Transcription of the episode “Students leading change: Inclusiveness at an elite school”

Transcription of the episode “Students leading change: Inclusiveness at an elite school”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today, Stacey Cervellin Thorp, Maima Moffett-Warden, and Abigail Rivera, are from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, a public high school with very competitive admission standards.  Stacey and Naima teach in the drama studio and Abi is a senior, majoring in drama. Welcome! 

What are the requirements for admission to LaGuardia, and have they changed over the years? 

Stacey C T: [00:00:55] Yes, they have! There are still some very through lines in terms of talent, and then academics are considered. But there was a flip. When I started, we were still looking at talent over test scores, and then it changed with the new principal. And Naima, do you want to speak a little to that, because you came in with that change, I think.

Naima M-W: [00:01:22] Yes. So there was a shift in terms of, I guess, the standard or the qualifications to get into LaGuardia. I think what was interesting is that there was a time where, you know, we wanted to see the kids. I think there was a lot of ideas based off of the movie “Fame.” So, you know, a lot of kids came in with the hopes of being the Leroy and at some point that tradition would be true. However, I would say in the late two thousands, there was a lot of strain throughout the region of New York State to make test scores part of our criteria. And especially because we are a very interesting specialized high school because we don’t follow the same guidelines as every other specialized high school. Yet the audition becomes part of the testing standard. So that now has shift because we had a principal who was sort of new. Now, our principal is new  to our community, and she’s really trying to get back to some of the essence of let’s see kids for who they are. And… 

Stacey C T: [00:02:48] Which includes, right, being able to talk to them. I think at one point we had iPads and we just, we weren’t really allowed to speak to them. We used to say, well obviously we could speak to them, but we used to interview them a little bit and we were able to ask, it looks like you were absent for quite a bit of time in the spring. Can you talk about that? And more often than not, it was due to a parent being ill. They were having to care for a younger sibling. So we were able to find out, you know, look beyond the transcript and it wasn’t that the student was a bad student or they didn’t care about school. There were extenuating circumstances. And if they didn’t have a lot of experience, we could give them a redirection. We could give them an improvisation. Then we could sort of get to know them and see what their potential was. If they weren’t coming in, like a lot of students are coming in who have more resources, with a really polished piece and they can sort of look like they’ve got it all. And it’s helpful then also to interview those students as well and talk to them because to get to see if they want to really do this and work with us.

So that was taken away. And with this iPad, it was just score, score, score them. You give a redirect and then you do a score and you send it away and you have really have no idea what happens. And I think there was some shady, there were some practices, not considering… We would, might give a hundred to a student in talent, but they’re, um, they were getting, you know, what is it like, Naima, below a 75 in academics like their overall score. And those students that got a hundred were replaced by students who had a lesser talent score. So we weren’t getting always the kids with the most talent. We were sometimes getting the kids who were the smartest. Yep.

Jon M: [00:04:34] And where that stands now is that’s changed back again so that you have more flexibility in the interviews and auditions?

Naima M-W: [00:04:44] Yes. And I think that there’s just a lot of questions now. I think if we’re talking about ethics and equity, there are a lot of questions now coming up with ways in which we do screen schools. Pretty much, that’s what we are, is a version of, an upper echelon version of a screen school. There are, there’s so many parts of it that put into question, are we looking at every kid? And like the purposes of, we’re talking ethics, well, what are, what’s the purpose of us screening kids? Especially in light of resources, like simple things in terms of resources, you know, if you go to areas, and we say the Bronx, but Queens has very large pockets of areas that have dual language, that have services for, like one of the largest services for deaf-mute communities. We’re not necessarily going into those spaces to say, hey, have you thought about a life as an artist, a life as an entertainer? And some wonderful actors over the decades have had various backgrounds, various challenges, physical, mental, what have you. And I don’t know if necessarily our school or lots of schools gear towards those other schools that do those kinds of services. You know, it’s a catch 22. 

The State is trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of the parent concern in terms of what is the standard in which we are allowing students in. At the same time, not every student’s made the same, so like it constantly goes back and forth. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a happy meeting because I think there’s some restrictions, too, on our end that would compromise what would make things standardized. And then I think that becomes the word, right? You want to know that if Abi’s walking through the door or if I’m walking through the door, we both have the most opportune shot of getting into the school, but we have such different backgrounds and such different expertise.

And I think that’s really hard to do because for us, we see maybe about 10,000 kids in an audition season. This is just like across the City. And I know Stacey and I have talked about it, how hard it is, to, you see the potential in someone, and then you know, that they’re struggling in a subject, but their schools don’t have the funding, the money, to really support that kid so that they can be this package.

Stacey C T: [00:07:54] And we don’t necessarily have that support at our school to, I would think I talked about this when I spoke to you, Jon and Amy, last week. We used to have classes before my time there, I think, to help students catch up or to just help the students who were, you know, coming in at a different academic level, and that seems to have gone away. So there’s a real, it’s sort of like you have to hit the ground running, you know, talent-wise and academically, and maybe, I don’t know, Abi, if you want to, just because you have an insider scoop on.

Abi R: [00:08:26] Yeah. Despite the fact that our school is still changing, like, one thing to take into account is that this change was prompted by the students. As soon as we found out that our old principal was running things this way, favoring academics over art, over talent and not considering student backgrounds, we had a sit in. And our title of it was Art for Art’s Sake. And we felt that, you know, we’re, we’re not just brains and we’re not just numbers. And in this school with over 3000 kids, we felt as if we were a number, that we were just, you know, someone walking around the hallways without a name, just there to make the school look better, too. Make the school more diverse and, you know, to boost up the statistics for a specialized high school. So we had a sit in and we said that we don’t want to be represented by this principal anymore. And we fought and we fought until finally we succeeded. And we fought for a new principal and we’re very grateful for Yeou-Jey Vasconcelos. And we’re making a lot of changes, a lot of differences, slowly, but things are getting a lot better.

Jon M: [00:09:43] What was the timeline on that? When was the sit in and when did the new principal come in?

Stacey C T: [00:09:52] It was two years ago. Because last year was Yeou-Jey’s first year. So it was about two years ago, but it was a long time in the making. I can speak to this now. The consultative council went to the old superintendent Fred Walsh twice. There were parent letters, there were committees. The final push came because students started to stand up and, or sit down, actually, because you had your sit in and then that galvanized parents, too, wonderful parents who had a lot of media connections. And these were a lot of the parents were parents of seniors. So it made it that much more, I guess, special or poignant because their kids were leaving. They didn’t really have to care, but  they all jumped in and it was mostly the moms writing letters to the superintendent, galvanizing the press, just bringing more and more attention.

And unfortunately, when students had to say the words that they didn’t feel safe, that they didn’t feel heard, that they, that it wasn’t a safe space for them, that was what got Vivian Orlean’s attention. And it became a media nightmare. And then we had a lot of information about poor practices and unfair practices and illegal practices happening with our administration, but the students really, and the student government just galvanized and they were really brave because it was very scary. I was in some of those meetings and there were a lot of intimidation tactics and it was not a good time. It was a really traumatic time for everybody. But, you know, they got the ball, well, the ball was rolling, but it made it a big push.

Abi R: [00:11:33] And as a student, like, so Ms. Cervellino, she brings up practices. So one thing that came up a lot was kids who did not sign up for AP courses were forced into AP courses that they did not want to take. 

Stacey C T: [00:11:50] Multiple, right? Like kids who had six AP, four to six, It was insane, on their schedule. Sorry, go ahead, Abi. 

Abi R: [00:12:01] Yeah. This happened to me as well and the guidance office, the guidance suite, was just flooded with students all the time, trying to change their schedule, trying to back out of these classes, because it was a lot to take in and a lot to handle. And even the guidance counselors, they said there was nothing that they do or that it was a long process. A lot of kids were stressed out about this because they felt as if they were being pushed towards academics, than arts. And they came to an arts school, you know, so that’s what they expected to be doing.

Stacey C T: [00:12:37] And because your day is long.  It’s not just students going, oh, it’s too much work. It’s because they’re at school, they have class and then they have afterschool rehearsal and they’re getting home very late and commuting to all parts of the City. And then having a load of five APs on top of that, they’re pulled in two directions.

Jon M: [00:13:00] Has that changed at all?

Stacey C T: [00:13:03] I think so. Right, Abi? I mean, I don’t think, I think there’s a little more…

Abi R: [00:13:07] So, yeah. For right now,  there’s been like a more organized way for students to  choose the classes that they want to take. The guidance counselors are sending out Google forms and they make kids go over their schedule request many times and they have personal calls. So the guidance counselor would call the students and actually discuss what the courses hold. And, you know, we haven’t been able to put this into practice that much because of remote learning, but it’s  definitely changing.

Amy H-L: [00:13:40] Students at LaGuardia come from very diverse backgrounds, both in terms of resources and connections and experiences with the arts. Some have been acting since they were young children and others are just starting out. Stacey and Naima, how does that impact your jobs as teachers? And Abi, how does that affect the relationships among the students? 

Naima M-W: [00:14:05] I think along lines of it being our job to kind of find a middle ground, more often than not. You know, there are times where really some of the kids that have had all the training in the world were breaking the bad habits for them. And then the raw talent of someone that’s never taken an acting lesson makes it… I find it easier personally because they’re sponges. They just want the good technique. And so it’s trying to find a middle ground in between the two.

