“You cannot preach self-government and liberty to people in a starving land” - Fiorello H. LaGuardia, 99th Mayor of New York City
There is a certain charm about democracy that I’ve always found incredibly attractive. There are so many voices yearning to be heard and so many that grasp for a platform; with democracy, seemingly anyone can achieve those goals. Democratic systems are, of course, directly interspersed with Republican ones in American society as, from a very early age, our country has always strived for a balance between individual power and group power. For the most part, we are successful. Businesses run by taking into account the needs of workers and adjusting, and afterward, executives make final company-wide decisions. Our government runs by balancing the will of the people with representatives who vote on behalf of the large population. However, what happens when that balance is not reached - when there is no practical way to balance individual power with the consensus of the public? The answer: tyranny and widespread frustration.
Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School is not a democracy. Schools, in general, may never fully achieve that goal, but I believe they can at least resemble typical representative systems. Does that mean I am implying that LaGuardia is run tyrannically? No, but I recognize that there is widespread frustration amongst its populace. When searching for the answer to why such frustration exists I came to, at almost every turn, one conclusion: it has something to do with the present disconnect between the administration of our school and us, the students, teachers, and parents (some in and many out of the PA). So why does that disconnect exist? I believe it is because at some point, be it the cause of shifting mayoral or city-wide DOE policy or the change in LaGuardia’s local administration, the mission of our school became skewed in favor of a more strict interpretation of standardized education. The problem is that LaGuardia has never been standard. We were not standard when we were The High School of Music and Art nor were we when we were the Performing Arts school. We are not supposed to be standard now. It is why post-1971 (after the Hecht-Calandra act which establishes criterion for Specialized high schools), and after 1984 (when the new building was built) our school became a specialized high school. We are fundamentally different from the many hundreds of other high schools in New York City. We are, quite literally, one of the last significant havens for art in all of its many forms to thrive, to grow, and to be protected.
When, five years ago, the narrative of our school shifted, it was not noticed immediately. Like all policy changes, it took time before people started to see its effects. But when we did, LaGuardian’s took quick action. “Bring Fame Back to the Fame School” was a petition written back in 2016 and has since gotten over 12,000 signatures, 10,000 of which were in the first month the petition was out. It called for a revision of school admission policy to again favor students who had not done as well academically. Since early 2017, that page has been silent, presumably defeated having gotten not much of anywhere, or the authors simply moved on. Despite its absence, the sentiments it once expressed are still widely felt throughout LaGuardia. In a recent poll I conducted of my peers, given the question “Do you ever fear to talk with administrators at our school” 80% of the 136 responses answered yes. When asked “Do you feel as if your input matters in the LaGuardia community?” 82% of the 126 responses answered no. The third and final question I posed was “We proclaim ourselves a dual-mission school. Do you feel as if there is too much focus on academics or art? If neither, please specify why” to which 93% of the 122 responses answered academics.
After meeting with Dr. Mars, Ms. Fleischer, Ms. O’Connell, and Mr. Brummel, (about two and a half weeks ago at the time of writing this), I realized that I should not have feared to speak with administrators, my input actually does matter, and that they are trying with relative effectiveness to focus on both areas the school has, arts and academics, equally. There are problems with exactly how and why the administration is going about its actions which I am still hoping to come to a better conclusion with them on. Examples include: how and why are projects funded? How can we foster more trust at LaGuardia? How can we make sure that the mission of LaGuardia is consistent with how it has always been, and how can we advertise that mission to incoming students effectively - making sure we do not alienate prospective freshman based on their academic averages? These questions do not yet have answers; I am still seeking them. However, despite the remaining problems, I recognized then that the situation was not quite as dire as I had initially thought. In this way, I think there is a simple solution to resolving what our administration might call “misconceptions”: transparency. If our administration can tell the population of LaGuardia what is really going on, how and why they are making the decisions they make, and that they are deliberating over those decisions with the intent to better the arts (and yes, the academics), they will much more effectively be able to collaborate with the public of LaGuardia. Likewise, we, the main body of our school, will all be reassured that the school is acting in our interests and be encouraged to work with them in the way that SGO and the PA currently attempt to. In short: we will no longer be afraid and apathetic. Yes, trust takes time to grow, but I have faith we can all restore it in each other. Trust and transparency are not platitudes from the weekly bulletin; they are values that lead the way forward.
So to our administration: I know you would love for us to come to you with our ideas, and I know you would like to do all you can to satisfy the community at LaGuardia. You’d perhaps like to preach the “liberties” of new facilities and positive changes to our programs, artistic and otherwise, but I caution against that without first heeding Mr. LaGuardia's advice to feed us, your people in a slowly starving land, with a spoonful of artistic leniency and transparency. I genuinely believe that if you can convince us all that you will do anything to protect the arts at our school and keep the line of your communication open you will restore the trust that the community has lost for your decisions. What is art if not an expression against the grain of society?
And to our students, teachers, and parents: I hope that you will join me in encouraging an active, two-way dialogue with our administration, even if that means asking the difficult questions or putting on a little pressure to make sure they listen to us. We can all mend this wide divide, but we must do it collaboratively, in line with a shared vision of making sure the arts prosper in a new global era that sometimes seems bent on dismantling them.