Prestigious summer arts program may clash with equity objectives

But at a state Board of Regents meeting Monday, officials suggested that the highly selective program for gifted teens may be incompatible with the agency’s stated mission of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

Education officials have been taking heat from advocates and colleagues for failing to secure state funding to restore the prestigious program. The department had requested $2 million in additional state funds to sustain the program, but the money wasn’t included in the state spending plan enacted last week.

“We are at a moment where arts education is critically important to the social-emotional well-being of children… Our students really need this, particularly now, and for the next decade,” Regent Shino Tanikawa said at Monday’s meeting.

The four-week residential summer school — which allows talented high school students to study with some of the world’s foremost artists in the visual and performing arts — has been operated and subsidized by the state since 1970.

The program was offered remotely in the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Education Department canceled the program this year citing funding challenges and “virtual-format fatigue” and announced a scholarship program instead, prompting an outcry from program directors, parents, alumni and proponents of arts education.

On Monday, state education officials said they would continue to evaluate the program and explore how it fits with the department’s larger objective of providing a high-quality arts experience to all New York students. 

To attend the program, students must be identified as having exceptional artistic talents and then compete for a select number of seats. About 33 percent of past attendees received partial or full scholarships, according to the Education Department.

Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. noted that the program serves about 300 teens, most of whom have already been exposed to high-level arts training. 

“Quite frankly, as much as I support the arts, if we only advocate for something called Summer School of the Arts, everyone can’t go to that,” Young said. “By its very nature, we are creating an exclusive opportunity.”

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said she had concerns about the lack of diversity at NYSSSA and took issue with advocates who have accused the department of failing to sufficiently advocate for the program during budget talks.

“We received many phone calls as if in fact we had not supported (the program), when it was not true,” she said. “We have to do a better job with the program all the way around, from funding to representation to access and opportunities.”

She mentioned a parent from Long Island who reported that her child did not encounter a single child of color while attending the summer school.

Regent Roger Tilles argued that the NYSSSA program is compatible with the department’s DEI mission since it makes elite arts training available to teens of modest means.

“It’s a DEI program because it’s a program for kids whose parents can’t afford to go to private programs… for kids who can’t make it to the Interlochen (Center for the Arts camp) or the Boston University Tanglewood Institute,” he said. “If we are really serious about having the arts  —  for all kids, not just for some kids  — we really need to do something about it.”

In a letter to the board of Regents sent Monday afternoon, supporters of the program disputed the Regents’ characterization of the program as a summer camp rather than a school.

Advocates also pointed to statistics they say don’t match the perception that the program lacks diversity. In 2019, 28 percent of students identified as BIPOC, 15 percent of students did not disclose their race or ethnic background and the remaining 57 percent identified as white, the coalition wrote in a letter to the board.

Compare that to New York as a whole, where 64 percent of the population identifies as white, they wrote. “NYSSSA is not a program for rich, white kids. We want to be absolutely sure that that is understood. Yes, we do have some kids from privileged backgrounds, but they do not comprise the entirety of the student body.”

They acknowledged a lack of representation for students of color in the orchestral and ballet programs, but pointed out that it is a challenge for professional ballet companies and orchestras across the nation.

In 2019, 30 percent of students in NYSSSA’s ballet program identified as BIPOC and 31 percent of students in the orchestral program identified as BIPOC. Of the BIPOC students, most identified as Asian, the letter states.

NYSSSA supporters say state education officials did not provide them with an opportunity to collaborate or brainstorm solutions. They expressed dismay that NYSSSA executive director Molly Hennighausen’s voice seems to have been marginalized.

Sara Paupini, who was executive director of NYSSSA from 2012 to 2016, said she used to brief the Regents twice a year and state officials used to visit the seven NYSSSA schools. 

“The intent of this program is to provide an outlet for these exceptional artists,” she said. “That is certainly not devaluing that, yes, there should be arts for everyone, but that’s not why NYSSSA was founded 50 years ago.”

The ballet, modern dance and orchestra programs were typically held at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs each summer, with school directors and teachers coming from the ranks of New York City Ballet, the Philadelphia Orchestra and prominent dance companies presented as part of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center season.

Canceling NYSSSA would be a loss to the communities that benefit from its presence, according to Paupina.

“If you’ve been to SPAC and you see those kids, they just bring this energy … they are like screaming for these ballet dancers like they are rockstars,” she said.

Other schools were based at SUNY’s Fredonia, Delhi and Alfred State colleges.

Rosa cited Ballet Hispanico and Alvin Ailey as companies that, unlike NYSSSA, “work within the community.”

The letter notes that NYSSSA’s faculty and guests come from a range of companies including Alvin Ailey and that many NYSSSA graduates have gone on to study at the Fordham/Ailey BFA program.

“NYSSSA has a place at NYSED, and can help the Regents and Department meet its goals,”  the NYSSSA supporters wrote. “Can you imagine a world without a Lin-Manuel Miranda?  Judith Jamison?  Frida Kahlo? The voices and artists of our generation were cultivated and inspired as youth.”

Anita Shire

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