I think also there’s the idea of whatever we have as curriculum and, you know, teachers come from all different kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of educational backgrounds, but generally have a lexicon for how they’re speaking about assessment. Or they might have a background on how they’re speaking about standards because they’re working off the same standards. I think something that happens in the arts. I’ve done work with the arts in special projects office, even just like teacher effectiveness for the arts, because the art form itself has its own vocabulary and its own way of working. There tends to, more times than not, have a clash with education at times. And there’s lots of places where they agree, but then there’s also things that we come up against that we’re like, some of this is, it’s an important lesson, but how do we teach it in our classroom? And so I think it’s up to us being clever on how we’re giving skillsets around it. And I think more importantly, kids just want to absorb whatever we’re trying to do. I think as long as they’re engaged in it, you know,.

Stacey C T: [00:16:08] And I think also it’s really becomes individualized education, you know, because you have a student who’s done a lot of work, but then you have to have meetings with them. And, you know, every teacher has individualized meetings with students and figuring out what’s going to be challenging for you. You just did a Broadway show last year, and for some students who have worked a lot, they also, sometimes they just want a break. They want to do something fun. They want to feel like a kid. They might’ve been on set for most of their childhood. And the support they need is how to just be a human teenager. And maybe also what Naima was saying about you, you know, they have all these acting habits, where some of it’s about maybe pushing too much an actor or they’re really stuck in a certain way of being or a certain idea for themselves.

And then for other students, it’s saying, what other things do you need? Like, you’ve never read. You didn’t have, you know, you read only two plays in all of middle school. Here’s a list of plays. And now we have this great online resource that we’re sharing with students, or we will be sharing with students. Parents have been scanning plays. We’re uploading plays. So they’ll have easier access because for some students going to the performing arts library afterschool, they might have a job or they have to go home and take care of siblings, or they have late afterschool rehearsal and they don’t have time to go and leisurely sit there at the performing arts library and read. And they don’t sometimes know where to look. So it’s having those conversations. These are some schools you should think about, these are some movies maybe you want to see, books you’d like to read, just so that they’re getting that education that they might not have had access to, but it’s so varied. Some students are, you know, I remember teaching. . . Madonna’s daughter really suffered from a confidence issue because she, you know, she had a lovely voice and she was very talented and every time I’d see her perform, I felt like she was just always a holding back. And this is a kid that has everything. So that was a lot about trying to help her find her own voice since having such a powerful voice in her own life.

Jon M: [00:18:22] For all three of you, how has teaching online and learning online impacted your ability to teach equitably, and Abi, from your point of view, how has it affected your ability to, to be learning in the drama program? 

Abi R: [00:18:40] So when we first started remote learning, you know, in the middle of spring, It was a difficult transition. And a lot of students honestly felt that, you know, like what’s the point of going to the drama class. It almost seemed as if it was a joke where we’re acting over Zoom and we have to do scenes over Facetime, their classmates. And a lot of us just weren’t into it. I found myself to be a little bit lost, but then my acting teacher, Ms. Buffamanti, she signed our class up for a Shakespeare presentation at a theater in Brooklyn. And I wasn’t really so excited for it, but then I started working on a sonnet, Shakespeare sonnet number 14, and we did a live Zoom call and it was livecasted over YouTube. And just finally doing something and seeing something come out of it, seeing so many people gather, you know, their families and their friends, to watch this on their television, that it felt real, you know, like I’m not just in a room with some of my class reciting lines. Like, wow, we’re making art right now. And that changed the whole vibe of a remote learning [inaudible].

Stacey C T: [00:20:01] I think students are starting to see that there are many, many possibilities and that, in a way,  there’s a  freedom to being online because you can grab things right away and share them. You can share so many, you know, at school, the internet was always an issue. Connecting to technology was always an issue. We can bring in guest artists now. We’re not confined with permission slips and sign offs and trying to schedule them and having to go up to get them and security and all of those things. Somebody can just, you know, we were calling friends, colleagues, people we know from the arts, and they’re coming in and giving these amazing classes.

And I think it’s providing more one on one time because you can do breakout rooms and you can do individual conferences and you can really coach in a different way than when you’re coaching 12 scenes in a room, it’s really chaotic. On Zoom, I can put scenes into a breakout room and go in there or just schedule a time. And it’s just me and the actors. And it’s really lovely and focused. And it’s easier to connect over email. If kids have questions, it’s all live in the moment, in a way, even though it’s not live, and I can send resources right away. So I think it’s been very creative, challenging, but very creative. And I think we’re learning more about how to use this medium. And we’ve been working a lot with anything from finding lighting to using your space, even if it’s a tiny room or, um, just how to take this out of the boxes and really expand their artistic vocabulary as artists and art makers. 

Amy H-L: [00:21:37] In many schools, both in New York City and across the country, especially in literature classes, students are finding the traditional curriculum to be Eurocentric, anachronistic, and in many ways irrelevant to their lives. Have your drama students raised these issues, and how?

Abi R: [00:22:01] So yeah, we have definitely raised these issues. My friend and I, Amanda, we started to take notice to these things. And especially after the death of George Floyd, we realized, you know, hold up, let’s, let’s take a step back. And instead of looking at the world and what’s wrong with the world, let’s look at the communiy that we do have access to. And that was our school, and even smaller than that, our drama department. And we realized that in our drama theater department, that it favored more of the white students than the  BIPOC students and it favored white authors, white playwrights, and white actors over BIPOC playwrights and actors, that we did not feel represented in our drama department. We felt left out. And so we got a group of kids together and we said, you know, hey, we need to discuss this. We need to talk about this with our teachers, with our drama teachers, with our white peers, and see what we can do to change this.

Jon M: [00:23:11] Naima had mentioned to us, I’m sorry, actually, Stacey had mentioned to us when we were talking before, about the Young Idealists. Is that you, Abi?

Abi R: [00:23:23] Yeah. So, so basically our, our efforts with that eventually turned into this kind of group that we’ve created. It’s called Young Idealists. And right now our members are myself, Amanda Reynolds, Kayla Prescott, Darah Barenholtz and and Gina Lew, and we love them so much. And we just like come together to discuss and fight for. change in our drama department and in our school community. And our first big step was creating a Juneteenth meeting. And basically, we brought together the faculty and the students, and we gave them the Open Space and we organized this Open Space to talk about the injustices that we faced, microaggressions that we’ve come across, and the inequity of the drama department, and to see what we can change about that.

Naima M-W: [00:24:19] So I think it’s interesting to think about the many conversations I’ve had about this. I want to say over the past several months, because I don’t think for any BIPOC artist or educator, this conversation has already been in progress. So now I think, unfortunately it’s taken such a tragedy to put a spotlight on it. These, these ideas, efforts, the concerns, have constantly been in being engaged in now, just the net is a little bit wider. So I started with holding Open Space, because I think after such national, now global, tragedy, there had to be a space where people can voice their concerns, their ideas, just even their gut reactions to what everything was happening. So I think for, at that time, I held Open Space until July. ‘Cause I thought that kids, adults, everyone needed to gather however they could and just know that they can talk about ideas or talk about what’s going on or even respond to what was happening in their neighborhoods and on the street. Abi and Amanda reached out to me to be part of their mentorship. And then I believe I reached out to Stacey, and they also reached out to Stacey in terms of like becoming just like an integral ally towards the work that we’re doing. Again, I keep saying it’s twofold because I know my challenge within the theater community was that I was uncomfortable with the tokenism that was constantly brought upon me from my BFA to my MFA, even into industry practices. I felt cornered and uncomfortable in terms of feeling I was the sole person to explain a Black experience when mine is very unique and different just like anybody else’s could be. So Young Idealists, I felt like, was a really good start because I remember my first, no, not my first experience, but one of the most integral or impactful experiences started in high school. And I think that they wanted support and how others can come and say we have your back or just even checking the fact if some situation or scenario was right or wrong. You know, I think it’s confusing, especially when it’s a microaggression. I think it could be very confusing and off-putting when something’s happening to you and you don’t even know how to address it. And I think we wanted to provide like commentary art and just a safe haven for anyone that’s going through that.

Stacey C T: [00:27:55] And it opened the door to so much honesty. Just for me personally, I can’t speak for other teachers, but I felt like it gave me permission to ask questions, for students to sort of feel comfortable, like to have the dialogue, to say, that makes me uncomfortable. Or for me to say, is it okay? Am I phrasing this correctly? You know, to have those awkward conversations. I think that needs to happen so that everybody is being treated the way they want to be treated and being presented with opportunities. And just being more aware of that if you’ve got two Black women in your sophomore class or freshman class or whatever class you’re doing their first scenes to not only offer them a scene by a Black playwright, that there are, or a scene where they’re playing a particular kind of character, to offer lots of options and let the student decide what is comfortable for them and having these, you know, we’d had these conversations over and over again. I think I talked about this last time with our old assistant principal of drama and tried to do workshops on diversity and bias, and there was just no support behind it. So once again, it took students to push something through and I’m, you know, I’m very grateful. I’m not just saying that because we’re on here, but it was just felt like a battle that I didn’t… Not a battle. That’s such a strong word. But I didn’t know where to go with it. And it wasn’t necessarily my voice to have be the representative of that. It sort of just, I felt like, like I was yelling from like a glass, you know, like nobody could hear me. That’s not really an expression. It’s just an image. It was just like yelling at the bottom of the canyon and I’m like,”help!” I’m so happy this has happened. I’m sad it had to happen because of it, of the events, you know, with George Floyd, but we can’t go back and that’s really good. We can’t go back now at LaGuardia. The students won’t let us, which I think is great. 

