Although Carter isn’t from Wellborn, he knew enough about this close-knit community to recognize what would get families talking: tradition.
Many of the current generation of Wellborn High students are descendants of parents and grandparents who attended the 56-year-old high school that opened its doors in 1954.
Carter said no matter what decade Wellborn alumni graduated, they should be able to bond with each other and future grads over common threads.
Thus, in his first year as principal, Carter has set out to bring back past Wellborn traditions he felt the school and community would rally around.
One such tradition is not walking on the grass on school grounds.
Now, Carter hopes, when families sit down to eat, they’ll have something to talk about.
“Students can say, ‘Yeah, today I had my tail tore up for walking on the grass,’ and the parents will tell them, ‘Man, I used to get my tail tore up all the time for that,’” Carter said. “It’s all about conversation pieces.”
Another Wellborn tradition Carter quickly embraced is the art program, which gives students a way to leave their mark on the school, he said.
Carter’s predecessors also fought to keep the art program at Wellborn High, the only school in the Calhoun County school district to still have one.
The payoffs are displayed all over Wellborn. For example, art students at the high school recently painted a mural of a black panther in the lunchroom where the seventh- through 12th-graders eat. The fierce mascot is a symbol of the school’s legacy of natural brawn, scrappiness and unshakable pride.
Principal Carter and other school leaders want students, parents and alumni to remember why they’re proud to be part of Wellborn, a community of around 7,000 people anchored by the primary and secondary schools serving the area west of Anniston and north of Oxford, stretching east from Mudd Street at the western edge of the county to Clydesdale Avenue in west Anniston.
Proud because they’re a community of survivors.
Proud because Wellborn students graduate and decide to send their own children to school here.
Proud that parents and alumni pitch in to make sure school facilities don’t fall apart.
Proud that teachers and administrators fight for their students, to keep enrollment up, to raise graduation rates and to uphold traditions that make Wellborn High distinct.
Yet, the challenge facing the high school is to rise to the same heights of traditions passed down through the decades at a time when the enrollment has dropped as low as nearly a third of what it once was.
The student body numbers 550, but Wellborn High once counted as many as 1,300 students.
“That’s why we have high standards, why people in the community step up,” said Wellborn High secretary and 1968 graduate Pat Brooks. “We weren’t always a small school.”
True to tradition
No matter how drastically enrollment shrinks, the school and its supporters are not content to let the quality of education, athletics and facilities decline with decreased funding, which is allocated in proportion to enrollment.
The commitment to the school even surprises some teachers who were once Wellborn students themselves and sent their children there.
Lisa Thompson graduated from Wellborn High in 1978 and now works as the school’s bookkeeper. Both her daughters are also Panther alumnae.
She spoke about how proud she and other school supporters felt when more than 100 parents and alumni turned up one fall weekend morning to work on the landscape of the school’s facilities, including laying sod on the football field, pulling weeds and cleaning the grounds around the buildings.
“Wellborn is a very close-knit community,” she said. “You don’t find many places that do that.”
Thompson’s family legacy of Panther alumni is a common theme among the 10 Wellborn High faculty members who also graduated from the school and currently make up nearly a third of the full-time faculty. These educators either followed in parents’ footsteps or have sent their children after them, or both.
Brooks said each generation of Wellborn families reflects the community’s resilient and loyal character.
“It’s in your blood,” Brooks said.
Those characteristics, the teachers said, will help this proud, strong and hard-working community survive the tough circumstances they are facing with an aging population and disappearing jobs.
Doing more with less
Nearly eight years ago, a vote to allow Oxford to annex unincorporated parts of Calhoun County resulted in a dramatic reduction in Wellborn’s population.
Portions of the annexed area had been part of the Wellborn High School and Wellborn Elementary School zones, and the redistricting gutted about two-thirds of the student population.
With little room left to grow, the transition that followed tested the community’s generosity and perseverance, and many say Wellborn rose to the challenge.
