NC state mandate threatens high school arts and specialty classes

By Colleen Brown

The bell shrieked, releasing a rush of students from classrooms. I pressed myself against one wall, trying not to get in the way of the stampede.

The students at William G. Enloe High School seemed smaller than I remembered them being, or maybe I just grew in the two years since I walked the halls. They darted around one another, chatting or staring down at phones as they passed teachers.

The teachers stuck on hall patrol looked out over the crowd of bobbing heads with faraway expressions. They didn’t bother asking students to put their phones away and students paid them no attention whatsoever.

A two-minute warning sounded and like water leaking down a drain, the teenagers found places to be that weren’t the hallway. A few stragglers slipped into classrooms just as the final bell rang.

The hallway echoed emptily as I walked down the worn tan and green tile, grown dull and scratched in months since its last buffing. It smelled vaguely old, a given in a building that was built in the 60s.

A mural painting of a galaxy wrapped around the door and lockers outside my old astronomy classroom. Reds and pinks, navy and touches of black covered the institutional white cinder blocks. A large greyish-white moon and small white stars twinkled on top of the riot of color.

A student walked by holding a tripod and a staff topped with the golden head of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Another mural graced the walkway outside the cafeteria. Photo-realistic fruits, each as tall as a person, overlapped each other. A sign by the mural said “Enloe Beautification in Progress,” a warning for students not to vandalize the new piece. Someone had crossed out the word “Enloe” and written “Enloe sucks 3/20/2017”.

I laughed. That’s about what I expected.

Arts in trouble

This past November, Republican Senate leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly created a mandate, hidden in the state budget, that will lower class sizes in Kindergarten through third grade to a maximum of 18 students per teacher. Although lower class sizes are better for learning, this mandate came with a problem: extra money was not provided to pay for the hiring of new teachers.

I spoke over the phone with Mary Casey, the K-12 Director of Arts Education at Durham Public Schools, to help me better understand how this mandate will affect students and teachers.

According to Casey, the response from school districts statewide was virtually unanimous: the only way to pay for smaller class sizes without increased funding is to cut arts, physical education and specialist classes.

The mandate might not affect just elementary schools. Each district has discretion in figuring out how to pay for teachers. According to Casey, some might just cut elementary specialists. Other districts might spread the cuts across elementary, middle and high schools in order to keep a few teachers at each level.

This means no art, band, dance or music for students. No gym, orchestra or other specialties like newspaper and audiovisual classes. But more than that, the state is taking away teachers’ livelihoods, their incomes and careers.

“A lot of people are saying they’ll make the students a pawn in this,” Casey said. “We believe in a well-rounded student, which includes specialists, in support of classroom teachers. Engagement and self-expression in the arts and PE are part of a child’s growth. It’s a huge part of how they develop, through movement and song and artwork.”

Casey has 175 art teachers under her, one of whom is my mother. It’s unlikely any of them will have a job this upcoming school year.


Enloe GT/IB Center for the Humanities, Sciences and the Arts is one of the most challenging high schools in the state, ranked seventh in NC by The Washington Post in 2016. A school like Enloe is built off enticing talented students into a poorer, underachieving region of Wake County like southeast Raleigh through advanced classes in the humanities, sciences and arts. Take away those classes, and you take away the success. I spent four years here, growing and learning as a person. I likely wouldn’t have gotten in to UNC-Chapel Hill if not for Enloe.

Physical Education: Womble

I met with Andrew Womble, one of the best soccer coaches I ever played for, during his weightlifting class.

Womble looked the same, rocking athletic gear and a crew cut, with the body of a former athlete who’s still, mostly, keeping up with it after seven years teaching at Enloe. He lives in Sanford. The pay to work in Wake County makes up for the hour-long commute, but it’s nothing compared to what he made working in Texas.

Womble commanded the room of teenage boys with absolute respect and a booming Southern accent, putting them through their warm-up paces on the heavy, old-fashioned weight racks. The bars creaked and groaned as we spoke. The boys were doing squat clean and jerks, throwing the weight bar above their heads before letting it slam to the rubber mats. It smelled awful, a caustic mix of sweat and metal, exacerbated by poor air conditioning.