Jon M: [00:30:02] It sounds like what you’re describing is the doors are now open and that the demands are being made very loudly. How has the school responded programmatically and structurally, if it has? For example, I think Stacey, you mentioned last time that Naima is doing a specific kind of program. Naima, would you want to speak to that? And more generally, what have you been seeing as, as sort of permanent results from, from everything

Stacey C T: [00:30:34] You joining us for seniors. Our ability, because of Zoom, to really kind of push forward with a lot of program, not program changes, just enhancements, seasoning, whatever it is to sort of make all these ideas happen. Anyway, you can go ahead and talk, but I just talked about you coming in and being that fourth teacher for seniors.

Naima M-W: [00:30:57] So I thought that the principal’s goal was getting to know students, for teachers, was to have us know students well. So we were even, cause we got a large class of now sophomores because our past principal was… In her efforts to try to recoup budget and to not have to excess teachers, she accepted more students. And so we have a very large class of sophomores and to kind of gear up for that. And for just getting to have more personalized moments. We have 90 seniors, right? It’s 93 seniors in our class, in this class…It might be. So now we are sort of doing the three traditional directors, which kind of limits how many kids are featured. It’s now four directors, the APO Justin Mackey not only has been working with Young Idealists. He wanted, he was very moved by the stories he heard about what was going on through Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So he’s made initiatives with Young Idealists because he wants it to be a very strategic, systematic change. And then he asked me, along with the team, the senior team advocating for me to be a director again this year. I directed last year, and I guess we probably could cycle out directors, but there needed to be another voice. And I think. It’s been impactful for kids to know that there’s a director of color, a teacher of color on their team. I know I was 22 or 23 before there was a trained African American teacher that I had. All of my teachers were White that taught me theater, and I could only imagine what the difference would have been if I had a teacher at 16, 14, that would  teach me about drama or how to storytell through my own culture.

So I think we were trying to figure that out now and we all recognize that hiring, like everyone and on this call can recognize that hiring multiple cultures, not just, I only think, I think African-Americans’ experience or the Black experience leads to recognizing how the deficiencies in other cultures, like it’s not just Black people that need to be hired. It’s like across the gamut, there’s this cultural void that I think we’re all now saying, hey, we need to recognize and support. So I think having me on the team is a start and we all have work that we need to do towards it, but at least this way, we’re voicing it very differently. Even the way that we’re going about planning our year is so different. And it makes it exciting because I think it leans towards where art is going to go in the future.

Stacey C T: [00:34:40] It’s collaborative and it feels like we’re thinking about the big picture for the kids. 

Amy H-L: [00:34:46] Do some of the drama students intend to use their careers in the performing arts to effect social change?

Abi R: [00:34:53] So, you know, knowing my classmates, like a good majority of them have kind of set their minds on different career. That’s a lot in the medical fields, a lot want to become lawyers and, you know, just other career paths, but especially in the place that we are right now in the world, those career paths do involve social change. I, myself, I don’t really know what I want to do, you know, in college, but based on the work that I’ve done now, I definitely hope to follow a path that, you know, social change through art. Yeah. It’s just, it’s, it’s so important to me now. And I finally realized this is something  that needs to be done, looking beyond LaGuardia.

Jon M: [00:35:42] What could the City do to make high quality arts education available to a much larger group of students on an equitable basis? 

Stacey C T: [00:35:51] There have to be more. There’s a lot of money, and Naima, correct me, put towards  dance and music, which is amazing. And I think it’s because theater, like. You know, whenever I was a teaching artist, I was like, everybody wants to do theater. No, not everybody wants to do theater. I wanted to do theater cause that’s what I was into. But not to push theater on people, but I think to make it more available. So it’s also not just, you know, when you’re doing a teaching artist push in, you’re not their teacher, it’s only for a few weeks. To have something more sustainable, and I think that’s across the board, even with just… you know, there’ve been a lot of cuts to afterschool programs, just for tutoring. And where the need is, fill that need, whether it’s academic, tutoring, not cutting the arts in schools, at least having one person in every school, even if it’s just storytelling or writing or self scripting, it doesn’t have to be a full on drama class, but something, yeah.

Naima M-W: [00:36:54] I think that, so traditionally, because both my parents were admin, and I remember my mom’s speaking so highly about Arts Connection as one of the few companies that were going to all schools and providing quality arts programming. You know, it’s. It’s a chicken and an egg kind of scenario. Like we need to be, we need to educate kids to want to become the artists that are in the classrooms. Like I was the kid that loved art. I still do. I directed work on projects, but I saw a deficit in the fact that there was no one like me teaching my subject. We need to start spreading some of these amazing opportunities, sharing, like what can go on, for theater, for various cultural pockets? I don’t think there is enough theater in multiple languages. And when I went to London twice last year, I was able to see theater in Chinese. I was able to experience theater in French. When I came here, I started digging for it in the city. And the only thing that I could find was at St. Ann’s Warehouse. And it was the “History of Violence,” which was in German and English. I think we need to start actually going towards the kids and letting them know, hey, you have a knack and like actually giving them and saying you have this gift. And also not just highlighting like the dream jobs. I think some part of what Stacey and I have been talking about and saying there’s more careers in theater  or in acting period than just writing, directing, and acting.

Stacey C T: [00:39:14] Or going straight to Broadway or going straight to… I think that’s where the missing link is for a lot of kids. When I was a teaching artist, I think they just imagined acting as this. It’s in  a film and it’s so far away and there was no middle ground. And also, like I’m walking into a junior high in the Bronx, me. And I’m like, hello, my name is Stacey Cervellino. I’m a, at that point, you know, I wasn’t middle-aged, I’m a 30-something woman from. I grew up on Long Island. You know, there’s a disconnect right away. Like, what is this, what does this woman have to teach me? And the kids, kids were always amazing and you get to know them. But I always sort of felt like, why am I here? I know that sounds weird because I was happy to be there and I wanted to be there, but it felt weird. I felt like I’m walking in with my MFA in acting and you know, let’s study Hamlet and I didn’t walk like this, but it felt like it wasn’t, I wasn’t the right person for that job. And I don’t know what that means. Cause you want every, you know, everybody should be able to be teaching artists, but there was no training. There was no training and this is what you’re walking into. These are some of the situations, this is, you know, or to pair me with someone so there’s a team, like we’re doing now. So there’s a team of all different perspectives and we can kind of, not correct one another, but like support one another, where there’s a deficit with me, Naima can fill that in and I can, you know, and same.

Naima M-W: [00:40:50] I feel like Abi and Amanda, you’ve gone back to your middle schools, maybe to talk about your high school experience?

Abi R: [00:41:04] Yeah. So LaGuardia is like known as this prestigious place and our middle schools, I guess once they found out like how things were going and realize, you know, our success in the school, they’re like, come back, speak to the kids, kind of like encourage them to audition. And personally, I feel that we have to like change the stigma around tests, like the SAT and the gifted and talented test. I personally did not take the SHSAT. and I feel like a lot of kids are pressured into doing that as if academics is the only way to go. So our middle schools, they encourage us to come back and speak to the students because a lot of kids, academics is just not their thing, but they are great musicians. They love to draw. They go to after school, the after school musical program, right. And nobody’s pushing them to do that because they’re so focused on SHSAT and getting into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, getting into a gifted and talented program. So we just got to switch that up a little bit.

Naima M-W: [00:42:09] And they’re the ones that were put on, like for the CEC and the PEP meetings. They’re the ones that were actually being interrogated for their equity practices, you know. They were at the charge, they were at the helm and we’re recognizing that our equity is questionable just as a community, but, you know, they’ve been, over the past, I would say since 2018, in question of how they are doing their admissions process and the equity in their tests. I think it’s also being able to hear, I love, I love Adelphi University. I will pick it up every time it can because Margaret Lally and Nick Petron, for 20 years, were talking about the working actor. That was part of the reason why I wanted to go there. They weren’t promising me fame and acclaim. They were saying, we want to be able to give you an actual like job within theater. Like you will graduate and have something that is connected and related to this coursework. And that was so different than everything that I’ve heard from elementary school, that’s as early as I remember performing professionally, to going into college. I think we have to change what we’re… Black and Brown families and Black and Brown communities are struggling. It is hard to support that child that has the innate talent to do something when they themselves can’t understand how they’re supposed to make a living from it.

Before coming to LaGuardia, I was at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. And I spent several years just working with parents, working through technical theater, to get several students into the tech theater union. And they’re still doing it now. And that was such a major shift. And once the teacher came that preceded me, she took on that same kind of goal. It’s like working with everyone, like even when we’re going to one place or another, it’s not leaving a community hanging saying, well, now let’s just erase everything that we’ve done and do something else. It’s like, let’s do this and try to support these people and see them for who they are and educate those communities about arts and what they do. 

