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This high school is famous for the Arts. How much should algebra matter?
[NEW YORK] A quandary is looming over one of America's best public arts schools: Does a graceful modern dancer or a brilliant painter deserve a seat if they have middling grades in algebra or English?
The balance between arts and academics has become increasingly fragile at Manhattan's LaGuardia High School. Long-simmering tensions boiled over Friday, when hundreds of students staged an hours long sit-in at the school to protest a perceived dilution of LaGuardia's arts focus in favour of stricter academic requirements.
Students lined the hallways on two floors of the Lincoln Center area school, holding signs reading, "talented people are left behind" and "permit art" many of which were later taped to the front door of the office of the principal, Lisa Mars, who took over in 2013. Ms Mars did not come to school Friday, but is expected to meet with a group of students Monday. Some parents are also planning a sit-in outside the school.
"We're not here to be the most perfect mathematicians, if I wanted to do that, I would have gone to Stuyvesant," said Eryka Anabell, an 18-year-old senior, referring to New York's most selective public high school. "I'm here to discover myself as an artist."
LaGuardia is also a specialised high school, but is the only one of the nine that does not rely on a single standardised test for admission. It considers both auditions and middle school grades when selecting students.
Until now, LaGuardia has avoided the criticism the city's other specialised high schools are facing for enrolling tiny numbers of black and Hispanic students.
The school's racial demographics have been consistent since Ms Mars became principal. About half the school's roughly 2,800 students are white, 20 per cent are Asian-American and a third are black and Hispanic. All rising high school students in New York City can apply to LaGuardia.
Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said students' academic records are considered only after their audition at LaGuardia.
"LaGuardia has a long and proud history of both artistic and academic achievement, and the school's admission policy has long included these audition and academic requirements," said Mr Cohen.
Ms Mars declined to comment directly.
LaGuardia students have also now joined a growing group of local teenage activists who have rebelled against problems at individual schools and systemic issues in the nation's largest public school system.
Earlier this year, a group of students at the elite private school Fieldston accused the school of institutional racism and occupied a school building for three days. The action ended only when the principal agreed to meet many of the students' demands. Some students at another top private school, Poly Prep, also staged a sit-in this year over what they considered a racist school culture.
At the same time, a growing coalition of public school students has called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate New York's segregated public school system, with rallies expected in the coming weeks.
Some LaGuardia students have said Ms Mars' push to admit students with higher grades works to disadvantage low-income and minority students who may have natural arts talent, but did not attend high-performing middle schools.
"LaGuardia used to be a haven for artistically inclined kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status, regardless if they could do well on a multiple choice test, which is ridiculous to expect an artist to always do amazingly on," said Nina Grinblatt, an 18-year-old senior.
David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College, said there is a valid argument for focusing more on academics at the school. "While quality arts education is the school's core mission, it would be hard to attract students and parents without adequate academics," he said.
But students say Ms Mars has gone too far by enforcing a decade-old mandate that prospective students must have an 80 average or above in each of their middle school classes to be considered for admission, even if their audition was excellent. Some students and teachers say that rule was sometimes rightfully overruled by previous principals when a student was particularly gifted in the arts.
LaGuardia's teachers and alumni have challenged Ms Mars' policies over the past few years. The dance department accused Ms Mars in 2014 of rejecting talented students with poor grades. An online petition signed by parents, alumni and staff that called on the principal to give priority to arts gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
Teachers have consistently given Mars negative feedback in response to survey questions about the school: Only 14 per cent of instructors who filled out the form for the 2017-18 school year said the principal "understands how children learn", and 19 per cent said she "communicates a clear vision" for the school.
LaGuardia offers accelerated courses in vocal and instrumental music, drama, art, dance and technical theater. The school has produced a long list of famous alumni, including fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, singer Nicki Minaj and actors such as Al Pacino and Timothée Chalamet. The school, officially called the Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, inspired the film "Fame".
Beyond the admissions requirement, protesters say Ms Mars has put too much emphasis on new Advanced Placement courses — a priority of de Blasio's administration — that have cut into arts classes. LaGuardia recommends that each student take two AP courses.
"We are forced into Advanced Placement courses we don't want to take so that the school can boast high enrollment statistics," students wrote in a letter to the administration Friday.
Students say that rehearsal time for the annual musical had been cut in half since 2017, and that pressure to excel on exams and arts simultaneously has led to widespread anxiety among the student body. LaGuardia's graduation rate, college enrollment rate and standardised test scores are all above the city average and have been high since Ms Mars took over. The school's college readiness rate increased to 98 per cent last year from 89 per cent in 2015.
Students also said they have repeatedly asked for meetings with Ms Mars and have been ignored or turned down.
"It's not a secret that the student body has been disappointed in our leadership for a very long time," Ms Grinblatt said. She and her classmates had decided a sit-in would be a last resort if they could not make progress with the administration. Last week, she said, they agreed: "Everything else hadn't worked."