New York City

I-Team: Top Performers Denied at Top NYC Arts School Due to New Academic Standards

The new policies are sparking a debate among staff, students and alumni: Do audition scores now play second fiddle to academics? And should they?

What to Know

  • Tougher academic standards at one of NYC's most prestigious performing arts schools are causing some of the top performers to be rejected
  • The new policies are sparking a debate among staff, students and alumni
  • Some auditions that were given perfect scores were rejected because of a C average in one class, or too many absences

At the city’s top performing arts high school – Fiorello H. LaGuardia – auditions have traditionally mattered most. But numerous insiders said new, tougher academic standards at the Lincoln Center area school are causing some of the city’s most talented performers to be rejected.

The new policies are sparking a debate among staff, students and alumni: Should and do audition scores now play second fiddle to academics?

Nataly Santiago is a talented dancer. At age 19, she now performs with pop-star Janet Jackson. Her mission as a child was to get into LaGuardia.

“I had my heart set on it. I just kept training,” Santiago said.

But when she got that crucial letter from LaGuardia, there was bad news.

“I was denied at LaGuardia and my heart sank to my stomach. Like it was like a god-awful feeling,” Santiago said. 

Sources inside LaGuardia tell the I-Team that in 2014, Santiago scored a “100” in her audition — a perfect score. Several students and faculty said a middle school student getting a perfect audition score is like winning a medal at the Olympics — a tremendous accomplishment and a sign of potential greatness.

Santiago did not know her score until News 4 told her.

 “I knew that I did really, really well," she said. "I didn't think that I did you know, that well to score 100 a perfect score."

LaGuardia school is led by its principal — Dr. Lisa Mars. Mars now has tougher academic standards for acceptance, one not required by principals of the past.

Insiders at LaGuardia said if a middle school student has a 79 or lower in English, math, science or social studies, they’re not even considered. In cases like Santiago's, even if a student scores a perfect 100 in the critical audition.

At LaGuardia, the new standards also count absences and tardiness in middle school.

Santiago said her grades were good but she had been in a traveling musical for the department of education so missed multiple days of school. 

“I remembered that I had 10 absences and that's when I was like, it has to be that. And if it's that, it's unfortunate,” she said.

LaGuardia is known as the “Fame” high school, based on the hit 1980 film that chronicled the life of student performers.

New York state founded the school with its emphasis on growing the performing arts. Famous graduates include Robert DeNiro, Liza Minnelli, Nicki Minaj and actor-performer Ben Vereen, who took issue with the new standards.

“Don’t do that,” Vereen told the NBC 4 I-Team. “Don’t do that to our young people. Please.” He added, “I’m begging LaGuardia to forget this system and go back to the original foundation.”

Fairness of admission policies at elite high schools in New York City has been raging amid admission questions of race, fairness, and equal opportunity. At schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, a single academic test score is critical to the application process.

But LaGuardia was founded under a state law known as Calandra-Hecht, which states that acceptance into the performing arts school requires academic evidence of “satisfactory achievement.”

Vereen said the mission of the school is “… to help, empower our young people. To give them the tools that they need in order to live a wonderful, creative, prosperous life.”

Mars took office in 2013 and installed the stricter requirements. Insiders said Mars implemented a complicated point system based on grades, state test scores, attendance and tardiness. However, if any student has a 79 or lower in any of those core subjects, he or she is denied.

Vereen is critical of the new admission policy. For him, he said it was his talent, not his grades, that took him from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn to LaGuardia high and future stardom.

“If this standard was in place when I was a student, I would never have made it,” he said. Vereen added, “When I came to school I had a third-grade reading average.”

Choreographer Anthony Rue II, also known as Antboogie, has performed with Jay-Z, P-Diddy and Madonna. He auditioned for LaGuardia in 1995. With the murder of his sister that year, his grades suffered.

“There was no way I was making it in. There's no way,“ Rue recalled.

But he said he caught a break when a dance teacher saw his talent first, his grades second.

“And I was just so happy that I was given the opportunity to actually get a second chance to be in the school,” said Rue. “We came to the agreement and they allowed me to start the next day as an enrolled student.”

The Department of Education overview stresses LaGuardia’s dual mission is providing a “balanced educational experience that includes both conservatory-style training and a rigorous, comprehensive academic program,” adding that graduates go on “to distinguish themselves 'in every field' – not just the arts.”

The racial makeup of LaGuardia had remained relatively constant since the change in admission rules. Department of Education statistics show whites and Asians combined make up 66 percent of the school. Latinos make up about 17 percent and blacks comprise about 10 percent of the student body.

Mars declined repeated requests for an interview.

Outside LaGuardia, several talented students approached the I-Team to say they felt bad for some great artists they know who did not get in, compared to other performers with better grades who did get in.

“It’s just very unfair because then we may not have a kid who is into it, they may not have the initiative,” said Jarret Benjamin.

Gideon Asumeng said, “I had a friend who was amazing and we both auditioned at the same day and she didn’t get in. Why? Because she had one C.”

Zoe Dillon also expressed concern. “It’s a place for actors and artists, dancers and musicians and it sucks that our principal wants to change that,” she said.

News 4 obtained documents that include examples of students who had perfect 100 audition scores but were still rejected because of absences in middle school or having had an academic score just below that new 80-point minimum.

“Oh man. This is, this is horrible,” Vereen said. “Come on. This is not numbers, stats. These are people. These are children goddammit. This is our tomorrow.”

The New York City Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the concerns raised in this report. As of this posting, they had not responded.

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