Editor’s note: Larry Lee led the study “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools” and is a long-time advocate for public schools. He continues to observe and comment on developments in schools and classrooms around Alabama. He is a former Chamber of Commerce breakfast speaker on the subject “Education Precedes Prosperity.”
On a Thursday night while millions were watching Vice-President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan debate, a small group of perhaps 50 mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and teenagers were gathered in the ancient auditorium at Elmore County High School watching aspiring actors and actresses practice their craft as they tried out for district competitions.
Right in the middle of it all was Michele Eller, an English teacher with a love of drama and the dedication to devote countless extra hours to the students who attend this small school in Eclectic.
Eller has taught for 14 years, the last 10 in this rural community about 12 miles from Wetumpka. Nine years ago her principal asked her to also teach drama and because of a lifelong interest in theatre and music, she gladly took on the additional duties. She had 20 students in the first class. Today there are 80 in drama, in a school of just over 500 students. Antidote to dropping out
While many wring their hands about the country’s high dropout rate, they fail to consider that kids quit school because nothing holds their interest. Principal after principal will tell you that they lose students because students see no point in it all.
That is why teachers like Michele Eller are so vital. Because they are going the extra mile to provide a high school educational experience that is meaningful.
“I’ve had many students tell me that their only reason for coming to school is drama,” Eller said. Roadblock avoided: lack of school funding
But in this time of ever-shrinking education budgets, programs such as drama, the arts, and music are some of the first things on the chopping block. This means Eller and her students have resorted to their own labor and fundraising to get what they need.
For example, when the ECHS drama club first started having productions, there was no sound equipment or backdrop curtains. Students sewed all of the curtains, which were hung by the system’s maintenance department. Fundraising efforts like each year’s womanless beauty pageant has enabled them to buy a soundboard, microphones, wiring, amplifiers, costumes, makeup, etc.
The club does two plays or skit nights each year. Another highlight is the daytime performances attended by elementary and middle school students.
“My students have a lot of fun doing these,” Eller said. “And the younger kids really enjoy them. In fact, many of my students are now involved in drama because they watched a play while in elementary or middle school.”
One of the high points of each year for drama students is competing in district and state competitions. This is the Walter Trumbauer Secondary Theatre Festival that began in 1940. This year’s competition is Nov. 30 – Dec. 1 at the University of North Alabama.
ECHS first took five students to the competition six years ago and they all placed. Last year, 22 students competed. Scores are awarded for superior, excellent, and good. All of Eller’s students were judged excellent or better. Measures of success
Any good educator measures success in a variety of ways. Michele Eller is no different. For her success is how many are involved in the program; how many learn a new skill such as working lights or building sets; how many stay in school because of their involvement in drama; how many are successful in competitions; how many receive scholarships in not only the arts, but also academics; and how many are successful in their future endeavors.
Among her successes is one who works at Disney World, one who has a recording studio, and one who is a school band director, in addition to those who have received college scholarships.
There are those who would tell us that it is very unlikely that anyone from rural Alabama could impact the world of arts and entertainment. But who would’ve thought that George Lindsey from Jasper and Jim Nabors from Sylacauga would be key members of one of the most beloved television shows in history, or that Eddie Kendrick from Union Springs would be a founding member of the Grammy-winning group The Temptations, or that a skinny kid from Georgiana by the name of Hank Williams would still be impacting music 59 years after his death?
What would Michele Eller say? What do you say?