In early August a petition titled “Bring Fame back to the ‘Fame’ school” was created by members of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School community who think that the school ought to stick to what it does best – develop the artistic gifts of New York City’s most talented youth.
The petition, which has garnered over 10,000 signatures, calls for a change in admissions criteria and school leadership. Beata Santora, a 1999 alum and one of the petition organizers, is concerned that admissions criteria were changed in 2013 to stress academic grades, test scores and even number of absences over artistic talent.
LaGuardia High School was founded in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who wanted to establish a public school where students could develop their musical and artistic talents. LaGuardia is one of nine specialized high schools in New York City to receive special funding from the New York City legislature.
The LaGuardia alumni list includes such artists as actors Al Pacino and Jennifer Aniston and musician Nicki Minaj. The 1980 movie “Fame” followed fictional students who auditioned for spots at LaGuardia, and was followed by a 1982 television series that ran for five years, as well as a 2009 feature.
LaGuardia applicants earn points based on an audition and an evaluation of their middle school records, and the petition website shows photos of two evaluation forms, one from 2012 and the other from 2015. The earlier form assigned three out of a maximum of five points to a student whose grades were in the 70 to 79 point range. In 2015, any student scoring below 79 points scored zero points for academic performance.
According to Santora, the new criteria violate Department of Education standards as well as the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971, which says that admission candidates of LaGuardia must pass an examination in their respective art concentration as well as show satisfactory academic achievement.
“According to the law students must have satisfactory academic achievement in order to qualify for LaGuardia admissions,” said Santora. “And the DOE itself according to their handbook says that what they mean by satisfactory performance is a score between a 73 and 78. So inherently this admissions criteria is illegal.”
Santora referred to one example—a student who received an almost perfect audition score but was rejected for a high number of middle school absences, which were due to a trip overseas to perform with a dance company.
“There’s tons of stories like this, tons of students who maybe they have a learning disability and they can’t do creative writing for example or they’re not quite so good at geometry” said Santora. “They’re disqualified immediately without looking at the entire child. It goes completely against the mission of the school, which is to nurture artistic talent.”
The petition has received support from numerous alumni, including actors Marlon Wayans and Sarah Paulson.
Gail Whitmore, an alumni of LaGuardia who runs a crisis intervention center in Prague — but once considered a career in opera and was accepted to conservatories — is upset about the current situation. She said when she attended LaGuardia academics were important, but perfecting one’s craft was the focus.
“When we were there we still had to do well academically and have hours and hours of our studio on top of that…but it was not a school where you had to have grades in the high 90’s,” said Whitmore.
Santora made it clear, though, that they are not asking for a change in academic standards but rather a focused change in the admissions process.
“We are not looking to water down the level of education, we are looking to making it a more balanced approach where the artistic components are as important as the academics,” said Santora.
But students who go on to post-secondary art programs must have strong academic records, as reflected in the admissions criteria for prestigious art institutions such as The Juilliard School and NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
Kathy Tesar, associate dean for enrollment management at Juilliard, explained that a student’s high school academic performance is just as important as their artistic talent to the undergraduate admissions committee. She says that Juilliard is considered a “highly selective” institution as its acceptance rate is less than eight percent.
“The premise, when we admit a student, is we want that student to graduate, and if a student doesn’t show the ability to survive an academic program of four years, it does the student no good if we admit them,” said Tesar.
In addition to a change in admissions criteria, the LaGuardia petition calls for a change in leadership. Lisa Mars, who has been the principal since 2013, has been held primarily responsible for the new admissions criteria, and some petition supporters are calling for her replacement.
According to the 2014-2015 School Quality Snapshot published by the New York City Department of Education, LaGuardia was rated “Poor” in areas of trust, effective school leadership, and strong family-community ties. Only 28 percent of teachers said the principal “communicates a clear vision for this school,” and only 25 percent of teachers said they trust the principal overall.
Compared to the ratings of Stuyvesant High School, another specialized high school in Manhattan, LaGuardia’s figures are low. Stuyvesant was rated fair to good in the same areas, and 67 to 68 percent to teachers said they trust the principal and that there is a clear vision for the school.
A current dance teacher at LaGuardia, who asked that her name be changed to Mary in order to protect her job, claimed that many teachers have left the school over the past few years due to Mars’ actions.
“When you have that many voluntarily leaving a school…it speaks volumes to what is happening,” she said.
Mary also said that kids are losing the love they have for the arts because so much emphasis in being placed on academics. “It is largely unfair to judge an artist by their GPA. It’s like judging a fish by their ability to a climb a tree,” she said.
Ariel Moscat, a sophomore at LaGuardia studying vocals, signed the petition and said she knows of many other students who signed it.
Moscat does not want to pursue vocals after graduation because she feels as though her interest in it has declined.
“Since my freshman year to now my passion for singing as a job is no longer burning and almost gone, which I guess happens a lot to kids at this school,” she said. She plans instead to become a child psychologist.
On September 23rd an update was posted on the petition’s website: The case has been referred to the DOE’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Office of Special Investigations. While there is no timeline, Santorra said that petition organizers want the DOE to review it quickly, as a new batch of students will begin the admissions process this month.
While the case is being reviewed Santora and other petition organizers hope to meet with Mayor Bill DiBlasio, School Chancellor Carmen Farina, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and School Superintendent Fred Walsh to express their concerns.
Both Mars and the DOE did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the Midtown Gazette.