Applying to arts programs at New York City high schools could look dramatically different this year, with virtual auditions submitted through a new online portal, according to detailed information posted to some schools’ websites.
Manhattan’s highly coveted LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts (the inspiration for the “Fame” television show and movie) as well as Brooklyn High School of the Arts offered some of the first hints about how high school admissions will work in a year transformed by the coronavirus.
Families hungry to start the complicated and stressful admissions process have already seized on the information to begin planning their applications. But the education department said these high schools posted the information “prematurely,” before officials finalized any new admissions policies. No deadlines for audition submissions were provided on school websites, and other schools with arts programs, including Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, posted notices online saying they were still awaiting education department guidance for virtual tryouts.
“We know families are eager for an admissions update, including the audition process, and will have more to share soon,” said education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon. “We regularly work with performing arts schools to develop admissions policies and we’re helping them plan through auditions guidance that accounts for the impact of COVID-19.”
Yet the department’s Office of Arts and Special Projects already posted video tutorials on the choreography for dance submissions. In one of the demos, dance instructor Erika Bance, of the Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts in Manhattan, kicks off the video by saying, “I’m going to be teaching you the jazz combination for the unified New York City high school auditions for the performing arts schools.” It had more than 300 views as of Thursday night.
New York City students must apply to high schools in a process that is often high-stress, competitive, and helps drive the city’s status as home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country. LaGuardia high school, for example, enrolls 63% white and Asian students in a city where almost 70% of public school students are Black or Hispanic.
Many schools screen their students, but this year the admissions system has been upended because of the coronavirus pandemic. State standardized tests were canceled, changes were made to how students are graded, and attendance was eliminated as a factor for admissions — all criteria that schools commonly used to sort through applications.
Performing arts programs face another challenge: how to audition safely while coronavirus cases continue to climb, and middle and high school buildings remain closed.
Switching to an online application would likely save families time in what is usually a time-consuming whirl of weekends spent criss-crossing the city for in-person auditions. But it could also create new barriers for students who can’t access the technology and internet bandwidth necessary to submit a remote application.
The guidelines posted online by Brooklyn High School of the Arts asked students to use a new online portal to submit pre-recorded videos showing applicants’ singing, dancing, and acting skills.
LaGuardia’s guidance said audition-based schools will use “common audition requirements for the same program,” and that students could submit the same auditions to multiple programs.
The information, however, seems to have been removed from the schools’ websites.
According to the preliminary guidance, dancers are asked to learn a routine, then record their full body movements on camera, and perform a dance solo up to a minute long. Drama students are to record monologues while those interested in musical theater will also record a song. Visual arts applicants are prompted to submit a still life drawing and photos that document the progression of a figure drawing.
Serena Leigh Krombach, of Park Slope, whose son plans to apply this year to voice and drama programs, said a virtual tryout would take off some of the pressure. Rather than having one shot at an audition, students can record their best work.
“Your nerves aren’t going to hamper you. The environment isn’t going to hamper you. Waiting for eight hours to audition isn’t going to hamper you. Traveling all over the city isn’t going to hamper you,” she said. “It’s a lot less of a burden on the parents’ time, on the kids’ time.”
But virtual auditions present a huge barrier to the thousands of New York City students who still lack devices, and many, particularly those living in homeless shelters, don’t have reliable internet. That could make it difficult to upload a two-minute video or download the music needed to perform.
“There are very specific instructions: The file has to be a certain size, a certain format. To a lot of people, I think that’s going to be more challenging,” said Elissa Stein, a high school admissions consultant.
If the process does go virtual, education department leaders need to come up with a plan to make sure all students can still audition, said Mahalia Watson, an admissions consultant who serves on a Fordham University advisory committee that is working with education department officials to improve the high school application process.
“The communication about it really needs to be on point,” she said. “It should be on the website, MySchools, different places — so that people really know about this new tool and not just have, what seems to be the case, where people in the know, know.”
Even if the education department overhauls the way students apply to schools, there is still no information about how — or whether — schools will be allowed to select students, or “screen,” for admissions.
Arts schools and programs have largely been left out of the debate over whether selective admissions should continue to be used in New York City. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has questioned the fairness of screening students, has also suggested that auditions could still have a place. (The chancellor is an avid musician.)
Krombach, the Park Slope mom, said she’d like to see screening eliminated, even for arts programs. She knows there are plenty of inequities baked into the process. Her own son has had voice lessons since elementary school, and he’s now lobbying his parents for a high quality microphone and lighting for his virtual performances.
“There are kids who are passionate about singing and acting, just like my son is, who should have the same opportunities he does,” Krombach said.