The Pipeline to LaGuardia is Racialized

By Anna Fondiller

LaGuardia High School's play on the singing vowel "La" shown on a music staff line. Sourced from:
LaGuardia High School’s play on the singing vowel “La” shown on a music staff line. Sourced from:

The pipeline feeding into LaGuardia, NYC’s only selective performing arts high school, is racialized as a result of negligible support for arts programs pre-high school and as a result of rigidity in LaGuardia’s admissions process. Countless studies reveal having arts programs in lower income schools with predominantly minority students promotes learning and academic motivation. However, the New York City (NYC) Department of Education (DOE) remains unconvinced of the necessity of music programs in K-12 schools.

In recent years, art programs have decreased in certain lower funded NYC elementary and middle schools, leaving many teachers unemployed and students void of cultural capital pertaining to the development of musical talent, creativity and other key skills that music inspires. Moreover, when musically-inclined students apply for high schools with selective music and arts programming, they lack adequate experience and qualifications for admission. This admissions process is also clearly racialized. The NYC DOE has removed arts programs from lower income schools, which in NYC are often schools with predominantly Black and Brown students, positioning students in racial minorities at a disadvantage in artistic success.

Admissions in NYC’s sole public selective high school for the arts, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, displays a racialized trend due to the lack of arts programming in certain K-12 schools. NYC’s public schools are notoriously racially segregated. LaGuardia is no exception, as it fails to reflect the general racial makeup of the city at large. As evident in the above graphic, certain K-12 public schools consistently send students to La Guardia, while others never do. In later graphics, it is apparent that this trend linked to the fact that the schools sending few to no students to La Guardia are those which lack art and music programs, lack funding and contain more students in racial and ethnic minorities. According to projections from the 2010 United States Census, nearly 30% of NYC identifies as Black and 45% of the city identifies at White. Yet, these statistics do not reflect the racial makeup of LaGuardia students. According to a government report on LaGuardia’s website, only 11% of LaGuardia’s students identify as Black, while about 46% identify as White. Demographically, the middle schools which funnel the most students to LaGuardia, are virtually the same as those of current LaGuardia students. Moreover, among the top five pipeline schools with prominent art and music programs, as shown in Table 1, about 56% of students are White while only 6% are Black. Contrastingly, non-pipeline schools  on average had a student body nearly 10-30% White and 70-90% of color. The consistent link between racial majorities in middle schools and admissions into LaGuardia, proves LaGuardia favors students from pipeline schools with more funding, superior art and music programs, and therefore, unfortunately predominantly White students. These intersectional and complex inequalities in admissions, position students who attend non-pipeline schools, usually students of color, from equitably gaining admission to LaGuardia.

Education journalist Gillian B. White writes, “[New York City schools] with a lot of minority students are chronically underfunded.” Having observed funding for 500 school districts across the state, Mosenkis concluded districts with more White students are consistently and substantially more funded. Therefore, funding gaps tend to be more attributed to racial composition of a school than the socioeconomic makeup of its district. Schools with less funding and more students in racial minorities are chronically undervalued, often leading to the cancellation of their arts programs.

LaGuardia’s admissions process is also plagued with systemic racial exclusion. The idea of academic selection based on talent is exclusionary towards lower income students who are equipped with the artistic and academic preparation which would grant them admission. In NYC, these students are often students of color. The admissions arts requirements are often unattainable for students of color coming from lower-income, under-resourced schools. LaGuardia requires students are required to provide two letters of recommendation from arts-specific teachers, as well as a video reel of previous performances. Finally, a separate in-person audition is required for each program in the school. This assumes all interested students have had the opportunity to perform before, had arts-specific teachers at their previous schools, and adequate funding to hire a videographer for the video reel.

The LaGuardia audition process is an added burden on parents, who must often take time off work to accompany their children to auditions. A mother who accompanied her son to a LaGuardia audition and wrote in a blog post, the “process unquestionably rewards parents with […] cultural capital […] Those things correlate strongly with middle-class neighborhoods and professional occupations.” She continued, explaining that a large majority of the city’s Black families, often “likely to live in working-class neighborhoods,” are “not taking part in the same time-consuming, labor-intensive process I went through with my kids over the last three months.” She believes Black students will get pushed into low-performing, “racially monolithic” schools.

There are several possible solutions to this highly racialized and classist admissions process. Primarily, K-8 schools should prioritize arts programs to allow the improvement of students’ learning and academic joy specifically pertaining to fine or musical arts curriculum. Additionally, selective high schools for the arts should evaluate students in accordance with their available resources, so as not to penalize students for their possible previous disadvantages relating to their middle schools or familial background. For example, penalizing a student for having beginner piano skills if their middle school failed to offer advanced piano classes. Lastly, if a student has not had adequate preparation because of the lack of funding and therefore lack of programming in his or her middle school, LaGuardia should not penalize them. Instead, LaGuardia should consider offering free music lessons to students coming from poorly funded schools–often with many students of color–and judge their talent in more holistic ways, not predicated on their previous training, which is often experience, exclusive and inaccessible.

Specialized arts high schools must emphasize a student’s talent and potential as well as past achievements to make visual and performing arts high-schools truly attainable for all by implementing arts programs in all elementary and middle schools.

Anna Fondiller is a Senior Sociology Major at Barnard College. She grew up in NYC and went to Horace Mann, a private school in Riverdale, NY. She then transferred to Edgemont High School, a public High School in Scarsdale, NY in the 9th grade. Her interests lie in the sociological cultural labor processes behind admissions and entertainment.