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Students join instructor to save SIC art program

  • Southeastern Illinois College art professor Sara DeNeal instructs students in the art studio at SIC.

    Southeastern Illinois College art professor Sara DeNeal instructs students in the art studio at SIC.

Posted on 2/12/2021, 12:03 PM

HARRISBURG -- With the art program on the chopping block, students at Southeastern Illinois College have joined with their instructor, Sara DeNeal, in urging the board of trustees to reconsider.

At the Jan. 21 meeting of the board, Vice President Karen Weiss cited why the college was looking to eliminate certificate and degree programs in both Art and Business.

"Enrollment patterns coupled with the downturn in tuition revenue and the state's disinvestment in higher education make them necessary," she said.

DeNeal sees it differently.

"If you want to increase enrollment, you don't cut programs," she said.

DeNeal currently teaches five classes: Art Appreciation; Painting; Advanced Painting; Portfolio; and Ceramics.

While she says there are only eight degree students enrolled in the art program, 84 students are enrolled in her classes.

That is a little less than normal, she says, but say the enrollment decline is not specific to SIC. In February, DeNeal was told they needed to get enrollment up. The pandemic hit in March, which DeNeal said made recruiting impossible.

"Normally we go to high schools or art shows, or teachers send us information on students," she said.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of shows, and put high school teachers in a position of struggling to interact with their students through remote or hybrid learning.

A December article by NPR supports the claim of a national drop in enrollment.

Citing data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the article said that undergraduate enrollment had declined by more than 10% at community colleges, ror oughly 544,000 students.

DeNeal fears that cutting the art program will just heighten the enrollment decline.

"If a student can afford it, they will just go somewhere else," she said.

SIC officials have said that art classes will be offered through the community college SHARE program.

DeNeal believes that is unrealistic.

"We have students from Hardin and Pope counties already driving 45 to 60 minutes one way," she said. "When they find out they have to drive to John A. Logan or Rend Lake, it's unlikely they will take that option."

Art education major Mackenzie Gidcumb spoke to the SIC board in January.

"SIC has always been a school where students can receive a well-rounded education, and this includes the visual arts," she said in a letter to the board. "My fear is by cutting the entire art program you will not only lose art majors but other students who are looking for that well-rounded education."

Former student Christopher Walle of Marion also addressed the board in writing.

"The art program is so helpful for future art students who need the classes and program in order to go to a higher art school," wrote Walle, who earned an associate degree at SIC. "There's multiple jobs that require different types of art such as fine artist, art therapist, art teacher, illustrator, arts administrator, film, theater, the list goes on.

"Art plays a big role in people's lives, art is everywhere, even when people can't see it. We wouldn't be able to watch movies, see magazines, view posters, and admire album covers if it weren't for it. "

The SIC board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. on Feb. 16. DeNeal hopes it will reconsider and look for other funding opportunities including federal relief funds of $2.2 million that are slated to be available through the Emergency Education Stabilization Funding Act.

There is also expected to be additional PELL Grant funding available in the fall.

No matter the decision, DeNeal said she is proud of her students for stepping up.

"I have taken this as an opportunity to teach students about advocacy and the importance of speaking from your heart and letting your voice be heard to those who are making decisions," she said.

"I'm really proud of my students for taking ownership of their program and doing what they can to save it."

• Disclosure: Sara DeNeal is the wife of Harrisburg Register editor R. Travis DeNeal. He had no role in the reporting and writing of this story.