Stacey C T: [00:45:03] And how to make it sustainable, because it’s not everybody’s reality. I feel like that dream is a dream for very few, where you go to a BFA. That’s an extraordinary amount of money, and then you have to support yourself after college. And most times you get a job and you have to stop auditioning because you have a job so you can pay your rent, right. And I think that’s sort of the dream we were selling at LaGuardia, not the dream of having a job and stopping auditioning, the dream of like, well, you’re going to go to a BFA and then you’re just going to audition all the time and, you know, you’ll figure it out. And for many kids, that’s not a reality. It wasn’t a reality for me. And I just had a conversation with somebody in my class. The students’ parents don’t want her to be an actor. They don’t understand how that will support her and sustain her. And there’s a real nervousness around it, which is very real because you know, you need food and shelter and health insurance. And when Mommy and Daddy aren’t paying for your Upper West Side apartment, you’ve got to get a job at Zara or something, or, you know,

Abi R: [00:46:06] One thing that I’ve noticed a lot, you know, talking to my friends, is that Black and Brown parents, they just, they don’t, they don’t know what’s up. They hear the arts and they’re really confused because that’s also what they were taught from their parents, you know, you have to work to support your family. And we need to start teaching kids and start letting it be known that there are other careers in the arts rather than becoming a famous actor. And I’ve definitely learned a lot of that actually recently in seminars that we’ve been doing in our career management class. We had actors coming in and speaking to us and people in the industry. And I start to realize, you know, hey, I can use this talent that I have to teach history to kids in a classroom by other than, you know, having a PowerPoint and having them copy down notes. Let’s teach them through rap and also let’s fight for people’s rights with music and with what we can do physically with our bodies.

Stacey C T: [00:47:06] You know my friend Meyung, who came in and did the tectonic work with you guys on Wednesday, she also started doing diversity training and then working with the NYPD two years ago to kind of help build community. And her background is theater and she’s kind of transitioned into that work to try to work with police on deescalation techniques and to bring yoga and meditation, and then also community building, because obviously this was before Georgw Floyd, but to build those communities and there’s so much that you can do with all these skills. There’s so many ways.

Jon M: [00:47:43] Thank you so much. Naima Moffett-Warden, Stacey Cervellino Thorp, and Abigail Rivera of LaGuardia High School. 

And thank you, listeners, for joining us. If you liked this podcast, share it with a friend or colleague and give us a rating or review. It helps other people to find the show. We post transcripts of our interviews to make it easy to find audio clips for classes and workshops. Let us know how you’ve incorporated ideas from our podcast or blog or if there are topics you’d like to hear more about. Email us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We work with consultants to provide professional development on social emotional learning with an emphasis on ethics for school and afterschool programs in the New York City area.

Check out our prior episodes and articles at ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

Episode 74 (final)

Amy H-L: [00:00:00] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:15] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today, Stacey Cervellin Thorp, Maima Moffett-Warden, and Abigail Rivera, are from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, a public high school with very competitive admission standards.  Stacey and Naima teach in the drama studio and Abi is a senior, majoring in drama. Welcome! 

What are the requirements for admission to LaGuardia, and have they changed over the years? 

Stacey C T: [00:00:55] Yes, they have! There are still some very through lines in terms of talent, and then academics are considered. But there was a flip. When I started, we were still looking at talent over test scores, and then it changed with the new principal. And Naima, do you want to speak a little to that, because you came in with that change, I think.

Naima M-W: [00:01:22] Yes. So there was a shift in terms of, I guess, the standard or the qualifications to get into LaGuardia. I think what was interesting is that there was a time where, you know, we wanted to see the kids. I think there was a lot of ideas based off of the movie “Fame.” So, you know, a lot of kids came in with the hopes of being the Leroy and at some point that tradition would be true. However, I would say in the late two thousands, there was a lot of strain throughout the region of New York State to make test scores part of our criteria. And especially because we are a very interesting specialized high school because we don’t follow the same guidelines as every other specialized high school. Yet the audition becomes part of the testing standard. So that now has shift because we had a principal who was sort of new. Now, our principal is new  to our community, and she’s really trying to get back to some of the essence of let’s see kids for who they are. And… 

Stacey C T: [00:02:48] Which includes, right, being able to talk to them. I think at one point we had iPads and we just, we weren’t really allowed to speak to them. We used to say, well obviously we could speak to them, but we used to interview them a little bit and we were able to ask, it looks like you were absent for quite a bit of time in the spring. Can you talk about that? And more often than not, it was due to a parent being ill. They were having to care for a younger sibling. So we were able to find out, you know, look beyond the transcript and it wasn’t that the student was a bad student or they didn’t care about school. There were extenuating circumstances. And if they didn’t have a lot of experience, we could give them a redirection. We could give them an improvisation. Then we could sort of get to know them and see what their potential was. If they weren’t coming in, like a lot of students are coming in who have more resources, with a really polished piece and they can sort of look like they’ve got it all. And it’s helpful then also to interview those students as well and talk to them because to get to see if they want to really do this and work with us.

So that was taken away. And with this iPad, it was just score, score, score them. You give a redirect and then you do a score and you send it away and you have really have no idea what happens. And I think there was some shady, there were some practices, not considering… We would, might give a hundred to a student in talent, but they’re, um, they were getting, you know, what is it like, Naima, below a 75 in academics like their overall score. And those students that got a hundred were replaced by students who had a lesser talent score. So we weren’t getting always the kids with the most talent. We were sometimes getting the kids who were the smartest. Yep.

Jon M: [00:04:34] And where that stands now is that’s changed back again so that you have more flexibility in the interviews and auditions?

Naima M-W: [00:04:44] Yes. And I think that there’s just a lot of questions now. I think if we’re talking about ethics and equity, there are a lot of questions now coming up with ways in which we do screen schools. Pretty much, that’s what we are, is a version of, an upper echelon version of a screen school. There are, there’s so many parts of it that put into question, are we looking at every kid? And like the purposes of, we’re talking ethics, well, what are, what’s the purpose of us screening kids? Especially in light of resources, like simple things in terms of resources, you know, if you go to areas, and we say the Bronx, but Queens has very large pockets of areas that have dual language, that have services for, like one of the largest services for deaf-mute communities. We’re not necessarily going into those spaces to say, hey, have you thought about a life as an artist, a life as an entertainer? And some wonderful actors over the decades have had various backgrounds, various challenges, physical, mental, what have you. And I don’t know if necessarily our school or lots of schools gear towards those other schools that do those kinds of services. You know, it’s a catch 22. 

The State is trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of the parent concern in terms of what is the standard in which we are allowing students in. At the same time, not every student’s made the same, so like it constantly goes back and forth. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a happy meeting because I think there’s some restrictions, too, on our end that would compromise what would make things standardized. And then I think that becomes the word, right? You want to know that if Abi’s walking through the door or if I’m walking through the door, we both have the most opportune shot of getting into the school, but we have such different backgrounds and such different expertise.

And I think that’s really hard to do because for us, we see maybe about 10,000 kids in an audition season. This is just like across the City. And I know Stacey and I have talked about it, how hard it is, to, you see the potential in someone, and then you know, that they’re struggling in a subject, but their schools don’t have the funding, the money, to really support that kid so that they can be this package.

Stacey C T: [00:07:54] And we don’t necessarily have that support at our school to, I would think I talked about this when I spoke to you, Jon and Amy, last week. We used to have classes before my time there, I think, to help students catch up or to just help the students who were, you know, coming in at a different academic level, and that seems to have gone away. So there’s a real, it’s sort of like you have to hit the ground running, you know, talent-wise and academically, and maybe, I don’t know, Abi, if you want to, just because you have an insider scoop on.

Abi R: [00:08:26] Yeah. Despite the fact that our school is still changing, like, one thing to take into account is that this change was prompted by the students. As soon as we found out that our old principal was running things this way, favoring academics over art, over talent and not considering student backgrounds, we had a sit in. And our title of it was Art for Art’s Sake. And we felt that, you know, we’re, we’re not just brains and we’re not just numbers. And in this school with over 3000 kids, we felt as if we were a number, that we were just, you know, someone walking around the hallways without a name, just there to make the school look better, too. Make the school more diverse and, you know, to boost up the statistics for a specialized high school. So we had a sit in and we said that we don’t want to be represented by this principal anymore. And we fought and we fought until finally we succeeded. And we fought for a new principal and we’re very grateful for Yeou-Jey Vasconcelos. And we’re making a lot of changes, a lot of differences, slowly, but things are getting a lot better.

Jon M: [00:09:43] What was the timeline on that? When was the sit in and when did the new principal come in?

Stacey C T: [00:09:52] It was two years ago. Because last year was Yeou-Jey’s first year. So it was about two years ago, but it was a long time in the making. I can speak to this now. The consultative council went to the old superintendent Fred Walsh twice. There were parent letters, there were committees. The final push came because students started to stand up and, or sit down, actually, because you had your sit in and then that galvanized parents, too, wonderful parents who had a lot of media connections. And these were a lot of the parents were parents of seniors. So it made it that much more, I guess, special or poignant because their kids were leaving. They didn’t really have to care, but  they all jumped in and it was mostly the moms writing letters to the superintendent, galvanizing the press, just bringing more and more attention.

And unfortunately, when students had to say the words that they didn’t feel safe, that they didn’t feel heard, that they, that it wasn’t a safe space for them, that was what got Vivian Orlean’s attention. And it became a media nightmare. And then we had a lot of information about poor practices and unfair practices and illegal practices happening with our administration, but the students really, and the student government just galvanized and they were really brave because it was very scary. I was in some of those meetings and there were a lot of intimidation tactics and it was not a good time. It was a really traumatic time for everybody. But, you know, they got the ball, well, the ball was rolling, but it made it a big push.

