from operating agriculture programs or running chapters of the Future Farmers of America, which work with youth in 8th through 12th grades.

Smalley said the restrictions were set to match those imposed by FFA, without realizing that some rural districts offer agricultural options to even younger students.

Those districts didn’t realize what had happened until the law took effect.

“We want young, bright minds to take an interest in agriculture and hopefully choose that as what they want to do as their profession,” said Blayne Arthur, deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. She noted that the average age of the farmer is increasing.

Behind only oil and gas, agriculture is the state’s second-largest economic driver, bringing about $36 billion to Oklahoma’s economy each year, Arthur said.

“We’re very supportive of any additional educational programs for students. We just know sometimes that may or may not take some extra resources,” she said.

Smalley said his bill won't require districts to offer agricultural classes to sixth- and seventh-graders, but rather allow districts to offer the classes if they think the courses best serve their students.

That’s a decision that Danker fully supports.

“I just think schools should be able to offer it if they want to,” he said.

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