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Famed LaGuardia High School Is Losing Its Artistic Soul, Critics Warn

By Amy Zimmer | August 16, 2016 6:31pm
 Posters from past art shows at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
Posters from past art shows at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
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MANHATTAN — The principal at the legendary LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts is stressing test scores over artistic talent in the admissions process, prompting students, alums and educators to call for her ouster.

Commonly known as the “Fame” school for the movies and TV show it inspired, LaGuardia is one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, boasting such grads as Nikki Minaj, Adrian Grenier and Jennifer Aniston.

But instead of requiring students to score high marks on a specialized admissions test, the school asks students to audition for entry.

Prior to Lisa Mars taking the helm at the Upper West Side school in 2013, a student’s talent could count upwards of 70 percent of the admissions decision, former staffers told DNAinfo.

Now, talent only counts for 14 percent of the admissions decision, while academic scores make up 40 percent, according to a petition launched this week. Applicants are rejected if they don’t have at least a grade of 80 in every core subject, regardless of nailing their audition.

The petition, signed by roughly 3,400 supporters as of Tuesday afternoon, demanded the Department of Education return the admissions criteria to the original mission of the school and to what they say is legally required in giving specialized schools the “unique power to choose their students based on a specific set of criteria.”

They are also calling for “effective leadership” at the school, which has become a toxic work environment, many said.

There has been tremendous staff turnover since Mars moved to the iconic school on Amsterdam Avenue and West 66th Street from the academically rigorous Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, where she assistant principal of language, art and music.

Nearly 18 percent of the school's staffers left this year alone, according to the petition.

DOE officials did not respond to the specific concerns outlined in the petition, but said that LaGuardia’s policies were in accordance with all laws and regulations.

The school had a long-standing policy of reviewing both academics and auditions in enrollment in keeping with its dual mission, officials added, noting that LaGuardia continued to thrive academically and artistically.

But talent was always the main criteria along with attendance since the school didn’t want to give away a precious spot to a “no-show," one former staffer said, asking to remain anonymous.

“It's just not the same,” the ex-staffer said of the school. “The passion doesn’t seem to be there. It’s watered down. I don’t know if a lot of these kids really want to be in the arts. They’re kind of like, ‘I got in and it’s prestigious.’ But they're not the kids who want to do this as their future.’”

The former staffer also said that teachers would help those students who were not as stellar academically.

“Kids who were not academically-minded rose to the occasion with the quality teachers and the environment,” the ex-staffer said. “It’s the responsibility with teachers and administrators to get the kids who are not there yet and to get them there, and I think that LaGuardia always did that. It was an amazing place.”

Hundreds of emotional testimonials from students, past and present, poured into the petition, with many expressing dismay over a school system that increasingly prioritizes test scores over arts education.

Hailey Coffey, who graduated last year, said she found herself focusing less on her arts classes and more on the core academic subjects “because the environment became more inhibiting rather than guiding.”

She added, “I want this to stop. I want teachers to NOT BITE THEIR TONGUES OUT OF FEAR OF BEING FIRED and I want kids to go back to being PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR MAJOR.”

Jasai Chase-Owens never would have been accepted into LaGuardia under the new admissions criteria, she wrote.

“My grades as a middle schooler did not reflect the person that I was nor the student that I had the chance [at] LaGuardia to become,” she said.

Now, she’s a senior at “one of the top acting conservatories” in the nation.

“To me,” wrote LaGuardia grad Denos Vourderis, “attendance.. and good grades can often be gained with privilege. Talent knows no social class or ethnicity. Not everything in this world is about academic smarts, tutors or test prep. What made me who I am, was the passion that I learned from this amazing place. I'm an engineer now, but all the math and science in the world wouldn't help me build the things that I do without LaGuardia.”