PROFILES IN LEADERSHIP | Richmond Heights Middle School Educator Makes Music Classes Unforgettable By Michelle F. Solomon | Legacy Miami Education Issue

Leslie Cooper remembers being in ninth grade when she decided that she was going to be a music teacher.  “I was in a class of wild people, but when that teacher got them to hush and behave, well, when they opened their mouths, and they were these beautiful voices. It was glorious. I got chills. I was like, ‘wow.’ “

Cooper, 60, who is entering her 27th year as a music educator at Richmond Heights Middle School, was introduced to music early in life while growing up in Miami. “My father was my first teacher. I learned how to play jazz first (on piano) – two little chords of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,’ ” she recalled. 

While a talented singer and pianist (she also played saxophone in high-school band and string bass in the school’s orchestra), this recipient of Legacy’s Top Black Educator Award said her aspirations were not to be a performer – she always wanted to be an educator. 

There are many creative ways she’s approached teaching through the years. “You have to make sure that you come up with innovative ways to keep the students engaged,” Cooper said.

In April, Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis announced Cooper as one of the recipients of the statewide Excellence in Education Award for her original Harlem Renaissance Minutes.

It was an idea that had its basis as a project she was participating in for her national sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, to expose students to arts enrichment and culture with its “Salute to the Harlem Renaissance.” Not one to stand in front of a chalkboard or hand out worksheets, Cooper wanted to come up with a different way of presenting the stories. 

Using a computer program that she learned on her own, the educator created short videos called the “Harlem Renaissance Minute,” which spotlighted African-American artists, but went a step further by showcasing Floridians who had made great strides in the name of Black history: gifted female sculptors Augusta Savage and Selma Burke, writer James Weldon Johnson, and astronaut Winston E. Scott, to name a few.

She’s also a past recipient of the Educator of Note award from the Young Patronesses of the Opera. Cooper’s opera curriculum is unforgettable. In May, while participating in a webinar with other music teachers from around the country, someone on the call said, “Miss Cooper, is that you? I went to Richmond Heights, and I will never forget you showing us the opera ‘Pagliacci’ in class and the movie ‘Amadeus.’ ” “Now he’s a music teacher in New York,” she said. 

A large donation of electric guitars already has Cooper looking ahead to her next creative endeavor. “I’m hoping I can get kids interested in a rock band,” she said.

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