Katy Foster and Shamel Pitts, juniors in the dance program at La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (PA), rarely see each other. Foster also attends the School of American Ballet (SAB), across the street, and has been excused from most technique classes at the city’s elite arts high school, which she attends primarily to complete requirements for her high school diploma. Pitts takes extra technique classes too, at the Ailey school a few blocks south, but he must still show up at all his PA dance classes.
“I guess SAB has some kind of arrangement with La Guardia,” said Pitts earlier this year. “I’m wishing Ailey had an arrangement, because by my last class at Ailey I need vitamins or something.”
In fact, since the spring of 2001 SAB has been trying to work out “some kind of arrangement” with the high school, but faculty at La Guardia have rallied against it; they feel it destroys the core of their own program. The rumblings have held at bay the creation of a two-tiered program within the dance department that would effectively segregate the ballet school students, almost all white, from the La Guardia group, which is approximately two-thirds black and Latino (the remainder are white and Asian).
Seniors at both academies are about to jeté into the professional world, holding showcase performances this weekend for audiences that include dance company scouts. The two shows promise to be very different — ballet versus modern, Handel versus Mingus. In the Juilliard Theater, SAB’s students will dance Balanchine, Martins, and a new work by NYCB member Damian Woetzel. Across Amsterdam Avenue, La Guardia has enlisted independent modern choreographers H.T. Chen, Janis Brenner, and Zvi Gotheiner, as well as dance faculty members Michelle Benash, Penny Frank, and Elisa King. The La Guardia Concert Jazz Ensemble will accompany King’s piece.
While their styles differ, the two schools have long had an amiable relationship. SAB is strictly a dance academy; students there must go elsewhere for high school courses. La Guardia, a public institution with a reputation for strong academics, has been a popular choice. But the dust has barely settled on a controversy that raises questions about the perpetuation of racism and elitism in the dance world, and the power of the private sector over public education.
Early in 2001 SAB, the official training academy of the New York City Ballet, requested that most of its students attending La Guardia be exempted from taking La Guardia’s dance curriculum and only be required to complete academics there. SAB argued that taking additional studio classes at La Guardia posed a threat of injury to its students. In September this arrangement seemed to be in effect.
“We were told that nothing was going to happen without dialogue,” said Elisa King. Jeffrey Knorr, a history teacher and the United Federation of Teachers’ representative for La Guardia’s faculty, said the decision came straight from the top.
“The relationship as it existed was ordered by the chancellor’s office,” said Knorr.
PA, the school that inspired the motion picture Fame, in 1984 joined with the High School of Music & Art to become Fiorello H. La Guardia High School, and moved into a new building on Amsterdam, catercorner from SAB’s home at Lincoln Center.
“We started getting more SAB students because of proximity,” said King.
La Guardia has always excused advanced junior and senior SAB students from certain classes, and allowed them to dance in SAB’s final show instead of its own. While SAB declined to comment, La Guardia faculty argue that the new agreement, which covered some freshmen and sophomores as well, set up a divisive atmosphere among the students and threatened to undermine the school’s program. While only 18 of La Guardia’s approximately 200 dance students also attend SAB, the faculty worried that students like Pitts, studying at other professional schools, would also request exemptions from La Guardia’s dance classes.
Foster, a Californian, says La Guardia offers the academics she wants, for free. Many SAB students attend the Professional Children’s School (PCS) on 60th Street. A private school that accommodates their schedule, it charges around $18,000 a year in tuition. “If I had the money, I would go to PCS,” said Foster. “When you pay for PCS, you pay for flexibility.” Last year she went to the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), a public high school in the theater district that also bends to professional schedules, but doesn’t offer advanced-placement courses.
La Guardia parents met with faculty and staff, concerned that SAB dancers were taking precious spots that could be better used by students not receiving training at an elite private conservatory. La Guardia’s dance program auditions over 1000 kids a year and accepts between 60 and 66. For many like Pitts, a Brooklynite who got into La Guardia on sheer talent and potential, the school offers their first formal dance training.
“They are enhancing the elite-ness of what is already an elite school,” said Penny Frank of administrators at both institutions. “To serve [the SAB students differently than] the others is ridiculous. It’s like a caste system; it’s horrendous.”
Many teachers, although reluctant to speak on the record, say race was an issue. “The agreement supports a system of almost exclusively white companies and exclusively black companies,” said one La Guardia teacher who did not want to be identified. “When is it going to change?”
SAB staff declined to comment, but Knorr says the issue of race is not relevant. “They’re not being treated well because they’re white. It has to do with the chancellor’s relationship with SAB. Public education has always been influenced by political swing.” The agreement between SAB and La Guardia was a part of a growing trend to involve the private sector in public education. “The perception is that [public] schools have failed to prepare kids adequately and that private industry can offer something that we can’t,” he said.
In a frustrating flurry of letter writing and endless meetings late last fall, the La Guardia faculty managed to reverse the agreement, and by December felt confident that only a few of the advanced-level juniors and seniors would be exempted from their classes. But by February a new plan, to make a completely separate “supplemental studio” for the SAB students, was in place within La Guardia’s program.
“It all became a mess,” said King. “We’d get to a certain place and the rug would be pulled out; we were constantly on the defensive.”
Speaking to the New York Post in March, Chancellor Harold Levy said the plan was “at the embryonic stage” and that nothing had been concluded.
The La Guardia faculty again wrote letters and for the second time requested a meeting with the chancellor. But on April 18, without ever being contacted directly by the Board of Ed, La Guardia received a letter from Suzanne Davidson, the president of SAB, saying that it seemed as though a formal agreement between the schools could not be made.
“No one ever did speak to us,” said King. “We finally won without ever understanding why.”
Ten SAB freshmen have been admitted to the La Guardia program for next year; it remains unclear just what will be expected of them. But for now La Guardia’s dance faculty feels victorious and ready for the show to go on.