Abi R: [00:11:33] And as a student, like, so Ms. Cervellino, she brings up practices. So one thing that came up a lot was kids who did not sign up for AP courses were forced into AP courses that they did not want to take. 

Stacey C T: [00:11:50] Multiple, right? Like kids who had six AP, four to six, It was insane, on their schedule. Sorry, go ahead, Abi. 

Abi R: [00:12:01] Yeah. This happened to me as well and the guidance office, the guidance suite, was just flooded with students all the time, trying to change their schedule, trying to back out of these classes, because it was a lot to take in and a lot to handle. And even the guidance counselors, they said there was nothing that they do or that it was a long process. A lot of kids were stressed out about this because they felt as if they were being pushed towards academics, than arts. And they came to an arts school, you know, so that’s what they expected to be doing.

Stacey C T: [00:12:37] And because your day is long.  It’s not just students going, oh, it’s too much work. It’s because they’re at school, they have class and then they have afterschool rehearsal and they’re getting home very late and commuting to all parts of the City. And then having a load of five APs on top of that, they’re pulled in two directions.

Jon M: [00:13:00] Has that changed at all?

Stacey C T: [00:13:03] I think so. Right, Abi? I mean, I don’t think, I think there’s a little more…

Abi R: [00:13:07] So, yeah. For right now,  there’s been like a more organized way for students to  choose the classes that they want to take. The guidance counselors are sending out Google forms and they make kids go over their schedule request many times and they have personal calls. So the guidance counselor would call the students and actually discuss what the courses hold. And, you know, we haven’t been able to put this into practice that much because of remote learning, but it’s  definitely changing.

Amy H-L: [00:13:40] Students at LaGuardia come from very diverse backgrounds, both in terms of resources and connections and experiences with the arts. Some have been acting since they were young children and others are just starting out. Stacey and Naima, how does that impact your jobs as teachers? And Abi, how does that affect the relationships among the students? 

Naima M-W: [00:14:05] I think along lines of it being our job to kind of find a middle ground, more often than not. You know, there are times where really some of the kids that have had all the training in the world were breaking the bad habits for them. And then the raw talent of someone that’s never taken an acting lesson makes it… I find it easier personally because they’re sponges. They just want the good technique. And so it’s trying to find a middle ground in between the two.

I think also there’s the idea of whatever we have as curriculum and, you know, teachers come from all different kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of educational backgrounds, but generally have a lexicon for how they’re speaking about assessment. Or they might have a background on how they’re speaking about standards because they’re working off the same standards. I think something that happens in the arts. I’ve done work with the arts in special projects office, even just like teacher effectiveness for the arts, because the art form itself has its own vocabulary and its own way of working. There tends to, more times than not, have a clash with education at times. And there’s lots of places where they agree, but then there’s also things that we come up against that we’re like, some of this is, it’s an important lesson, but how do we teach it in our classroom? And so I think it’s up to us being clever on how we’re giving skillsets around it. And I think more importantly, kids just want to absorb whatever we’re trying to do. I think as long as they’re engaged in it, you know,.

Stacey C T: [00:16:08] And I think also it’s really becomes individualized education, you know, because you have a student who’s done a lot of work, but then you have to have meetings with them. And, you know, every teacher has individualized meetings with students and figuring out what’s going to be challenging for you. You just did a Broadway show last year, and for some students who have worked a lot, they also, sometimes they just want a break. They want to do something fun. They want to feel like a kid. They might’ve been on set for most of their childhood. And the support they need is how to just be a human teenager. And maybe also what Naima was saying about you, you know, they have all these acting habits, where some of it’s about maybe pushing too much an actor or they’re really stuck in a certain way of being or a certain idea for themselves.

And then for other students, it’s saying, what other things do you need? Like, you’ve never read. You didn’t have, you know, you read only two plays in all of middle school. Here’s a list of plays. And now we have this great online resource that we’re sharing with students, or we will be sharing with students. Parents have been scanning plays. We’re uploading plays. So they’ll have easier access because for some students going to the performing arts library afterschool, they might have a job or they have to go home and take care of siblings, or they have late afterschool rehearsal and they don’t have time to go and leisurely sit there at the performing arts library and read. And they don’t sometimes know where to look. So it’s having those conversations. These are some schools you should think about, these are some movies maybe you want to see, books you’d like to read, just so that they’re getting that education that they might not have had access to, but it’s so varied. Some students are, you know, I remember teaching. . . Madonna’s daughter really suffered from a confidence issue because she, you know, she had a lovely voice and she was very talented and every time I’d see her perform, I felt like she was just always a holding back. And this is a kid that has everything. So that was a lot about trying to help her find her own voice since having such a powerful voice in her own life.

Jon M: [00:18:22] For all three of you, how has teaching online and learning online impacted your ability to teach equitably, and Abi, from your point of view, how has it affected your ability to, to be learning in the drama program? 

Abi R: [00:18:40] So when we first started remote learning, you know, in the middle of spring, It was a difficult transition. And a lot of students honestly felt that, you know, like what’s the point of going to the drama class. It almost seemed as if it was a joke where we’re acting over Zoom and we have to do scenes over Facetime, their classmates. And a lot of us just weren’t into it. I found myself to be a little bit lost, but then my acting teacher, Ms. Buffamanti, she signed our class up for a Shakespeare presentation at a theater in Brooklyn. And I wasn’t really so excited for it, but then I started working on a sonnet, Shakespeare sonnet number 14, and we did a live Zoom call and it was livecasted over YouTube. And just finally doing something and seeing something come out of it, seeing so many people gather, you know, their families and their friends, to watch this on their television, that it felt real, you know, like I’m not just in a room with some of my class reciting lines. Like, wow, we’re making art right now. And that changed the whole vibe of a remote learning [inaudible].

Stacey C T: [00:20:01] I think students are starting to see that there are many, many possibilities and that, in a way,  there’s a  freedom to being online because you can grab things right away and share them. You can share so many, you know, at school, the internet was always an issue. Connecting to technology was always an issue. We can bring in guest artists now. We’re not confined with permission slips and sign offs and trying to schedule them and having to go up to get them and security and all of those things. Somebody can just, you know, we were calling friends, colleagues, people we know from the arts, and they’re coming in and giving these amazing classes.

And I think it’s providing more one on one time because you can do breakout rooms and you can do individual conferences and you can really coach in a different way than when you’re coaching 12 scenes in a room, it’s really chaotic. On Zoom, I can put scenes into a breakout room and go in there or just schedule a time. And it’s just me and the actors. And it’s really lovely and focused. And it’s easier to connect over email. If kids have questions, it’s all live in the moment, in a way, even though it’s not live, and I can send resources right away. So I think it’s been very creative, challenging, but very creative. And I think we’re learning more about how to use this medium. And we’ve been working a lot with anything from finding lighting to using your space, even if it’s a tiny room or, um, just how to take this out of the boxes and really expand their artistic vocabulary as artists and art makers. 

Amy H-L: [00:21:37] In many schools, both in New York City and across the country, especially in literature classes, students are finding the traditional curriculum to be Eurocentric, anachronistic, and in many ways irrelevant to their lives. Have your drama students raised these issues, and how?

Abi R: [00:22:01] So yeah, we have definitely raised these issues. My friend and I, Amanda, we started to take notice to these things. And especially after the death of George Floyd, we realized, you know, hold up, let’s, let’s take a step back. And instead of looking at the world and what’s wrong with the world, let’s look at the communiy that we do have access to. And that was our school, and even smaller than that, our drama department. And we realized that in our drama theater department, that it favored more of the white students than the  BIPOC students and it favored white authors, white playwrights, and white actors over BIPOC playwrights and actors, that we did not feel represented in our drama department. We felt left out. And so we got a group of kids together and we said, you know, hey, we need to discuss this. We need to talk about this with our teachers, with our drama teachers, with our white peers, and see what we can do to change this.

Jon M: [00:23:11] Naima had mentioned to us, I’m sorry, actually, Stacey had mentioned to us when we were talking before, about the Young Idealists. Is that you, Abi?

Abi R: [00:23:23] Yeah. So, so basically our, our efforts with that eventually turned into this kind of group that we’ve created. It’s called Young Idealists. And right now our members are myself, Amanda Reynolds, Kayla Prescott, Darah Barenholtz and and Gina Lew, and we love them so much. And we just like come together to discuss and fight for. change in our drama department and in our school community. And our first big step was creating a Juneteenth meeting. And basically, we brought together the faculty and the students, and we gave them the Open Space and we organized this Open Space to talk about the injustices that we faced, microaggressions that we’ve come across, and the inequity of the drama department, and to see what we can change about that.

