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'I love these kids' — Riverview Gardens’ Harvey Lockhart named art educator of the year

Riverview Gardens High band director Harvey Lockhart leads a class through practice. (Jan. 17, 2017)
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Riverview Gardens High band director Harvey Lockhart leads a class through practice.

Music is vitally important to Riverview Gardens High School band director Harvey Lockhart. But his students' well-being ranks even higher.

During the past five years, Lockhart has made musicians out of dozens of students, changing the way they see themselves and their futures.

For his efforts, The Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis will honor Lockhart Monday night as art educator of the year, in a ceremony at the Chase Park Plaza.

But for Lockhart, 32, it’s not about awards, but relationships.

“I love these kids and they know that,” Lockhart said.

‘Doing this together’

During the first day back to class after winter break for Lockhart’s wind ensemble students, he talks tough.

“I know for a fact that some of you didn’t practice at all during the break,” Lockhart said. “Can y’all get set up, stop playing around?”

The class responds to his words, which are tempered by a wide smile. A dozen kids climb into chairs and spring their flutes, clarinets, and trombones from worn black cases and begin to warm up. It’s a familiar site for Lockhart, who came to the high school seven years ago.

Noel Richee, center, and Keyon Moore practice during a recent band rehearsal at Riverview Gardens High School. (Jan. 17, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Noel Richee, center, and Keyon Moore practice during a recent band rehearsal.

At that time, only 10 students played music. He recruited dozens more, enough for concert, marching and jazz bands, and acquired more than 80 new and used instruments.  The jazz band performs outside of school as many as 50 times a year.

Lockhart’s high expectations come from his own childhood. He learned to play the saxophone from teachers who demanded his best.

“They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and I do the same thing with all of these students,” Lockhart said. “I try to push them to their limits and let them know that it’s all in love … we’re doing this together.”

‘I see them’

Lockhart plays along with his students at Riverview Gardens High. (Jan. 17, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lockhart plays along with his students.

Lockhart learns along with his students by playing unfamiliar instruments in class. Instead of his saxophone, he may pick up a trumpet to practice notes with the class.  

He said it’s all about paying attention to the students in this underserved district, which lost its accreditation in 2007 — and where every high schooler qualifies for reduced or free lunch. But Lockhart believes the kids have untapped potential. It’s something the father of three tries to develop by building a personal relationship with each of his band students.

“I call them my family. And you notice when something’s wrong with your family,” Lockhart said. “So I just notice them; I see them.”

Recently, Lockhart saw that 17-year-old Ngone Seck wasn’t her usual self. She moved to St. Louis from Italy three years ago, without knowing any English. But she learned quickly, and it wasn’t long before she was taking honors classes, playing three instruments, and involved in two music groups outside of school. But a few months ago she became depressed.

“I had too much on my plate and it was really stressful,” Seck said. “I would find myself skipping meals and not realizing it and losing a lot of weight. Even my hair was falling out.”

Lockhart and student Ngone Seck talk after rehearsal at Riverview Gardens. (Jan. 17, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lockhart and student Ngone Seck talk after rehearsal.

Lockhart took her aside to ask if he could help. At first she told him she’d handled it. But he wouldn’t let up.  

“He would tell me, ‘No. No, this week, you’re dropping everything; you’re taking a break from everything,” Seck said. ‘[He told me] ‘You have to take care of yourself.’”

Seck began to feel better after taking her teacher’s advice. Now, she’s passing it on to her three little sisters. Recently, one of them felt badly for missing two questions on a test when another student only missed one.

“I was kind of being a mini Mr. Lockhart by telling her that it’s OK when someone else is better than you for a moment,” she said.

One of the out-of-school music groups Seck plays with is the North County Big Band that Lockhart founded two years ago.  It includes kids from several high schools who practice and perform at The Sheldon. He’s also planning a Heal Center for the Arts at the .Zack arts space, offering vocal and instrumental music training, as well as dance. All his work — in school and out — has a single ambition:

“My ultimate goal is to get students into college and prepare them for life,” Lockhart said.

Last year, Lockhart helped launch seven kids out into the world on a high note. Five from Riverview Gardens High School and two more from the larger band earned full music scholarships at two- and four-year colleges.

‘Everything’s going to be all right’

Tyrese Whitfield, center, plays trombone. (Jan. 17, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Tyrese Whitfield, center, plays trombone.

Riverview Gardens senior Tyrese Whitfield has big plans after high school. He wants to become a mechanical engineer and videogame designer.

Lockhart has taught Whitfield about the persistence he’ll need to realize his goals. When Whitfield first picked up the trombone in his sophomore year, he was a year behind some of the other band members. 

“Some people would get mad at me because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Whitfield said. “I decided to quit.”

But Lockhart wouldn’t hear of it.

“He told me that I was important to the band and we couldn’t function right without me, that we only have a small amount of people and everyone is needed,” Whitfield said.

Bernnie Allen, who graduated last May, also learned about perseverance from Lockhart. When Allen came to Riverview Gardens as a freshman, she was pregnant with her first child.

Recent graduate Bernnie Allen visited Lockhart's class recently.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Recent graduate Bernnie Allen visited Lockhart's class recently.

Through pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, Allen managed to stay in school, and play baritone horn and trombone under Lockhart’s guidance. Then in her senior year, Allen got pregnant again. One day, Lockhart called her into his office.

“I started to cry and he was like, ‘Everything’s going to be OK. Things are going to get worse before they get better and then everything’s going to be all right,’” Allen said.

Allen, now the mother of two, just got her first job, at Jack in the Box.

“Things are getting to be all right, just like he said,” Allen said.      

A teacher's trials

In 2013, a positive development for many students in the Riverview Gardens district was a blow for the band.

Hundreds of students transferred away from the unaccredited district for a better education. The move cost the high school half its 60 band members.

Ngone Seck, 17, plays flute with the Riverview Gardens High band.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ngone Seck, 17, plays flute with the Riverview Gardens High band.

“It killed our program,” Lockhart said.

Furthermore, a plunge in middle-school band students meant there were few younger kids coming to the high school to replace those who graduated. But Lockhart continued to encourage and nurture the remaining students, bringing in professional musicians to inspire them.

Even now, the number of active band members hovers around 30.

“We still haven’t recovered,” Lockhart said.

Riverview Gardens has recovered its accreditation, as of this month. But seeing empty seats is still discouraging for Lockhart. Sometimes, students notice that he’s down. Ngone Seck said he doesn’t take it out on the kids but neither does he keep his feelings a secret.

“He tells us, 'It’s OK to be in a bad mood,'" Seck said.

Even his own moods and how he handles them provide a teaching moment.

“A lot of people try to hide their bad mood and put on a mask,” Seck said. “He’s showing us, it’s OK to be human. We can’t be perfect all the time; we can’t be happy all the time. We’re going to be sad sometimes but we just have to learn to see the positive inside of the negative.”

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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