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Educators Who Change Lives

Marching to a New Beat

How one North Carolina teacher got his at-risk boys singing a song of success


By Mary Ellen Flannery

Photo credit: Bryan Regan

Middle school boys…

“They’re a bunch of little knuckleheads!” exclaims Leonardo Williams. “No, no,” he laughs. “They’re good guys. They just have a lot of energy and sometimes their teachers just don’t want to deal with it.”

But there came a day last year when Williams dealt with it. He swung open the band room door at James E. Shepard Magnet Middle School in Durham, North Carolina, and sat down a dozen boys. All of them had potential; none were using it.

“Listen, I’m not giving you a choice. You are going to use your talents,” he said.

“What talents, Mr. Williams? We don’t have any talents!” they scoffed.

“Yes, you do,” he insisted. “You are going to learn these instruments, you will stay after school to do it, and you do not have a choice. I’m calling your parents!”

And so they dug deep and uncovered those talents. And just one week later, the new hip-hop and jazz group, “School Boys,” wowed the crowd at the North Carolina Association of Educators’ annual Martin Luther King Banquet.

Since then, Williams—and many of his “boys”—have moved on to Durham’s Southern High School. He has resurrected a moribund band program, growing it from 13 to 90 pieces in a few months and, all the while, motivating his students to meet the highest academic standards. When their grades are too low, he refuses to let them take to the football field during half-time. “They’re all getting the message now,”he laughs. “Academics come first.”


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