Naima M-W: [00:24:19] So I think it’s interesting to think about the many conversations I’ve had about this. I want to say over the past several months, because I don’t think for any BIPOC artist or educator, this conversation has already been in progress. So now I think, unfortunately it’s taken such a tragedy to put a spotlight on it. These, these ideas, efforts, the concerns, have constantly been in being engaged in now, just the net is a little bit wider. So I started with holding Open Space, because I think after such national, now global, tragedy, there had to be a space where people can voice their concerns, their ideas, just even their gut reactions to what everything was happening. So I think for, at that time, I held Open Space until July. ‘Cause I thought that kids, adults, everyone needed to gather however they could and just know that they can talk about ideas or talk about what’s going on or even respond to what was happening in their neighborhoods and on the street. Abi and Amanda reached out to me to be part of their mentorship. And then I believe I reached out to Stacey, and they also reached out to Stacey in terms of like becoming just like an integral ally towards the work that we’re doing. Again, I keep saying it’s twofold because I know my challenge within the theater community was that I was uncomfortable with the tokenism that was constantly brought upon me from my BFA to my MFA, even into industry practices. I felt cornered and uncomfortable in terms of feeling I was the sole person to explain a Black experience when mine is very unique and different just like anybody else’s could be. So Young Idealists, I felt like, was a really good start because I remember my first, no, not my first experience, but one of the most integral or impactful experiences started in high school. And I think that they wanted support and how others can come and say we have your back or just even checking the fact if some situation or scenario was right or wrong. You know, I think it’s confusing, especially when it’s a microaggression. I think it could be very confusing and off-putting when something’s happening to you and you don’t even know how to address it. And I think we wanted to provide like commentary art and just a safe haven for anyone that’s going through that.

Stacey C T: [00:27:55] And it opened the door to so much honesty. Just for me personally, I can’t speak for other teachers, but I felt like it gave me permission to ask questions, for students to sort of feel comfortable, like to have the dialogue, to say, that makes me uncomfortable. Or for me to say, is it okay? Am I phrasing this correctly? You know, to have those awkward conversations. I think that needs to happen so that everybody is being treated the way they want to be treated and being presented with opportunities. And just being more aware of that if you’ve got two Black women in your sophomore class or freshman class or whatever class you’re doing their first scenes to not only offer them a scene by a Black playwright, that there are, or a scene where they’re playing a particular kind of character, to offer lots of options and let the student decide what is comfortable for them and having these, you know, we’d had these conversations over and over again. I think I talked about this last time with our old assistant principal of drama and tried to do workshops on diversity and bias, and there was just no support behind it. So once again, it took students to push something through and I’m, you know, I’m very grateful. I’m not just saying that because we’re on here, but it was just felt like a battle that I didn’t… Not a battle. That’s such a strong word. But I didn’t know where to go with it. And it wasn’t necessarily my voice to have be the representative of that. It sort of just, I felt like, like I was yelling from like a glass, you know, like nobody could hear me. That’s not really an expression. It’s just an image. It was just like yelling at the bottom of the canyon and I’m like,”help!” I’m so happy this has happened. I’m sad it had to happen because of it, of the events, you know, with George Floyd, but we can’t go back and that’s really good. We can’t go back now at LaGuardia. The students won’t let us, which I think is great. 

Jon M: [00:30:02] It sounds like what you’re describing is the doors are now open and that the demands are being made very loudly. How has the school responded programmatically and structurally, if it has? For example, I think Stacey, you mentioned last time that Naima is doing a specific kind of program. Naima, would you want to speak to that? And more generally, what have you been seeing as, as sort of permanent results from, from everything

Stacey C T: [00:30:34] You joining us for seniors. Our ability, because of Zoom, to really kind of push forward with a lot of program, not program changes, just enhancements, seasoning, whatever it is to sort of make all these ideas happen. Anyway, you can go ahead and talk, but I just talked about you coming in and being that fourth teacher for seniors.

Naima M-W: [00:30:57] So I thought that the principal’s goal was getting to know students, for teachers, was to have us know students well. So we were even, cause we got a large class of now sophomores because our past principal was… In her efforts to try to recoup budget and to not have to excess teachers, she accepted more students. And so we have a very large class of sophomores and to kind of gear up for that. And for just getting to have more personalized moments. We have 90 seniors, right? It’s 93 seniors in our class, in this class…It might be. So now we are sort of doing the three traditional directors, which kind of limits how many kids are featured. It’s now four directors, the APO Justin Mackey not only has been working with Young Idealists. He wanted, he was very moved by the stories he heard about what was going on through Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So he’s made initiatives with Young Idealists because he wants it to be a very strategic, systematic change. And then he asked me, along with the team, the senior team advocating for me to be a director again this year. I directed last year, and I guess we probably could cycle out directors, but there needed to be another voice. And I think. It’s been impactful for kids to know that there’s a director of color, a teacher of color on their team. I know I was 22 or 23 before there was a trained African American teacher that I had. All of my teachers were White that taught me theater, and I could only imagine what the difference would have been if I had a teacher at 16, 14, that would  teach me about drama or how to storytell through my own culture.

So I think we were trying to figure that out now and we all recognize that hiring, like everyone and on this call can recognize that hiring multiple cultures, not just, I only think, I think African-Americans’ experience or the Black experience leads to recognizing how the deficiencies in other cultures, like it’s not just Black people that need to be hired. It’s like across the gamut, there’s this cultural void that I think we’re all now saying, hey, we need to recognize and support. So I think having me on the team is a start and we all have work that we need to do towards it, but at least this way, we’re voicing it very differently. Even the way that we’re going about planning our year is so different. And it makes it exciting because I think it leans towards where art is going to go in the future.

Stacey C T: [00:34:40] It’s collaborative and it feels like we’re thinking about the big picture for the kids. 

Amy H-L: [00:34:46] Do some of the drama students intend to use their careers in the performing arts to effect social change?

Abi R: [00:34:53] So, you know, knowing my classmates, like a good majority of them have kind of set their minds on different career. That’s a lot in the medical fields, a lot want to become lawyers and, you know, just other career paths, but especially in the place that we are right now in the world, those career paths do involve social change. I, myself, I don’t really know what I want to do, you know, in college, but based on the work that I’ve done now, I definitely hope to follow a path that, you know, social change through art. Yeah. It’s just, it’s, it’s so important to me now. And I finally realized this is something  that needs to be done, looking beyond LaGuardia.

Jon M: [00:35:42] What could the City do to make high quality arts education available to a much larger group of students on an equitable basis? 

Stacey C T: [00:35:51] There have to be more. There’s a lot of money, and Naima, correct me, put towards  dance and music, which is amazing. And I think it’s because theater, like. You know, whenever I was a teaching artist, I was like, everybody wants to do theater. No, not everybody wants to do theater. I wanted to do theater cause that’s what I was into. But not to push theater on people, but I think to make it more available. So it’s also not just, you know, when you’re doing a teaching artist push in, you’re not their teacher, it’s only for a few weeks. To have something more sustainable, and I think that’s across the board, even with just… you know, there’ve been a lot of cuts to afterschool programs, just for tutoring. And where the need is, fill that need, whether it’s academic, tutoring, not cutting the arts in schools, at least having one person in every school, even if it’s just storytelling or writing or self scripting, it doesn’t have to be a full on drama class, but something, yeah.

Naima M-W: [00:36:54] I think that, so traditionally, because both my parents were admin, and I remember my mom’s speaking so highly about Arts Connection as one of the few companies that were going to all schools and providing quality arts programming. You know, it’s. It’s a chicken and an egg kind of scenario. Like we need to be, we need to educate kids to want to become the artists that are in the classrooms. Like I was the kid that loved art. I still do. I directed work on projects, but I saw a deficit in the fact that there was no one like me teaching my subject. We need to start spreading some of these amazing opportunities, sharing, like what can go on, for theater, for various cultural pockets? I don’t think there is enough theater in multiple languages. And when I went to London twice last year, I was able to see theater in Chinese. I was able to experience theater in French. When I came here, I started digging for it in the city. And the only thing that I could find was at St. Ann’s Warehouse. And it was the “History of Violence,” which was in German and English. I think we need to start actually going towards the kids and letting them know, hey, you have a knack and like actually giving them and saying you have this gift. And also not just highlighting like the dream jobs. I think some part of what Stacey and I have been talking about and saying there’s more careers in theater  or in acting period than just writing, directing, and acting.

Stacey C T: [00:39:14] Or going straight to Broadway or going straight to… I think that’s where the missing link is for a lot of kids. When I was a teaching artist, I think they just imagined acting as this. It’s in  a film and it’s so far away and there was no middle ground. And also, like I’m walking into a junior high in the Bronx, me. And I’m like, hello, my name is Stacey Cervellino. I’m a, at that point, you know, I wasn’t middle-aged, I’m a 30-something woman from. I grew up on Long Island. You know, there’s a disconnect right away. Like, what is this, what does this woman have to teach me? And the kids, kids were always amazing and you get to know them. But I always sort of felt like, why am I here? I know that sounds weird because I was happy to be there and I wanted to be there, but it felt weird. I felt like I’m walking in with my MFA in acting and you know, let’s study Hamlet and I didn’t walk like this, but it felt like it wasn’t, I wasn’t the right person for that job. And I don’t know what that means. Cause you want every, you know, everybody should be able to be teaching artists, but there was no training. There was no training and this is what you’re walking into. These are some of the situations, this is, you know, or to pair me with someone so there’s a team, like we’re doing now. So there’s a team of all different perspectives and we can kind of, not correct one another, but like support one another, where there’s a deficit with me, Naima can fill that in and I can, you know, and same.

Naima M-W: [00:40:50] I feel like Abi and Amanda, you’ve gone back to your middle schools, maybe to talk about your high school experience?

