Protests rock LaGuardia HS

Students say arts have been put on the back burner at ‘Fame’ school

  • The balance between arts and academic curriculum at LaGuardia High School is at the heart of a dispute that sparked student protests at the renowned conservatory-style school. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • LaGuardia High School students met with DOE administrators following a June 3 demonstration to voice their displeasure with school leadership. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Parents joined students at the Monday protest. Photo: Michael Garofalo

“LaGuardia is the place where we came to develop our existing passion.”

Senior Isabel Janovsky

By Michael Garofalo

Dozens of LaGuardia High School students, parents and alumni gathered outside the elite Upper West Side public school June 3 to protest what they characterize as a shift in focus away from the performing arts education at the core of the school’s mission.

Holding hand-drawn signs with slogans like “This is an Art School,” the demonstrators voiced their displeasure with increased academic requirements at LaGuardia that they say have detracted from students’ creative pursuits and departed from the conservatory-style education that inspired the film “Fame.” The demonstration at the school’s entrance followed a sit-in staged by students May 31.

A List of Complaints

“No one feels they can trust the administration to do what’s right for the arts,” said senior Isabel Janovsky. “We don’t come here to have the same education as someone at Stuyvesant [High School, another specialized high school with a more traditional academic focus],” Janovsky, a violinist in LaGuardia’s instrumental program, said. “LaGuardia is the place where we came to develop our existing passion, and what’s happened is that no one can focus on that.”

Frequently cited complaints included poor communication from school administrators, unexplained cuts to rehearsal times and an added emphasis on Advanced Placement courses, which some students say has come at the expense the rigorous arts education they came to the school for.

“It’s a lot of extra work, and sometimes people aren’t up to it, but you’re forced into these classes,” said Isabella Gastel-Alejandre, a sophomore. Underlying these issues, Gastel-Alejandre and other students said, is poor communication between school administrators and students and teachers.

Unhappy With the Principal

A number of demonstrators called specifically for the departure of Principal Lisa Mars, who has received low marks in evaluations from parents and teachers. In a DOE survey last year, 23 percent of LaGuardia teachers reported that they feel respected by Mars and 12 percent said she is an effective manager.

“Our art school is not adequately preparing our talented children for the conservatory education that they want when they go to college,” said Natasha Labovitz, the parent of a LaGuardia senior.

Students and parents say Mars has enforced admissions standards that have turned away talented students on the basis of middle school grades in courses unrelated to their art.

According to the DOE, the school’s admissions requirements have been in place for over a decade, and academic information is only considered for those students who successfully audition.

“LaGuardia has a long and proud history of both artistic and academic achievement, and the school’s admission policy has long included audition and academic requirements,” DOE spokesperson Doug Cohen wrote in an email. “Rehearsal times have been changed to get kids home earlier in the evening,” he added.

Challenges for Specialized Schools

The discontent at LaGuardia is unfolding against the backdrop of a debate over admissions testing that has roiled New York City’s eight other specialized high schools. LaGuardia High School is the only specialized high school that does not admit students based on performance on a single standardized test. Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a controversial proposal last year to overhaul admissions standards last year in order to increase diversity in the specialized high schools.

Students at LaGuardia met with DOE administrators following the June 3 demonstration. Janovsky, who attended the meeting, described the conversation in positive terms. “In previous meetings with the LaGuardia administration, I constantly felt that I was arguing with them, always on the defensive, and they never gave me a straight answer,” she wrote in an email. “In the meeting held today, I felt like I was actually being heard for the first time.

“We believe that there will be some action taken based on this meeting, as well as other meetings that were held with the chapter leader of the United Federation of Teachers and the Parent Association,” Janovsky continued. “As to what that action is, no one can say yet but we are eagerly waiting to see what will occur within the next few days.”

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