Finding the Right School · School Choice

Do NYC Arts High Schools Set Extremely High Standards… In Everything But Academics?

In addition to taking the “ridiculous” Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) which I so cruelly forced him to study for, my 8th grade son also auditioned for the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art & Performing Arts.  (Yes, that’s really what it’s called and that’s really how it’s punctuated, although most people just think of it as the Fame school). His speciality (called a “studio”) is dance.

LaGuardia is not the only NYC public high school to offer a dance major, but it is the only one he decided to apply to after we considered our other options. What dissuaded him was not the quality of their performing arts program, but the calibre of their general academics. (It’s also what prompted his older brother to opt for an SHSAT School.) While LaGuardia reports a 97% graduation rate and an 89% college readiness rate (although only 84% college enrollment, which makes sense as some kids are going to want to go professional straight away), other schools, like Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, have only a 79% college readiness rate (which is still higher than NYC’s average of 50%). Professional Performing Arts High-School is at 48%, and the Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts is at a dismal and eye-popping 1% college readiness!!!

Why should this be? How can this be?

Performing arts schools and programs within schools are, by definition, selective. A recent Chalkbeat post included them in their pros and cons round-up about letting schools choose their students. (The main “con” came from a mother who lamented that the application process was needlessly stressful. She reported that a rejection from LaGuardia sent her daughter into therapy. It does raise the question of how her daugher expected to survive the daily abuse built into a professional arts career, or even one at the high school level. And whether Mom would have been singing a different tune had her child been accepted?)

Teens who earn admission into performing arts programs aren’t merely naturally talented. This isn’t Kindergarten Gifted & Talented testing, where 4 year-olds are assessed via an arbitrary measure long proven meaningless at predicting future success. These are kids who needed to put in years learning their instrument, or honing their dancing, singing, drawing, and acting techniques. There is absolutely no question that these are students capable of learning, that they are disciplined, focused, hard-working, and motivated.

So how then to explain the mediocre or downright disastrous college readiness index?

A recent post in AEIdeas entitled “Why Do American Parents Push their Kids so Hard When It Comes to Sports, But Not so Much When it Comes to Academics? “would seem analogous. We all remember the opening credits to the 1980s Fame TV show (if you don’t, watch the video, here), with dance teacher Debbie Allen instructing her students, “Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.”

Obviously, the iconic Lydia was not even mildly concerned by studies that indicate teachers who succeed in teaching their students the most end up with less happy kids. (My teacher husband observed, “they’re confusing engagement with effectiveness.”) Lydia wasn’t there to make her pupils happy! She was there to turn them into dancers! (My own mother always told me, “You don’t go to school to have fun. You go to school to learn!”)

Parents are willing to let their kids be drilled until they drop in the arts – and sports – so why not in school, too? (To be fair, parents of teens attending The Professional Performing Arts School recently raised a fuss about the low level of their academics. Of course, over at LaGuardia, parents are equally as unhappy about what they see as a shift from a focus on the arts to test scores and grades, especially in admissions. Which just goes to prove that no one can please all of the people all of the time, and different families want different things, which is why, ultimately, school choice for all is key.)

Excellence in the arts alongside academics is not impossible, however. A sterling example is The Special Music School. On 2017 state tests, this selective, public/private partnership where kids are admitted based not on IQ scores but on a musical audition, and where instruction in piano, violin or flute is a daily part of the curriculum, ranked #1! Yes, even ahead of academic Gifted & Talented schools!

Artistic kids are, without a question, teachable. They’d never be able to reach high levels in their discipline otherwise. So who and what is letting them down academically?

And what can we do to change that?


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