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Plan to close an arts school seen as cutting off a unique option

If the Department of Education goes through with its plan to close Manhattan Theatre Lab High School, the city will lose a rare option for students who want a rich arts education but lack previous training, members of the school community argued at a public hearing about the closure plan Tuesday night.

Manhattan Theatre Lab, an eight-year-old high school on the Martin Luther King Campus, has a lower-than-average graduation rate, a failing grade on its most recent city report card, and serious academic shortcomings.

And while most students defended the school at the hearing, three seniors who testified said Principal Evelyn Collins had not given sufficient attention to the school’s lackluster academics. Collins took over in 2006 after a tumultuous period that included the midyear resignation of the school’s founding principal, the education director of a local theater company.

But Manhattan Theatre Lab also has a rich arts curriculum in drama, dance, vocal music, and set design — and it does not require auditions to be accepted. That sets the school apart from other arts schools, including the elite LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, located across the street.

Many students told GothamSchools they had auditioned for LaGuardia or other selective schools but were not accepted. They said they had felt unprepared next to other eighth-graders from around the city who had been fine-tuning their craft through private training since an early age.

Manhattan Theatre Lab’s open-door policy has attracted a student body that is 96 percent black and Hispanic, at least two-thirds free lunch-eligible. About 10 percent of students require special education services.

At LaGuardia, nearly 70 percent of students are white or Asian, and less than 1 percent of students have special needs.

The contrast is even more extreme at the school the department has selected to move into the space Manhattan Theatre Lab would: More than 80 percent of the students enrolled at the Special Music School are white or Asian, according to city statistics, and fewer than one in 10 come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch. The Upper West Side school would open high school grades at the Martin Luther King Campus.

At the hearing, parents and students questioned where students of color whose families can’t afford to send them to private classes would be able to go for a comparable arts education if Manhattan Theatre Lab shuts down.

Monte Barronette, a sophomore and a student leader, was one of those students. Like many of his peers, Barronette had a difficult childhood and found refuge at Manhattan Theatre Lab when he was not accepted to LaGuardia. After a childhood bouncing among Georgia and Florida and New York with his single father, Barronette said that he has found a home at his high school.

“The way Ms. Collins treats us, it’s like I get my mother back without having her here,” he said.

Owen Harkness, a special education teacher and member of the school leadership team, said Manhattan Theatre Lab was a haven for gay and lesbian students.

“These students are able to attend school and be themselves without fear,” he said.

Harkness said the school had fallen short academically but could do better.

“We need help raising the achievement level of our diverse group of students — we admit that,” he said. “But we do not need to be phased out.”

The stream of speakers represented a diverse group of individuals with ties to the schools. Along with students, teachers, and parents, the hearing drew alumni and former colleagues of Collins from Wadleigh High School, a Harlem performing arts school whose middle school is slated to close. And local playwrights, performers, and producers spoke on behalf of the school’s achievements in the arts.

Ruby Dee, the 87-year-old star of the 1961 movie version of “Raisin in the Sun” who graduated from Hunter College High School, testified on behalf of the school. When a Manhattan Theatre Lab teacher stood up and recited “A Dream Deferred,” the poem in which Langston Hughes established the image of a raisin in the sun as symbol of neglect, about 20 students joined in.

The hearing was preceded by a talent show with the theme of “We Are More Than Data,” an extension of a 20-minute video the school released this weekend. Amid the familiar tunes on display during the show was an original song about civil rights activist Rosa Parks whose main refrain offered a poignant message: “I’m not moving.”

That decision isn’t up to Manhattan Theatre Lab. A DOE deputy chancellor, Kathleen Grimm, explained at the hearing that the department considered the school’s academics beyond repair.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the department’s proposal Feb. 9. Asked whether the department would consider the pleas aired at the hearing, Grimm said about closure proposals, “They are not generally changed.”

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