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Boot camp for budding ballerinas and bassoonists seeks to diversify city’s arts-based high schools

Dancers with an eye on the city's arts high schools listen during a visit by Carmen Fariña at a Lincoln Center Education boot camp for high school auditions.
Dancers with an eye on the city's arts high schools listen during a visit by Carmen Fariña at a Lincoln Center Education boot camp for high school auditions.
Annie Ma

Imani Dickens has been dancing since she was six years old, inspired by her dancer mom. A rising eighth-grader at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, she has long hoped to go to one of the city’s performing arts high schools. But it will take more than motivation to get her in — she’ll have to audition for her top schools this fall.

But Dickens has an advantage. She’s one of 145 students enrolled in the city’s Arts Audition Boot Camp, which partners with Lincoln Center Education to prepare rising eighth-graders for the arts high school admissions process. The three-year-old program seems to be working. Last year, 85 percent of attendees who applied to an arts-focused high school were admitted.

The program was launched in 2014 by the Department of Education with the specific intention of improving diversity at the city’s roughly 30 audition-based arts high schools. Last year, 66 percent of the program’s attendees were black or Hispanic.

At Lincoln Center, participants take lessons in their chosen fields (dance, theater, voice, instrumental music or visual arts), attend field trips to performances and museums, and practice mock auditions to prepare for the fall. This year, they will also have access to a new four-year mentorship program with boot camp graduates.

On a Wednesday visit to the program, both schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Lincoln Center Education Executive Vice President Russell Granet said the boot camp helped level the playing ground between applicants. Many higher-income families hire private counselors and coaches to guide students through the auditions process.

“We have parents who can afford to pay for this privately,” Granet said. “They can get a drama coach, a music coach, a vocal coach. This is for the kids and families who otherwise don’t have that choice.”

Fariña compared the boot camp to the city’s DREAM program, which provides 22 months of tutoring and test preparation for students interested in the eight test-based specialized high schools. A private tutoring course for the Specialized High School Admissions Test can cost around $1,400 for 15 class sessions.

For both programs, Fariña said there was a need for increased outreach to parents. In each group lesson she visited on Wednesday, she asked students if their families had doubts about sending them to boot camp. Almost always, at least one person raised a hand.

Most of this year’s participants come from the city’s outer boroughs, a commute that can take over an hour. Parents drop some students off early in the mornings outside Lincoln Center, but others make the long subway ride alone.

“This is sacrifice, but the results are really worth it,” Fariña said.

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