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Opponents Of Former LaGuardia Principal Say Ouster Was Over Diversity, Not Just Arts

Hundreds of LaGuardia High School students staged a sit-in of school hallways on May 31, ultimately resulting in the removal of the school's principal, Lisa Mars.
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Hundreds of LaGuardia High School students staged a sit-in of school hallways on May 31, ultimately resulting in the removal of the school's principal, Lisa Mars. Jordan Nass-deMause

On June 24th, shortly after she sent an email to students saying she’d be skipping this year’s graduation, it was reported that Dr. Lisa Mars, the embattled principal of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, was finally stepping down after six years.

Mars cited “personal reasons” for her absence at graduation, and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Mark Cannizzaro told The Wall Street Journal that she had already been considering a new position. But her departure as principal came after years of protests by LaGuardia students, parents, and teachers, including an hours-long sit-in hundreds of students staged on May 31st.

It has been widely reported that the protests were sparked by Mars's decision to prioritize academics over the arts. But those who helped push Mars out say there’s more to the story than what some have portrayed as a mutiny by entitled kids with an allergy to algebra.

“A lot of news sources are turning this into, ‘We don’t want to learn or take advanced classes,’” says Cali Greenbaum, who served as tech theater rep in LaGuardia’s student government before graduating last month. “That’s not true. We want a good education; we just want an even focus on academics and the arts.”

Unlike at other specialized high schools in New York City, LaGuardia—which evolved from the High School of Performing Arts, the inspiration for the movie and TV series Fame, and which has produced dozens of well-known graduates, including actor Timothée Chalamet, comedian Michael Che, and rapper/actor Awkwafina—does not use standardized test scores as its basis for admission. Instead, prospective students are assessed based on an audition or art portfolio and their middle-school academic record.

But since Mars's arrival in 2013, according to a report by NBC New York, any student who fails to get an 80 or better in any core academic subject (English, math, science, or social studies) in middle school is summarily rejected, regardless of artistic talent.

It's a requirement that Mars's opponents say only ends up penalizing students who failed to attend middle schools with strong academic support systems. “Who are any of us in middle school?” asks Lauren Kinhan, whose daughter recently graduated from LaGuardia. “I would like to think that at 13 and 14 years old, you still have a chance to go to LaGuardia, regardless of what zip code you live in.”

In fact, complaints about the admissions process becoming less arts-focused surfaced years before Mars's arrival. Joseph Cassidy, then the principal of a middle school that sent many students to LaGuardia, lamented such changes in a 2000 New York Times article. “Fifteen years ago [in 1985], it seemed LaGuardia would take the brilliant graffiti artist who didn't have good grades,” he said. “In the last five to ten years, they're also taking into account grades and attendance.”

At the same time, LaGuardia’s black population dropped and its Asian population increased dramatically. In 1989, the student body was about 37 percent white, 34 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian; by 1999, it was roughly 37 percent white, 25 percent black, 21 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian. Today, it is around 46 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian, 7 percent multiracial—and only 10 percent black, in a city that is 24 percent black.

LaGuardia’s decreasing diversity is particularly distressing to those who graduated in the 1990s, when the school was more racially mixed. Natalie DeVito, who graduated from LaGuardia in 1992, recalls being friends with Alexis Cruz, “a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx” who has acted professionally since age 9.

Cruz says that he was a C student in middle school, but when he went to LaGuardia, his grades improved. “I had first heard about it in elementary school, and I was like, ‘Wait, that place in the TV show—that’s for real?’” he tells Gothamist. He says he saw the school as a place where his talents were nurtured, helping him to begin to evolve from the child actor he was to the working actor he is today.

For Cruz, LaGuardia was also a place to “escape from the Bronx,” and the first time in his life when he regularly interacted with people who weren’t black or Hispanic. That exposure to a wider world, he said, was “hugely important for our world view,” and certainly didn’t require “stellar grades” in middle school.

DeVito says kids like Cruz are not being given the same chances to succeed now. “In the nearly 30 years since I graduated, New York City kids did not become less talented," she says. "If you have a drop in one demographic, it’s not because those kids became less talented singers and dancers and musicians. Obviously the metrics we are using to assess worthiness for this school are broken.”

Under Mars, recent students say, the admissions changes were technological as well as ideological. Christina Lok, who served as student government secretary and graduated this year, says the admissions process used to be “more attentive to what made you an artist.” Now, she says, “students are graded on an iPad and rated on talent on a scale from 1 to 5. You can’t put a number on art.”

Kinhan, who says her daughter maintained a high GPA throughout school, resents the implication that LaGuardia parents and students were agitating for the school to be less academically driven. The main issue, she says, was that Mars “slowly and steadfastly continued to chip away at the fabric of the mission,” slashing rehearsal time and emphasizing Advanced Placement classes to the detriment of LaGuardia’s world-class student art and musical and theatrical performances.