“We do the best we can with what we have,” said Sandy Schmick, Wellborn High art teacher and 1991 graduate. “Even though we’re smaller, we keep pressing on despite the things we’re up against.”
Teachers who graduated from Wellborn High said they faced fewer challenges in high school than what students confront these days, including fewer classmates, deeper economic worries, more one-parent homes and a drop-out rate that, like the rest of the state, is well above the national average.
Students expressed gratitude for the education they receive at Wellborn.
Senior LaToya Ellington, a second-generation Panther, said Wellborn has a stronger sense of unity than most schools.
“Here, we’ve got our own community. We all support each other,” Ellington said, adding she would like to experience living in other places but might eventually end up in Wellborn. “I know if I came back, that (the unity) would be the reason.”
Sophomore Jesse Sims, whose mother graduated from Wellborn, is more reluctant to think about leaving the community.
“I have so many memories here, I don’t know if I’d want to move away,” he said. “I might live somewhere a couple years and come back to take care of my mom.”
When asked if he’d send his children to Wellborn schools when that day comes, Sims simply said, “Of course.”
Wellborn High counselor Todd Ford, a 1986 graduate, said the school is dedicated to its goal that every student “walk across that stage.”
He believes added incentives such as art classes, after-school sports, distance learning opportunities and technology programs will help encourage students to stay in school and graduate. Ford said he hopes to see more programs like last semester’s experiment in lending laptops to every seventh-grader, which he said had positive outcomes.
Parents and administrators believe the school’s strongest assets are the faculty and staff.
Amanda Waldrop, a Wellborn High parent, 1990 graduate and special education teacher, said teachers care for their students as if they were their own children.
“There are a lot of teachers here who can help transform kids,” Waldrop said. “Teachers go way above and beyond the call of duty. You need those people.”
Classes that teach skills and trades that help young people find jobs — such as the agri-science program, and shop and home economics classes — have had a particularly powerful transformative effect on many students, faculty members said.
Time for revival
Despite Wellborn’s indomitable spirit, the community is still reeling from the shock of the 2002 annexation. Nothing could be done to stop the hemorrhaging of students for several years after the redistricting.
The final class with annexed students eligible to be grandfathered into the Wellborn school district graduated in 2008, so Wellborn High is only in its second academic year with just Wellborn kids.
Teachers and administrators said that means the school can finally begin rebuilding.
For the first signs that the school is turning a corner, look no further than athletics. In Wellborn, like the blue-collar towns of Pittsburgh or Green Bay, sports are the bedrock of the community.
Wellborn wrestlers dominate the Class 1A-4A state championships, with the Panthers clinching the title four of the past five years.
Yet, as strong as wrestling is in the winter, Wellborn has been hurting in the fall. Hopes of returning to the strong tradition of Panther football, going back to six regional championship teams in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, were going unfulfilled. The 3A Panthers were 1-9 in the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Wellborn football needed to be reignited, and Principal Carter went out and recruited the biggest matchstick he could find — seasoned 6A head coach and 1987 Wellborn graduate Jeff Smith.
Smith moved his family from Hueytown to his native Wellborn last summer and in one season filled out his squad from 16 players to a program that is more than 100 athletes deep, taking the Panthers to the playoffs and a hard-fought 4-7 record.
Recruiting a coach who remembers the glory days of Panther football is another move by Carter to reunite generations of Wellborn young and old.
Likewise, Carter reclaimed yet another tradition with football pep rallies. The Wellborn marching band parades through hallways and breezeways on Friday afternoons and students fall in step behind them. The procession pours into the school gym, joining cheerleaders, players and elementary school students, faces painted with black and white Panther pride by students taking art classes.
Needless to say, Wellborn children have had a lot more to say at the dinner table this year.
Gigi Alford is a student in the University of Alabama/Anniston Star Masters in Community Journalism Fellowship program.