Lockhart weathers conflict

Residency rules put the spotlight on school administrator

February 12, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

As a young man, Estes J. Lockhart never wanted to be a school administrator, certainly not a controversial one criticized near and far for Howard County's unusually strict residency rules.

He wanted to be a novelist. Still does, actually.

His love of literature led him to study English in San Francisco during the 1960s, to teach it in the Peace Corps in Turkey and then to become an English teacher when he returned in 1970. And it leads him to write fiction almost every night when he returns home from work as director of pupil services for Howard County schools.

Lockhart, who came to Howard County last January, is in charge of the school system's student services, which include the health, counseling and psychological programs. He has become well-known, however, as the man responsible for the county's stringent residency policy, which determines who can go to school here and who cannot.

Critics blame him for keeping deserving students out of school, but Lockhart says he has the best interests of students -- and taxpayers -- at heart.

"Our job is to help kids in every way possible to succeed," he says, a slight drawl revealing his Mississippi roots. "I've certainly spent my entire life doing that, but we can't just throw order out the window; that is, we can't just say: `Bring your huddled masses to Howard County and we will educate them.'"

Lockhart, 58, entered the spotlight this fall, when his subordinates turned away two teen-agers who seemed to fit the county's residency requirements.

One, a 16-year-old girl, lived with her legal guardian in Woodbine after escaping an intolerable home situation in West Virginia. Another, a 17-year-old boy from Haiti with a green card, lived with his mother in Columbia. Both, after complaining to the press, eventually were admitted.

Lockhart took heat throughout the controversy, accused of being anti-immigrant and cold-hearted. He says he is neither, and points to his background as proof. He has spent much of his professional life helping troubled and learning-disabled children.

"They don't know anything about me," he says of critics who disparage him and his work.

People often accuse him of making the residency rules stricter, but no one interviewed for this article backed it up with conclusive evidence, and Lockhart denies the charge.

"I did bring order," he says. "I certainly said we are going to follow the policies consistently.

Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of schools, said Lockhart is doing an excellent job and appreciates Lockhart's work making the policies "more precise, more up-to-date."

"He's a very talented guy, and a very high-energy, hard-working guy," Hickey said, adding that Lockhart has "tremendous professional qualifications."

The only child of a Mississippi engineer and a housewife, Lockhart wanted to be a writer and worked on his first novel in his late teens. After a brief stint in the Marine Corps after high school, he moved to San Francisco and earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, both in English literature, from San Francisco State University.

Although Lockhart says he was "in no way, shape or form a hippie," he loved the 1960s Bay culture.

"Things happened there that were very, very magical," he says, remembering workshops he took with folk singer Joan Baez and writers Anais Nin and Saul Bellow.

After leaving San Francisco, Lockhart served in the Peace Corps in Ankara, Turkey, teaching English literature at the Middle East Technical University. While in Turkey, he met and married his wife, Sally, also a Peace Corps volunteer. They have two sons: Sage, 25, who is in medical school, and Innes, 18, who is in high school.

When the Lockharts moved back to the states in 1970, they settled in Maryland, where Sally Lockhart's parents lived. She found a job as a biochemist; he found one as a teacher at a private school in Wheaton. After two years, he took a job as an English teacher and chairman of the English department at Catoctin High School in Frederick County.

Lockhart remembers that era of his life fondly, calling it "idyllic" and "like Thoreau." He and his wife cleared some land in Frederick County, recruited Peace Corps friends and built a cabin in the woods. Every day after teaching, he said, he would return to the cabin and sometimes write. "It was a wonderful life, living in the mountains," he said.

But Lockhart's ambition drove him. At Catoctin, Lockhart became disturbed by the number of students who couldn't read. He noticed that they tended to have more discipline problems than other students, and he began to wonder how he could solve the problem.

In addition to his full-time job, Lockhart began taking reading courses at the Johns Hopkins University and started a reading lab-oratory for slower students.

His work -- innovative in those days -- caught the attention of school officials, and they invited him to help start an alternative public school in Frederick County for students with behavior problems.

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