With the non-profit Laurel High School facing some of its biggest challenges in its soon-to-be-40-year history, it's only fitting that local musicians are coming to its aid. The high school, smack-dab in the middle of Fort Sanders on Laurel Avenue, opened in October 1971 as "an option for students with curiosity, energy, and independence of spirit" that includes individualized instruction, usually quite heavy in the arts.
Beginning Dec. 19 with a concert featuring R.B. Morris, Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere, the Tim Lee 3, and Jill Andrews, Laurel will have an ongoing fund-raiser once a month at Relix Variety Theatre. "Relix is generously allowing us to keep the door proceeds if we'll coordinate the entertainment," says school administrator Shelly Woodrick.
LHS needs the funds for bare-bones expenses like utility bills and payroll. "We have two teachers who have been there about 20 years each, and while they're not doing it for the pay, they do need to be paid," Woodrick says.
How did the school reach this hand-to-mouth state? "Just like very many, or probably all, non-profits in these economic times, we're having financial challenges," Woodrick says. "Our enrollment is down—I think people who normally would find Laurel a good fit for their students are trying to find alternatives that don't cost anything."
Tuition for the full 2010-11 year was $6,500 per student. School enrollment maxes out at 30, and is typically around 25 students, but it was lower than that this year, Woodrick says, particularly after 10 students graduated last spring.
"Even before this concert series, or this turn of events, fund-raising has always been a part of our plan, and the kids are always involved—we do small events all year, like park cars for UT events because of our location in the Fort. Funds we make with these concerts could allow us to finish off this year successfully."
Long-term goals for the money raised are much loftier. Woodrick hopes fund-raising will be targeted to a project initiated by one of the first Laurel graduates, Brett Honeycutt, now a successful architect in town. He got the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design to commit to LHS as a "pet project" at the end of last school year, developing and drawing up plans for renovations that will be on display—though not necessarily in final form—at the Dec. 19 concert.
"We'd like to ultimately be able to get to the point where the plans are in place and we can take them out to seek funds," says Woodrick. "But first we have to get over this hump."
R.B. Morris was the first to answer the call for performers. He's had an on-again, off-again relationship of long standing with LHS, teaching and advising there in the early and mid-'90s. "My work usually had to do with students interested in writing, poetry," he says. "I taught Beat literature when a certain group of people were interested in that. I taught American classics. Anything to do with literature—and also a little bit of guitar."
Kelly Brown was a fellow teacher, and is still at the school. He had asked periodically if Morris wanted to perform some time. "Others had asked, too. I always said, ‘Just let me know when,'" Morris says. "We warmed up to it a few times, but this time it's happening."
Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere jumped on the bandwagon next. "R.B. and I, we usually play one gig together every winter," Steed says. "This one's it this year. I'm into benefits for good causes, and over the years I've known a lot of their students. I think it's a valuable thing to have an alternative to basic choices."
Morris, too, while he doesn't claim intimate knowledge of the school in past years, fully supports the mission. "It's a different sort of school, certainly. It has a rich history of students going on and doing good college work. And they run the gamut. Some are totally exceptional students; some are on their last go-round, this is the last place that will take them. Sometimes they're exceptional, too."
Jill Andrews will play a solo set at the concert; Todd Steed's got a new CD out and a lot of his material will come from that.
Morris will perform with the Tim Lee 3 band. "It's like getting exercise—psychic exercise and physical exercise," he says. "We've played little shows, a set or two here or there, but this time they've worked up a bunch of my songs, and we'll play them a little different than I played them before.
"It's a rock 'n' roll deal. I like that a lot."
The LHS Concert Series Kick-Off is Sunday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. at Relix Variety Theatre. Suggested donation $10. For more information: laurelhighschool.org.