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It Cost More To Get My Kids Into Public Art Than Specialized High School (Why Aren’t More People Upset About That?)

In a non-Covid year, New York City 8th graders (and a small number of 9th graders) take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and audition for arts high schools like LaGuardia, Frank Sinatra, Talent Unlimited, etc… in the fall.

In a non-Covid year, only teens who relocated to NYC after the deadline are allowed to apply for a spot at any of those schools in August. This year, the August 11, 2021 LaGuardia auditions and the August 18, 2021 SHSAT will be open to: New students or students who could not test during the 2020-2021 school year. Which, presumably, means those who stayed in the city, but did not audition or sit for the exams due to health concerns. 

(Good luck finding this tidbit on the Department of Education’s official High School page. Even the High School Auditions page says: Audition submissions for all high school programs, including those at LaGuardia High School, are now closed. You have to go to the Specialized High Schools page to learn that: Registration for the summer SHSAT and summer LaGuardia High School auditions will be open from July 21-August 6. What an efficient and not at all confusing system!)

Due to the two admissions rounds this year, expect two rounds of articles bemoaning: Only X Number of Minority Students Got Into Specialized High Schools, followed by editorials lamenting that the only way to get into those schools is via expensive test prep.

Are students getting prepped for the SHSAT? Absolutely. Primarily because, despite the DOE’s assertion that “questions on the Grade 8 test forms are based on the New York State Learning Standards through Grade 7,” the majority of students attend public schools which have fallen so far behind on those standards that there is no way to learn the material except by turning elsewhere.

Is test prep expensive? It can be.

But it doesn’t have to be. There are low-cost and no-fee programs. (The city offers one.) Plus, scholarships and free resources.

My own sons only used prep books with sample questions and practice tests. Both got into Stuyvesant HS.

But here’s where the story grows interesting. Both my sons also got into LaGuardia High School for the Arts.

The primary argument against the SHSAT is that it’s a test that benefits the privileged, since you need money to prep. (This argument ignores the reality that the majority of students at Specialized High Schools are immigrants and/or qualify for free lunch, so it’s hardly a bastion of white privilege.)

Yet, very few people who object to SHSAT schools object equally as vociferously to the existence – and admissions methods – of the public Arts schools.

Which I find fascinating – and a bit hypocritical.

For, while it is possible to prep for the SHSAT with just books and online resources, it is nearly impossible to do the same if you are asked to demonstrate excellence in drama, dance, instrumental or vocal music, fine arts, theater tech, film, musical theater and more without lessons. (Forget what you may have learned from Leroy on Fame. The audition process doesn’t work that way.)

My sons spent one summer taking practice tests at home to master the SHSAT. My older son spent six years studying at the Art Students League to get into LaGuardia. My younger son spent seven years at Ballet Hispanico to do the same. A two-week free bootcamp for Title I students isn’t the same, and it also requires an audition, which means some previous training.

Even with tuition discounts and scholarships, it cost me much more in total to get them into a public Art school than a Specialized one. (Both found their passions long before high-school applications were even on the horizon. It was simply what they loved to do. School admissions proved a lucky bonus.)

We constantly hear calls to get rid of the SHSAT in order to “even the playing field” for poorer students. It isn’t fair that those who have the time, money and resources to study receive priority for admissions. 

Mastering an art takes a great deal more time, money and resources. So where are the calls to get rid of arts schools? Why should students with talent and training be admitted ahead of those unfortunate enough to have received neither? 

Furthermore, why should some students receive conservatory level training, while others don’t? Public education should be exactly the same for every single child in grades Pre-K through 12.

If those who can master advanced academic material don’t warrant separate programs in the name of equity, then why do those who excel in the arts? (In fairness, this past admissions season Arts middle schools were no longer allowed to audition students, but were required to accept by lottery.)

I keep waiting to hear the same arguments that are leveled at SHSAT schools (and Screened schools, and Gifted & Talented programs) get employed against Arts schools.

I don’t understand why they’re not.

The closest I come to figuring it out is that, to take two examples from the schools my sons got into: Stuyvesant is 45% Free or Reduced Price Lunch, and 19% White. LaGuardia is 30% FRL and 43% White.

Wealthy and White students don’t have nearly as much to lose from changing admissions standards at SHSAT schools as they do at a school like LaGuardia. (The same goes for Screened schools, where the mayor also stalled on implementing any admissions changes, despite them being richer and whiter than the SHSAT schools.)

But, in the end, motivation matters less than the following question: If you believe public schools have the right to select students based on their artistic achievements (a subjective measure if there ever was one, and one that also requires a single high stakes evaluation that might not offer a complete picture of the child’s potential; something else SHSAT opponents criticize), why can they not select students based on academic achievements (even if the metric is a single, high stakes evaluation that might not offer a complete picture of the child’s potential)?

What’s the difference between one, which few are calling to eradicate, and the other, which has entire organizations dedicated to its recall? 

Hint: The answer isn’t because SHSAT prep requires more money.

What do you think?

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