CLARKSDALE – When visitors walk through the doors into Clarksdale High School, they immediately notice a straight line of 14 colorful celebrity portraits such as mainstream rapper Lil Wayne, basketball star Kevin Durant, megastar singer Rihanna and hip-hop legend and actor Ice Cube.

The artists are students in Coach Charles Reid’s art class. A 23 year veteran art teacher and former head football coach at Clarksdale High School, Reid sees potential when he looks at the students.

“People find so many wrong things with the kids of this generation but once you really get to know them and tap into what they can actually do, you will find that they are not as bad as you thought they were,” he said.

“I haven’t written a kid up this year because they’re busy working. When you’re working, you don’t have time to do other things because you’re focused on what you’re doing.”

In a state where money for schools is increasingly tight, art and music classes sometimes struggle to stay alive. It’s also a struggle for teachers like Reid, who pay for class supplies out of their own teacher salaries.

Despite the struggle, Reid’s class is an outlet to support students’ talents. The artwork led to the creation of the school’s first student art exhibition where they can showcase their talents to their peers, teachers and the community.

Parents and community members have stopped by the school just to witness the paintings, but faculty and staff were the first to view them.

Carol Gist, the school’s librarian, posted images of the students’ work on the Clarksdale High School Library’s Facebook page.

Currently, the post has 57 reactions, 36 shares, and five comments.

“I think Coach Reid does an excellent job with his students, and I feel like we have so much creativity in our school that goes unrecognized,” she said. “I wanted to be able to put it out there what our kids are doing because I think it’s amazing.”

Reid said creativity is the best way to survive the funding challenges.

The Mississippi Department of Education requires school districts to provide teachers money for classroom materials through the use of Education Enhancement Funds or EEF. This allows teachers individually to expend such funds to support the overall goals of the school.

However, Reid said this money takes no time to spend. He said he thinks he received about $300 dollars in EEF. But he estimates that he spends at least $500 out of his pocket during the school year on art supplies for his students.

For the celebrity portrait project, Reid provided paint for his second-year art students while the school gave them cardboard.

Most of the students used acrylic paint while some preferred to make charcoal drawings of their subjects.

The assignment was a collaborative effort between the students and Reid – Reid chose to use cardboard and acrylic painting, but the subject matter was the student’s choice.

They chose people whom they admired, and it only took them a month to complete this project.

Senior Shania Thomas created her portrait of the multi-talented, Grammy award-winning artist Chris Brown. She said her inspiration came from being a fan of his music. As a second-year art student, Thomas said it wasn’t hard to create her masterpiece.

But, blending and shading everything together was the most challenging part, she said.

Chirol Bailey, creator of the Lauryn Hill painting, agreed.

Chirol Bailey, 11th grader, poses with her portrait of Lauryn Hill. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“I’m the type to always get frustrated with work, but in the end I always [grow] to like it or love it. I did get frustrated with [the Hill painting] because of the blending. I was like this is not going to look right. I didn’t like it, but she actually turned out right,” said Bailey.

Harry Ellerson said it was challenging but also easy to create his image of 21 Savage, one of the rising rap stars from Atlanta.

“It was in the middle because I already knew how to draw,” Ellerson, an 11th grader said. “I just used the picture and connected it with the painting so it was easy.”

Harry Ellerson, 11th grader, poses with his portrait of 21 Savage. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

In a district that’s big on the arts, it’s just as difficult to cut art programs as it is to maintain them, said Dennis Dupree, superintendent of the Clarksdale Municipal School District.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, the formula which determines funding levels for public schools, has only been fully funded twice since its inception in 1997. If the Legislature fully-funded MAEP during the 2016 to 17 school year, the base student cost for all school districts would have been $5,358 per student. However the actual funding per student came out to $4,980.

For fiscal year 2017 , the Clarksdale Municipal School District received $14 million as of February, but after budget cuts in March, it was reduced to just under that sum, about $13.9 million. The Legislature’s failure to fully fund the education formula continues to be a sticking point for lawmakers, education advocates, policy wonks and school officials. Last month, the Mississippi State Supreme Court ruled that MAEP is not a binding mandate, and legislators are not required to fully fund schools.

For June 1 through June 30, the district’s Title I funds decreased from $32,289 to $24,380.

Dupree said the district spends their funds as best as they can, but says the district has been shorted $12 million dollars over the years.

Partnering with local universities like Delta State University and the University of Mississippi and applying for grants has helped somewhat cushion the blow, he added.

Those efforts appear to be paying off.

After seeing the students’ work, teachers expressed admiration, residents asked about purchasing pieces, and more students inquired how to enroll in Reid’s course. He’s helping students to come up with fair prices to charge consumers, but it’s ultimately the student’s decision.

Although money may drive the student to do the work, Reid said he doesn’t focus on the monetary side of art in his classes.

“I don’t want that because that’s too commercial. To me, it takes away the creative side of it. I want everything you’re doing right now to just be creative. I don’t want you to think ‘I’m just doing it for the money.’ That way it diminishes what you’re doing,” said Reid.

However, he noted that there’s a lot of money to be made in art if there is hard work and dedication.

This is the first time for a student exhibit at the school, and the first time Reid was able to offer advanced courses for students. But now he’s teaching more than Art 1. He has two painting classes, one drawing class, and three art courses. He said he feels his department is growing again, and this exhibit will be the first of many exhibits to give students an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Display shows some of the paintings the students created featuring Ice Cube (left to right), Rihanna, Lil Wayne, and Aaliyah. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Brad Anthony, art instructor at Coahoma Community College, said children face many challenges as it is, but he’s “a firm believer that art is a gateway subject that other subjects can be taught through” and they excel through creative expression.

Teaching youth literature, history, science, and other subjects through art and music, helps empower them, but people don’t always see the value in art, he said.

“A lot of people think its recreation,” Anthony said, and don’t see the academic side. “That’s a problem,” he added.

One way to support students is by enabling crossover between art, science, history and English teachers, Anthony said. Adding an artistic supplemental component to curriculum and course work can help art students better perform.

Having new art shows every month at the school is a way Clarksdale High is continuing to encourage students, said Dr. Clarence Hayes, the school’s principal.

In December, the feature exhibit will center on cubism – an early-20th-century art movement that brought European paintings and sculptures toward 20th century modern art. January will feature the blues, the music and culture on which Clarksdale prides itself.

Kaitlin Barton, a 10th grade English teacher, said the exhibits could be complemented in other ways, such as by providing space at the Juke Joint Festival, which is half blues fest and half small town fair.

“It should be an ongoing process where students can be able to show what they’re working on. I think it could also be a really unique tool to bring students together from different schools,” Barton said. “That could be a point of unity rather than a point of division and I think that could be something really beneficial for our community, especially for young people.”

After seeing the exhibit, many students have approached Reid wanting to join his art classes, but he won’t be able to accommodate them all. A summer or after-school program for those who can’t enroll in his class is needed, he said.

Although many were amazed by the students’ paintings, Reid said he knew their capabilities.

“The thing is by now I know my students. I know who can do what, but at the same time I’ve watched them work on it. … Other people have come into the building and said things about it and I’m like, ‘Ok, thank you,’ but I watched them work so I knew what it was going to look like,” he said.

Barton added that she wasn’t surprised either, but it was awe-inspiring to her.

“I think it speaks a lot to the caliber of the talent of the students,” she said. “It also speaks a lot to the talent of their instructor Coach Reid, for him to bring that out of students and provide that space for them because the artwork is professional level.”

Added Bailey, one of the students: “I really didn’t think that they would pay attention to high school students’ art, but the fact that they are is nice.”


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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.