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NYC Arts High School Picks Tests over Talent

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Dear Mayor Bill (de Blasio) and School Chancellor Carmen (Farina),

I have two questions for New York City school officials.
1. Where can you find talented Black and Latino kids in the city of New York?
2. Why do you find so few Black and Latino kids at Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts and the Performing Arts?

One place New York City school officials can look for talented Black and Latino kids is the city's church choirs. New York magazine recommends you start with the gospel choirs at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Mount Neboh Baptist Church, and the New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Harlem or the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, both in Brooklyn. In the Bronx you can find plenty of talented kids through the South Bronx Latin Music Project. You could also try the annual Bronx Salsa Fest. For more contemporary performers, check out groups such as Brooklyn-based Hip Hop 4 Life. The Bronx is so rich in youthful Black and Latino talent that at the Bronx Dance Academy on Bainbridge Avenue the students are 98% Black and Hispanic. There are talented Black and Latino youth in Manhattan also. On the Lower East Side, CityArts works with young mural artists who are helping to beautify their community. Better yet, school officials can just ride the subways and visit the parks to find talented Black and Latino youth.

According to a 2013 New York City Independent Budget Office report, the student population in New York City schools is about 70% Hispanic or Latino and Black. The Asian and White populations are both about 15%. Since talent is not racially and ethnically defined, you would expect similar demographics at a high school specializing in music, the arts, and the performing arts. But at the highly regarded Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts and the Performing Arts in Manhattan, Black and Latino students, about seventy percent of the city's school population make up only about thirty percent of the student body. White and Asian students, about thirty percent of the New York City student population, make up seventy percent of the LaGuardia student body. That is a puzzlement!

Acceptance to LaGuardia Arts is supposed to be based on a competitive audition and review of student records. According to the schools mission statement, "If students are unable to meet the high academic and studio standards, the school will provide a variety of academic intervention services."

Recently, however, it surfaced that the school did not need to provide remedial services to academically struggling students because it was just not accepting students who needed academic help. This year the school principal initially vetoed forty-seven percent of the ninety-two students the dance faculty recommended for admission based on their auditions and admitted twenty-five students the department rejected. The chair of the dance program and teachers in the department wrote a letter of protest to the New York City school chancellor. They charged that the principal was basing admission to LaGuardia on "academic records and test scores" instead of on student talent. The letter called the principal's actions "discrimination, pure and simple, a disservice to the children of this city."

In a follow-up letter to The New York Times, a former president of the LaGuardia Parents Association accused the principal of "demeaning" the schools "unique history" and trying to turn it into just "another large-scale testing factory" in the "Common Core mold."

This selective admissions policy has helped La Guardia keep up its school grade; it received an A for 2012-2013. But significantly, it got no "bonus points" for "closing the achievement gap" "for exceptional graduation and college/career readiness outcomes of students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students who enter high school at a low performance level" - because it does its best not to let them in. Less that 1% of its students are English Language Learners; only 1.5% of its students are in self-contained special education classes; and none of its students scored in the lowest third on citywide standardized tests.

New York City continues to keep qualified Black and Latino students out of its elite academic schools by rationing seats and claiming they do not score high enough on standardized tests. But how does it justify keeping talented Black and Latino students out of its talent schools where they are promised academic support. As the dance program teachers at LaGuardia High School claimed, this is "discrimination, pure and simple."