Abi R: [00:41:04] Yeah. So LaGuardia is like known as this prestigious place and our middle schools, I guess once they found out like how things were going and realize, you know, our success in the school, they’re like, come back, speak to the kids, kind of like encourage them to audition. And personally, I feel that we have to like change the stigma around tests, like the SAT and the gifted and talented test. I personally did not take the SHSAT. and I feel like a lot of kids are pressured into doing that as if academics is the only way to go. So our middle schools, they encourage us to come back and speak to the students because a lot of kids, academics is just not their thing, but they are great musicians. They love to draw. They go to after school, the after school musical program, right. And nobody’s pushing them to do that because they’re so focused on SHSAT and getting into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, getting into a gifted and talented program. So we just got to switch that up a little bit.

Naima M-W: [00:42:09] And they’re the ones that were put on, like for the CEC and the PEP meetings. They’re the ones that were actually being interrogated for their equity practices, you know. They were at the charge, they were at the helm and we’re recognizing that our equity is questionable just as a community, but, you know, they’ve been, over the past, I would say since 2018, in question of how they are doing their admissions process and the equity in their tests. I think it’s also being able to hear, I love, I love Adelphi University. I will pick it up every time it can because Margaret Lally and Nick Petron, for 20 years, were talking about the working actor. That was part of the reason why I wanted to go there. They weren’t promising me fame and acclaim. They were saying, we want to be able to give you an actual like job within theater. Like you will graduate and have something that is connected and related to this coursework. And that was so different than everything that I’ve heard from elementary school, that’s as early as I remember performing professionally, to going into college. I think we have to change what we’re… Black and Brown families and Black and Brown communities are struggling. It is hard to support that child that has the innate talent to do something when they themselves can’t understand how they’re supposed to make a living from it.

Before coming to LaGuardia, I was at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. And I spent several years just working with parents, working through technical theater, to get several students into the tech theater union. And they’re still doing it now. And that was such a major shift. And once the teacher came that preceded me, she took on that same kind of goal. It’s like working with everyone, like even when we’re going to one place or another, it’s not leaving a community hanging saying, well, now let’s just erase everything that we’ve done and do something else. It’s like, let’s do this and try to support these people and see them for who they are and educate those communities about arts and what they do. 

Stacey C T: [00:45:03] And how to make it sustainable, because it’s not everybody’s reality. I feel like that dream is a dream for very few, where you go to a BFA. That’s an extraordinary amount of money, and then you have to support yourself after college. And most times you get a job and you have to stop auditioning because you have a job so you can pay your rent, right. And I think that’s sort of the dream we were selling at LaGuardia, not the dream of having a job and stopping auditioning, the dream of like, well, you’re going to go to a BFA and then you’re just going to audition all the time and, you know, you’ll figure it out. And for many kids, that’s not a reality. It wasn’t a reality for me. And I just had a conversation with somebody in my class. The students’ parents don’t want her to be an actor. They don’t understand how that will support her and sustain her. And there’s a real nervousness around it, which is very real because you know, you need food and shelter and health insurance. And when Mommy and Daddy aren’t paying for your Upper West Side apartment, you’ve got to get a job at Zara or something, or, you know,

Abi R: [00:46:06] One thing that I’ve noticed a lot, you know, talking to my friends, is that Black and Brown parents, they just, they don’t, they don’t know what’s up. They hear the arts and they’re really confused because that’s also what they were taught from their parents, you know, you have to work to support your family. And we need to start teaching kids and start letting it be known that there are other careers in the arts rather than becoming a famous actor. And I’ve definitely learned a lot of that actually recently in seminars that we’ve been doing in our career management class. We had actors coming in and speaking to us and people in the industry. And I start to realize, you know, hey, I can use this talent that I have to teach history to kids in a classroom by other than, you know, having a PowerPoint and having them copy down notes. Let’s teach them through rap and also let’s fight for people’s rights with music and with what we can do physically with our bodies.

Stacey C T: [00:47:06] You know my friend Meyung, who came in and did the tectonic work with you guys on Wednesday, she also started doing diversity training and then working with the NYPD two years ago to kind of help build community. And her background is theater and she’s kind of transitioned into that work to try to work with police on deescalation techniques and to bring yoga and meditation, and then also community building, because obviously this was before Georgw Floyd, but to build those communities and there’s so much that you can do with all these skills. There’s so many ways.

Jon M: [00:47:43] Thank you so much. Naima Moffett-Warden, Stacey Cervellino Thorp, and Abigail Rivera of LaGuardia High School. 

And thank you, listeners, for joining us. If you liked this podcast, share it with a friend or colleague and give us a rating or review. It helps other people to find the show. We post transcripts of our interviews to make it easy to find audio clips for classes and workshops. Let us know how you’ve incorporated ideas from our podcast or blog or if there are topics you’d like to hear more about. Email us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We work with consultants to provide professional development on social emotional learning with an emphasis on ethics for school and afterschool programs in the New York City area.

Check out our prior episodes and articles at ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

Episode 74 (final)

Amy H-L: [00:00:00] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:15] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today, Stacey Cervellin Thorp, Maima Moffett-Warden, and Abigail Rivera, are from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, a public high school with very competitive admission standards.  Stacey and Naima teach in the drama studio and Abi is a senior, majoring in drama. Welcome! 

What are the requirements for admission to LaGuardia, and have they changed over the years? 

Stacey C T: [00:00:55] Yes, they have! There are still some very through lines in terms of talent, and then academics are considered. But there was a flip. When I started, we were still looking at talent over test scores, and then it changed with the new principal. And Naima, do you want to speak a little to that, because you came in with that change, I think.

Naima M-W: [00:01:22] Yes. So there was a shift in terms of, I guess, the standard or the qualifications to get into LaGuardia. I think what was interesting is that there was a time where, you know, we wanted to see the kids. I think there was a lot of ideas based off of the movie “Fame.” So, you know, a lot of kids came in with the hopes of being the Leroy and at some point that tradition would be true. However, I would say in the late two thousands, there was a lot of strain throughout the region of New York State to make test scores part of our criteria. And especially because we are a very interesting specialized high school because we don’t follow the same guidelines as every other specialized high school. Yet the audition becomes part of the testing standard. So that now has shift because we had a principal who was sort of new. Now, our principal is new  to our community, and she’s really trying to get back to some of the essence of let’s see kids for who they are. And… 

Stacey C T: [00:02:48] Which includes, right, being able to talk to them. I think at one point we had iPads and we just, we weren’t really allowed to speak to them. We used to say, well obviously we could speak to them, but we used to interview them a little bit and we were able to ask, it looks like you were absent for quite a bit of time in the spring. Can you talk about that? And more often than not, it was due to a parent being ill. They were having to care for a younger sibling. So we were able to find out, you know, look beyond the transcript and it wasn’t that the student was a bad student or they didn’t care about school. There were extenuating circumstances. And if they didn’t have a lot of experience, we could give them a redirection. We could give them an improvisation. Then we could sort of get to know them and see what their potential was. If they weren’t coming in, like a lot of students are coming in who have more resources, with a really polished piece and they can sort of look like they’ve got it all. And it’s helpful then also to interview those students as well and talk to them because to get to see if they want to really do this and work with us.

So that was taken away. And with this iPad, it was just score, score, score them. You give a redirect and then you do a score and you send it away and you have really have no idea what happens. And I think there was some shady, there were some practices, not considering… We would, might give a hundred to a student in talent, but they’re, um, they were getting, you know, what is it like, Naima, below a 75 in academics like their overall score. And those students that got a hundred were replaced by students who had a lesser talent score. So we weren’t getting always the kids with the most talent. We were sometimes getting the kids who were the smartest. Yep.

Jon M: [00:04:34] And where that stands now is that’s changed back again so that you have more flexibility in the interviews and auditions?

Naima M-W: [00:04:44] Yes. And I think that there’s just a lot of questions now. I think if we’re talking about ethics and equity, there are a lot of questions now coming up with ways in which we do screen schools. Pretty much, that’s what we are, is a version of, an upper echelon version of a screen school. There are, there’s so many parts of it that put into question, are we looking at every kid? And like the purposes of, we’re talking ethics, well, what are, what’s the purpose of us screening kids? Especially in light of resources, like simple things in terms of resources, you know, if you go to areas, and we say the Bronx, but Queens has very large pockets of areas that have dual language, that have services for, like one of the largest services for deaf-mute communities. We’re not necessarily going into those spaces to say, hey, have you thought about a life as an artist, a life as an entertainer? And some wonderful actors over the decades have had various backgrounds, various challenges, physical, mental, what have you. And I don’t know if necessarily our school or lots of schools gear towards those other schools that do those kinds of services. You know, it’s a catch 22. 

The State is trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of the parent concern in terms of what is the standard in which we are allowing students in. At the same time, not every student’s made the same, so like it constantly goes back and forth. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a happy meeting because I think there’s some restrictions, too, on our end that would compromise what would make things standardized. And then I think that becomes the word, right? You want to know that if Abi’s walking through the door or if I’m walking through the door, we both have the most opportune shot of getting into the school, but we have such different backgrounds and such different expertise.

And I think that’s really hard to do because for us, we see maybe about 10,000 kids in an audition season. This is just like across the City. And I know Stacey and I have talked about it, how hard it is, to, you see the potential in someone, and then you know, that they’re struggling in a subject, but their schools don’t have the funding, the money, to really support that kid so that they can be this package.