“It’s… tough, and to be honest, I’m looking for a way out,” Womble said as he went over the students’ numbers from their max-out day. “There’s not been any money invested in athletics. I think the drive’s starting to get to me more and more a little every year. I only get $2,400 for coaching. Pennies on the hour. It’s just not worth it.”

The workout broke down toward the end of class. Boys started doing their favorite exercises. Some lifted dumbbells. Others did chin-ups. Nirvana played over the speakers, which had some of the guys rocking air guitars in front of the wall-to-wall mirrors.

When I asked to take photos, one boy ripped off his shirt and started flexing. Womble barked at him to put his shirt back on because, “No one wants to see that.” The class laughed, giving the boy a hard time for trying to show off in front of a college girl.

I explained the predicament the NC legislature had placed schools, almost shouting to be heard over the music and weights. Womble just shook his head slowly.

“If I wasn’t an athlete, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” Womble said. “I hated school, only liked sports. They teach leadership, work ethics, motivational stuff, this is stuff kids carry their lives. I couldn’t picture myself as a five-year-old not being able to play. There’s a bunch of kids that are going to be left behind.”

Studio Art: Klenow

The classroom was light, airy and absolutely packed with art. Art on the walls, the tables, the windows. Drawings of pineapple and buildings in correct aspect ratio hung on the wall next to a mobile of small, grasping hands bunched together. There were watercolors, pastel sketches and mixed media lining the hallway outside the classroom, shepherding you into an explosion of color and chaos.

The countertop lining the back wall was splashed with dried paint, supporting wooden easels, newspaper clippings and stray bits of paper. On the back wall, the words “Line, Space, Shape, Value, Color and Texture” were printed. “ABC: Always Be Creating” adorned another wall.

Ten students, mostly girls, stay in the class during Mrs. Klenow’s planning period for lunch. They were dressed in artsy clothing, with Chuck Taylors and shirts advertising bands I’ve never heard of. They’ve created their own little hideout here in the art room.

Trish Klenow is a middle-aged woman of medium height, with light hair highlighted an artsy reddish color. She spoke and moved quickly, with motions that made her seem younger somehow, quirky in her capris and comfortable shoes. She wore dangly silver earrings and a silvery watch, paired with a key-shaped necklace.

“I knew from a young age that art was my passion, that this is what I wanted to do,” Klenow said in-between bites of low-fat Greek yogurt.

She told me about working near the Texas-Mexico border. “There was razor wire, fires, fights breaking out all the time,” she said. “But my budget there was twice what it is here. My salary was better. I won an award, Most Outstanding Art Educator, High School Division, for all of Texas.” Klenow gestured to the plaque on the wall above her desk with a plastic spoon.

Klenow has been voraciously keeping up with news about the mandate.

“I am such an advocate for art education,” she said. “It teaches critical thinking and creativity. To take it away, you are handicapping one of our strengths. I’m afraid, for students, for myself, for my colleagues.”

Klenow looked around her classroom, surveying the students working on projects. One girl painted a watercolor with rapid, small motions, spreading blues and purples. Others gathered in the center of the room, talking politics away from the insanity of the overcrowded cafeteria.

“I love my nerds here, they’re so dedicated,” Klenow said. “I’ve had children tell me that the only reason they come to school is for art. It’s not just fun art therapy. I have students who’ve gotten prize money, great scholarships they need for college. It’s just not fair.”

One of the students, senior Ken Wear, was packing his sculpture into a shipping box headed for the Parsons School of Design and a two-year tour of the United States.

Wear is small and unassuming, with glasses and short, stubbly hair mostly covered by a black beanie. He wore a dark hoodie with what I thought was a Tardis on the back.

His piece that’s going on tour, Sucellus, is a hand-sculpted clay mask with leaves coming out of the back of the head. Small black beetles crawl over the face into empty eye sockets.

Wear is still deciding on which college to attend. He received a $54,000 scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, but is waiting to hear back from the Maryland Institute College of Art to see if he wins their full scholarship.

“I can’t pay $150,000, so I’ll go to the one that gives me more money,” Wear said, half-joking. “I’m trying not to be in debt for the rest of my life.”

Wear isn’t sure what he’ll do in the future, whether it be gallery work or teaching, but is sure either school will offer great opportunities.

Before leaving for his next class, Wear turned to me with no prompting and said: “Art is the only thing I can really lose myself in. I don’t know what I’d do if they took it away.”

Edited by Luke Bollinger