Greenbaum says Mars clearly didn’t understand the school’s mission “to help kids who are talented in the arts thrive academically as well," Greenbaum is headed to the University of Colorado at Boulder to study aerospace engineering, a field she says she never would have pursued if not for her experience in tech theater at LaGuardia, where she acquired a host of technical skills, from set building to lighting to stage management, and decided she could be an engineer.

At the same time, parents, students, and graduates have complained that Mars' administration instilled what Lok calls “a sense of fear” and DeVito describes as “threats and bullying.” Many teachers left the school during Mars’ tenure, DeVito says, and others would only voice complaints anonymously because they “feared retribution.”

Dr. Paula Washington, an alumna, LaGuardia parent, LaGuardia teacher, and union chapter leader who will retire in January 2020, describes Mars as “charming, beautiful, and sociopathic.” She says the former principal had threatened parents and teachers who challenged her, including by convincing one teacher that she had the power to withhold her pension.

LaGuardia, Washington says, should foster different kinds of intelligence. So what if a child shows great artistic promise but has weak grades in certain academic subjects, she asks: “We’re teachers; we can help them.”

Shortly before the May sit-in, Washington organized a vote in which 119 LaGuardia teachers cast a vote of “no confidence” in Mars’ commitment to support and foster the school’s dual mission. (Only 15 supported the principal.) In 2017, the music teachers had revolted against cutbacks imposed by Mars, issuing a blistering joint statement that read, in part, “If your intention is to further erode morale, accelerate faculty turnover, and sabotage our dual mission by phasing out music, then your actions make sense.”

Neither Mars nor LaGuardia assistant principal Justin Mackey responded to requests for comment. In an emailed statement, DOE spokesperson Will Mantell said, "We thank Dr. Mars for her leadership, and we’re collaborating closely with LaGuardia’s community to find the next principal for the school and continue its proud history of excellence."

LaGuardia’s student-led protest stands out for its effectiveness in ousting a principal not accused of committing a crime, misrepresenting credentials, or failing to prevent violence. Though it's not entirely unprecedented: Two years ago, students at Townsend Harris High School in Queens—where Lisa Mars served as an assistant principal before being hired as LaGuardia principal—successfully protested to prevent the permanent appointment of acting principal Rosemarie Jahoda, who they said had not respected the school’s humanities tradition and failed to address unfair treatment of students of color.

Brooklyn College education law professor David Bloomfield, whose son attended LaGuardia from 2004 to 2008, tells Gothamist he believes the DOE removed Mars “because of all the publicity.” Similar conflicts over academics emphasis vs. arts were present prior to Mars's arrival, he notes, adding that the speed with which this all came to a head in the last month is surprising, especially since the removal of a principal is relatively rare and “usually done more quietly.”

Bloomfield told Hechinger Report earlier this week that Mars's opponents at LaGuardia were comparatively lucky, noting that plenty of less high-profile schools may have poor-performing principals as well: "Who is sitting down with these principals when they are struggling in terms of their leadership and school community relationships?"

Without the publicity that student protestors were able to get, Bloomfield tells Gothamist, it's unlikely Mars would have been removed. “I don’t think [DOE] would have moved on a less prestigious school without this kind of media attention," he says. "They didn’t even move on this school without media attention.”

Those who fought to oust Mars say they have warm feelings for several DOE officials. Many lauded Manhattan High Schools Superintendent Vivian Orlen, who attended LaGuardia’s graduation ceremony in Mars’ stead and delivered a well-received speech, and Executive Superintendent Marisol Rosales.

DeVito also praised Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza—who, depending on your perspective, is either going too far in attempting to integrate city schools, or failing to set goals precise enough to make a real difference—for his sensitivity and responsiveness. “There’s obviously a [diversity] problem here,” she said. “Pretending it doesn’t exist is not doing any favors for our city.”

Washington is blunt about what LaGuardia needs next: “a new principal with a passion for the arts.” According to a letter sent to LaGuardia parents by Superintendent Orlen’s office, Orlen and Rosales are currently interviewing candidates for an interim acting principal, but there won’t be an official posting for the principal job until the fall, at which point all qualified candidates, including the interim acting principal, will be able to apply. Resumes are also being collected for all vacant teaching positions and one assistant principal position.

At the same time, Isabel Janovsky, a former member of LaGuardia’s student government who graduated last month, said Mars—who has been reappointed to a position as a DOE senior advisor—deserves the same respect as any other human being. “We’re not attacking her personal character or saying she’s unfit for any position in general,” Janovsky said. “We’re just saying that what she has displayed as a leader is not where we want to be as a school right now.”

Update July 4th, 2019: This story has been updated with a statement from the Department of Education.

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