Mr. Snyder's Opus

For the past eight years, Lamont Snyder could be found toiling on the football field at Hallandale High School, his intense expression shaded from the late-afternoon sun by a broad-brimmed straw hat, which comes off only when a point must be made — emphatically.

Thanks to the hat, as well as to a booming voice that, from 20 yards away, can bust through the low, thick tones of a tuba, he has little use for a megaphone. He has broad shoulders that roll when he walks. On the field, he never breaks a smile.

Snyder takes band seriously, and so do the 100-plus Hallandale students who come out for it each year, participation that costs the price of an iPod and adds two hours to their school day, most of it on a sun-baked football field. None of them has to be here, which is why it's remarkable that they are.

The school, south of Pembroke Road, just east of I-95, is 93 percent minority. Two-thirds of its 1,550 students are poor enough to qualify for discounted lunches. When Snyder arrived in the late '90s, roughly half the students were testing in the lowest levels of reading comprehension measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Music carries little weight in the hierarchy imposed by the FCAT and education policies like No Child Left Behind, which prioritize math and reading — usually to the exclusion of music. "The students' test scores dictate what kinds of programs we offer," explains Principal Rosemary Chambers, who has two children of her own in the band. "Unfortunately, we have so many Level 1s and 2s" — FCAT's two lowest achievement levels — "that [these students] don't have the opportunity to take extracurricular activities. We have to 'double-dose' them in reading and math, rather than take an elective, like band."

Despite this, the band program at Hallandale has survived — thrived, even — during Snyder's tenure, reaching its zenith in early 2004, when he received national recognition with an award from the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which every year recognizes the five best band directors in the country. Snyder is the only black teacher ever to receive the award.

It may not be entirely by coincidence that during Snyder's tenure, the school has improved. For seven straight years, Hallandale High scored a D from the state, putting it near the bottom of Broward County's schools. And while Florida's grading scheme is a sore point with many, it's a positive sign that in 2005-06, Hallandale earned a C. Not enough to inspire a movie, but it helps teachers and parents keep the faith.

"The students who are in band, they are higher achievers," Chambers says. Indeed, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board found that in 2005, students who took music courses scored 56 points higher on the SAT's verbal portion, 39 points higher on the math.

"The music itself... gives them the arts," Chambers says. "It makes them well-rounded students. It supports the discipline side. It's the reason they come to school — it gets them in the building."

But in a school like Hallandale High that wrestles with social and political challenges, a band program like Snyder's is as fragile as it is precious.

No single incident underscores that point more than one that occurred two years ago, at a band meet. While scolding a student during a band competition, Snyder was tackled and beaten to the ground by police as his charges looked on. It was a shocking disruption in the band's euphoric routine, as cops, who were providing security at the scene, allegedly feared that Snyder was on the brink of striking the student. They left a measure of Snyder's blood on the pavement and, as tearful band members watched, hauled the band director off to jail.

Despite the distress the incident caused, it was not one Snyder was willing to sweep quickly under the carpet. Snyder, who had never been arrested before, could have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and battery, thereby avoiding jail and settling the case in short order. By doing so, though, he risked losing his teaching license. Even more important to the band director, he believed passionately in his innocence. Of course, taking the case to trial posed a greater risk: A conviction could conceivably come with a two-year prison sentence.

The decision would test Snyder's dedication to Hallandale High and his belief in the very lessons he imparted to his students: to have faith in justice.

Ironically, it was Snyder who had invited police in the first place. As chairman of the booster club hosting the November 2004 Battle of the Bands event at Florida Atlantic's Lockhart Stadium, just east of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Snyder's group had contracted about three dozen members of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, including Jerry Williams, an officer who for 17 years had worked as a military policeman, then as a military recruiter in Shreveport, Louisiana, before joining the force in 2001.

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Thomas Francis