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Lawrence school district finds harmony in music

The students' voices needed no music. Their smooth a cappella rendition of the romantic tune "A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square" filled an early morning Lawrence High School classroom.

"Oh, I just love that song," said Gary Schall, director of performing arts in the district, as he poked his head inside before shuttling between other classes already in full swing.

Nearby, in a softly lit auditorium, a teacher kept tempo with a violin propped under his chin while he led an orchestra class. In an advanced ensemble class, horn, wind and percussion instruments blared to the delight of a teacher fervently waving a baton.

"People say Lawrence is falling apart," Schall said. "Yeah, right."

Why he needs to defend the district makes sense to those who follow its school board meetings, where frustrated parents' emotions spill over as they confront a board of education made up mostly of Orthodox Jews whose children are not in the public school system.

Some parents with children in Lawrence's schools fear the district is being downsized by a board unsympathetic to their concerns. The community has seen an influx in the last two decades of Orthodox Jews who tend to educate their children in private religious schools. In Tuesday's school board elections, voters filled two seats with an incumbent and a challenger, both Orthodox Jews whose children attend private schools.

Lawrence officials say enrollment in the public schools is dwindling. The high school senior class has 276 students, compared with 159 in the first grade, which district officials say signals a decline in enrollment.

Contentious meetings

Two nights before that morning filled with sun and song, Schall sat in the front row of a monthly school board meeting that stretched late into the night as parents, even children, spent hours voicing their anger over the board's decision in March to close an elementary school. He goes to all the meetings, he said, to keep up with the pulse of the community. He said he understands the stormy tension.

He strives for music and art to rise above the politics.

"He feels that through music he can break down the barriers," said senior Deena Fink, 17, of North Woodmere.

In August, a local Orthodox Jewish father was looking for a marching band to play at his daughter's wedding as a surprise at the reception. He reached out to the Lawrence school board.

"He said, 'If I'm going to spend money, I might as well give it to the kids,' " said board member Asher Mansdorf.

Schall called his students - he talks or texts with them frequently, they say - and asked a group of them to dinner, where he proposed the gig.

JerVaughn Bratton, a junior from Cedarhurst, was intrigued. "I'm an African-American 16-year-old drummer in a high school marching band, and it struck me as weird," he said.

He had never been to an Orthodox Jewish wedding before, and neither had most of his bandmates.

The band at the wedding

Bratton said he'll never forget the scene in the New Rochelle banquet hall when the band marched onto the dance floor playing songs from Israel. The bride had a bright smile on her face, Bratton recalled; the groom mimicked drumming with imaginary sticks. "There was a lot, a lot of dancing going on," Bratton said. Next year, when he's a senior and a college essay question asks about a memorable event, he said he'll write about the wedding.

The father gave each of the student performers a $100 gift certificate to Gap and donated $2,500 to the high school.

"It was bridging a gap," Bratton said. "Their community and the Lawrence community, there's . . . " He paused, searching for the right word. "Tension."

He's been to a few board meetings and knows people don't get along. He thinks it's about money, but adds, "And I know it's a lot more than that, and there's a whole bunch of stuff I'm too young to understand."

Lisa Fodera, whose son Nicholas, 18, is in the marching band, said she disagrees with much of what the board does, especially a recent decision to shutter No. 6 Elementary, the district's newest building. "The football and the music program they do support, I have to say."

In other districts, she said, sports and arts are often the most vulnerable to budget cuts.

It's a struggle, she said, not trusting that the board has the public schools' interests at heart, while knowing her son has benefited immensely from being in the marching band.

"I never in a million years expected that I'd be performing down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom," Nicholas Fodera said of the band's recent trip to Disney World. "Because I'm in a wheelchair, I didn't know I'd be able to do it." Fodera was born with cerebral palsy, and someone pushes his wheelchair while he plays bass drum.

In March, 250 students from the orchestra, marching band, chorus and dance classes performed at an invitation-only event in Disney World. They had to raise $35,000 to ensure that even students who needed financial assistance could go, an effort made possible, in part, by the generosity of the community, Schall noted, including Orthodox Jews.

Schall said the high school's arts programs - which were reorganized as the Academy of Fine and Performing Arts this year, a "school within a school" whose intense focus on music and art is modeled after prestigious performing arts schools in New York City - show the board cares about the district.

In the middle school, a chorus includes autistic with mainstream students, Schall said, giving children with autism an opportunity to get choral experience with the help of two "buddies" from the middle school.

The board approved $40,000 last year to build a dance studio at the high school because students were practicing in the auditorium without mirrors, Schall said.

State-of-the-art dance studio

The high school's Christina Mazzitelli Memorial Dance Studio is named after a 1993 graduate of the high school who died two years later in a car crash. Her father, James Mazzitelli, who owns a construction company, combined his own money with the board's allocation to build an elegant mirrored space, with cushioned wood floors, ballet barres and dark-wooden cabinetry. He also built the adjoining art gallery, with its track lighting, fancy floors and piped-in classical music that give student pieces displayed on walls and pedestals an aura that rivals a Chelsea opening.

Mazzitelli said he tries to stay out of district politics. "I think it's a terrible thing. I don't know the right answers," he said. "These kids are fantastic. Everyone has to pull together."

Mansdorf said the academy can help do that: "Music brings people together." As an example, he explained that Chaim David, a musician from Israel, recently spoke at an advanced placement music class.

Schall said he thinks the board's support of the academy comes from an idea that "music naturally lends itself to building bridges." The Lawrence Philharmonic is a community youth orchestra made up of children from the public schools and yeshivas, he pointed out.

"They're right - music crosses all barriers. So does art," said Penny Schuster, co-president of the district's PTA council. "When you're sitting and listening to the high school orchestra and chorus perform, you feel like you're listening to professionals. Their art gallery is amazing. Certainly as a parent, I'm very proud."

But it shouldn't come as a shock that a school board is dedicated to its district's programs, she said: "That's what the board's job is. It doesn't take away from the many things I think they've failed in."

She said Schall should get the credit for the academy's success.

"Mr. Schall is basically Superman in the Lawrence district," said Eliza Huster, 17. "He gets anything we need done."

Katelyn Hearfield, 17, gushed about Schall's arranging for her and a group of students last September to sing for Mimi Levitt, a Manhattan patron of the arts and longtime friend Schall has known through his work previously at St. Augustine grammar school in the Bronx. Levitt has long supported Lawrence's music programs and donated $10,000 that day, Schall said.

"Whatever our dream is, he's with it," said Shea Kastriner, 16.

A yogo teacher, too

A group of students laughed about how, during the Disney trip Schall led poolside yoga at 6:30 every morning. More than 20 students showed up each day.

"To me, personally, he's not just my teacher," said Bratton, his voice filling with emotion just as Schall walked into the room. Bratton hesitated.

"OK, I'll say this to you," Bratton said, looking at Schall. "In ninth grade I was in the hospital, and you were performing in Argentina. And you called from Argentina to see how I was doing."

Schall looked at Bratton with tenderness. Then Schall laughed, "Ah, you're just saying that because I walked into the room."

Schall came to Lawrence 15 years ago from the South Bronx, where he was chairman of the arts program at St. Augustine School of the Arts.

Kastriner said he sees Schall as a messenger of sorts, for his willingness to reach out to the board, to be a "bridge" between the communities.

"Lawrence is thriving. It remains a premier school district," Schall said while sitting in the art gallery. "Look at what we walk into here. I'd rather sit here than in the Met."

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