NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Getting ready to march in Mardi Gras parades is serious business for any band, but when Johnnie Van Buren is your band director, the stakes get even higher.
Van Buren knows all too well what his students at Abramson Sci Academy are capable of, which is why he pushes them in practice and in class.
“You need to go to class and do what you need to do,” Van Buren tells band members. “Stop playing around in class. You understand me? I can’t get you a scholarship with a 1.8 GPA.”
Van Buren walked in their shoes before he graduated from Abramson in 2001, before the now-charter school was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
“I just wanted to bring back that old Abe spirit back here at current Abramson because the kids didn’t know anything about it," Van Buren said.
Cornelius Dukes, assistant principal of the New Orleans East school said Van Buren has played a big role in the school’s growth.
“He has brought back a lot of former alumni’s who felt like they had no school after Katrina, which has grown our family tremendously,” Dukes said. “We’ve grown out at such a fast pace. And so many kids here want to be a part of the band. When I first got here we had a very small band and to see Johnnie transform the band within a year and have them marching in parades is something spectacular.”
Principal Rhonda Dale said Van Buren puts in countless extra hours on weekends, over the summer and during parade season, sacrificing family time to make a difference in the community.
“He is, I would say, ambitious. Johnnie wants to be the best in the city and wanting to be the very best has to do with the kids,” Dale said. “Being the best band means so much for the children at the school. It means so much for New Orleans East. And Johnny’s heart is really into making sure their pride is there.”
For Van Buren, sharing the music is well worth his time.
“I’m just happy that I’m bringing some joy to some kids that wouldn’t have had this sense of pride before I got here, as far as music and everything,” Van Buren said.
But, he said success and growing pains haven’t been easy.
“We need more uniforms, more instruments. Sometimes we have to turn kids away because we don’t have instruments and that’s a hurtful feeling. Because I feel like one thing about music and band is it keeps kids off the streets,” Van Buren said. “I grew up in New Orleans and have seen a lot of different things, made a lot of mistakes. I’m telling these kids this is not the route you want to go. I want to make your route as easy as possible to make you a successful young man or young lady.”
While his passion for music shows, his love for his students shines and administrators can’t imagine life on campus without him.
“For music, to be able to take that same stance and teach so many lessons through his passion for something that he loves and something that is able to share with his students, it has been remarkable just to see and be a part of,” Dukes said.
To them, Johnnie Van Buren is a great neighbor, who’s now giving back to the place that shaped who he is today.