Stacey C T: [00:07:54] And we don’t necessarily have that support at our school to, I would think I talked about this when I spoke to you, Jon and Amy, last week. We used to have classes before my time there, I think, to help students catch up or to just help the students who were, you know, coming in at a different academic level, and that seems to have gone away. So there’s a real, it’s sort of like you have to hit the ground running, you know, talent-wise and academically, and maybe, I don’t know, Abi, if you want to, just because you have an insider scoop on.

Abi R: [00:08:26] Yeah. Despite the fact that our school is still changing, like, one thing to take into account is that this change was prompted by the students. As soon as we found out that our old principal was running things this way, favoring academics over art, over talent and not considering student backgrounds, we had a sit in. And our title of it was Art for Art’s Sake. And we felt that, you know, we’re, we’re not just brains and we’re not just numbers. And in this school with over 3000 kids, we felt as if we were a number, that we were just, you know, someone walking around the hallways without a name, just there to make the school look better, too. Make the school more diverse and, you know, to boost up the statistics for a specialized high school. So we had a sit in and we said that we don’t want to be represented by this principal anymore. And we fought and we fought until finally we succeeded. And we fought for a new principal and we’re very grateful for Yeou-Jey Vasconcelos. And we’re making a lot of changes, a lot of differences, slowly, but things are getting a lot better.

Jon M: [00:09:43] What was the timeline on that? When was the sit in and when did the new principal come in?

Stacey C T: [00:09:52] It was two years ago. Because last year was Yeou-Jey’s first year. So it was about two years ago, but it was a long time in the making. I can speak to this now. The consultative council went to the old superintendent Fred Walsh twice. There were parent letters, there were committees. The final push came because students started to stand up and, or sit down, actually, because you had your sit in and then that galvanized parents, too, wonderful parents who had a lot of media connections. And these were a lot of the parents were parents of seniors. So it made it that much more, I guess, special or poignant because their kids were leaving. They didn’t really have to care, but  they all jumped in and it was mostly the moms writing letters to the superintendent, galvanizing the press, just bringing more and more attention.

And unfortunately, when students had to say the words that they didn’t feel safe, that they didn’t feel heard, that they, that it wasn’t a safe space for them, that was what got Vivian Orlean’s attention. And it became a media nightmare. And then we had a lot of information about poor practices and unfair practices and illegal practices happening with our administration, but the students really, and the student government just galvanized and they were really brave because it was very scary. I was in some of those meetings and there were a lot of intimidation tactics and it was not a good time. It was a really traumatic time for everybody. But, you know, they got the ball, well, the ball was rolling, but it made it a big push.

Abi R: [00:11:33] And as a student, like, so Ms. Cervellino, she brings up practices. So one thing that came up a lot was kids who did not sign up for AP courses were forced into AP courses that they did not want to take. 

Stacey C T: [00:11:50] Multiple, right? Like kids who had six AP, four to six, It was insane, on their schedule. Sorry, go ahead, Abi. 

Abi R: [00:12:01] Yeah. This happened to me as well and the guidance office, the guidance suite, was just flooded with students all the time, trying to change their schedule, trying to back out of these classes, because it was a lot to take in and a lot to handle. And even the guidance counselors, they said there was nothing that they do or that it was a long process. A lot of kids were stressed out about this because they felt as if they were being pushed towards academics, than arts. And they came to an arts school, you know, so that’s what they expected to be doing.

Stacey C T: [00:12:37] And because your day is long.  It’s not just students going, oh, it’s too much work. It’s because they’re at school, they have class and then they have afterschool rehearsal and they’re getting home very late and commuting to all parts of the City. And then having a load of five APs on top of that, they’re pulled in two directions.

Jon M: [00:13:00] Has that changed at all?

Stacey C T: [00:13:03] I think so. Right, Abi? I mean, I don’t think, I think there’s a little more…

Abi R: [00:13:07] So, yeah. For right now,  there’s been like a more organized way for students to  choose the classes that they want to take. The guidance counselors are sending out Google forms and they make kids go over their schedule request many times and they have personal calls. So the guidance counselor would call the students and actually discuss what the courses hold. And, you know, we haven’t been able to put this into practice that much because of remote learning, but it’s  definitely changing.

Amy H-L: [00:13:40] Students at LaGuardia come from very diverse backgrounds, both in terms of resources and connections and experiences with the arts. Some have been acting since they were young children and others are just starting out. Stacey and Naima, how does that impact your jobs as teachers? And Abi, how does that affect the relationships among the students? 

Naima M-W: [00:14:05] I think along lines of it being our job to kind of find a middle ground, more often than not. You know, there are times where really some of the kids that have had all the training in the world were breaking the bad habits for them. And then the raw talent of someone that’s never taken an acting lesson makes it… I find it easier personally because they’re sponges. They just want the good technique. And so it’s trying to find a middle ground in between the two.

I think also there’s the idea of whatever we have as curriculum and, you know, teachers come from all different kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of educational backgrounds, but generally have a lexicon for how they’re speaking about assessment. Or they might have a background on how they’re speaking about standards because they’re working off the same standards. I think something that happens in the arts. I’ve done work with the arts in special projects office, even just like teacher effectiveness for the arts, because the art form itself has its own vocabulary and its own way of working. There tends to, more times than not, have a clash with education at times. And there’s lots of places where they agree, but then there’s also things that we come up against that we’re like, some of this is, it’s an important lesson, but how do we teach it in our classroom? And so I think it’s up to us being clever on how we’re giving skillsets around it. And I think more importantly, kids just want to absorb whatever we’re trying to do. I think as long as they’re engaged in it, you know,.

Stacey C T: [00:16:08] And I think also it’s really becomes individualized education, you know, because you have a student who’s done a lot of work, but then you have to have meetings with them. And, you know, every teacher has individualized meetings with students and figuring out what’s going to be challenging for you. You just did a Broadway show last year, and for some students who have worked a lot, they also, sometimes they just want a break. They want to do something fun. They want to feel like a kid. They might’ve been on set for most of their childhood. And the support they need is how to just be a human teenager. And maybe also what Naima was saying about you, you know, they have all these acting habits, where some of it’s about maybe pushing too much an actor or they’re really stuck in a certain way of being or a certain idea for themselves.

And then for other students, it’s saying, what other things do you need? Like, you’ve never read. You didn’t have, you know, you read only two plays in all of middle school. Here’s a list of plays. And now we have this great online resource that we’re sharing with students, or we will be sharing with students. Parents have been scanning plays. We’re uploading plays. So they’ll have easier access because for some students going to the performing arts library afterschool, they might have a job or they have to go home and take care of siblings, or they have late afterschool rehearsal and they don’t have time to go and leisurely sit there at the performing arts library and read. And they don’t sometimes know where to look. So it’s having those conversations. These are some schools you should think about, these are some movies maybe you want to see, books you’d like to read, just so that they’re getting that education that they might not have had access to, but it’s so varied. Some students are, you know, I remember teaching. . . Madonna’s daughter really suffered from a confidence issue because she, you know, she had a lovely voice and she was very talented and every time I’d see her perform, I felt like she was just always a holding back. And this is a kid that has everything. So that was a lot about trying to help her find her own voice since having such a powerful voice in her own life.

Jon M: [00:18:22] For all three of you, how has teaching online and learning online impacted your ability to teach equitably, and Abi, from your point of view, how has it affected your ability to, to be learning in the drama program? 

Abi R: [00:18:40] So when we first started remote learning, you know, in the middle of spring, It was a difficult transition. And a lot of students honestly felt that, you know, like what’s the point of going to the drama class. It almost seemed as if it was a joke where we’re acting over Zoom and we have to do scenes over Facetime, their classmates. And a lot of us just weren’t into it. I found myself to be a little bit lost, but then my acting teacher, Ms. Buffamanti, she signed our class up for a Shakespeare presentation at a theater in Brooklyn. And I wasn’t really so excited for it, but then I started working on a sonnet, Shakespeare sonnet number 14, and we did a live Zoom call and it was livecasted over YouTube. And just finally doing something and seeing something come out of it, seeing so many people gather, you know, their families and their friends, to watch this on their television, that it felt real, you know, like I’m not just in a room with some of my class reciting lines. Like, wow, we’re making art right now. And that changed the whole vibe of a remote learning [inaudible].

Stacey C T: [00:20:01] I think students are starting to see that there are many, many possibilities and that, in a way,  there’s a  freedom to being online because you can grab things right away and share them. You can share so many, you know, at school, the internet was always an issue. Connecting to technology was always an issue. We can bring in guest artists now. We’re not confined with permission slips and sign offs and trying to schedule them and having to go up to get them and security and all of those things. Somebody can just, you know, we were calling friends, colleagues, people we know from the arts, and they’re coming in and giving these amazing classes.

And I think it’s providing more one on one time because you can do breakout rooms and you can do individual conferences and you can really coach in a different way than when you’re coaching 12 scenes in a room, it’s really chaotic. On Zoom, I can put scenes into a breakout room and go in there or just schedule a time. And it’s just me and the actors. And it’s really lovely and focused. And it’s easier to connect over email. If kids have questions, it’s all live in the moment, in a way, even though it’s not live, and I can send resources right away. So I think it’s been very creative, challenging, but very creative. And I think we’re learning more about how to use this medium. And we’ve been working a lot with anything from finding lighting to using your space, even if it’s a tiny room or, um, just how to take this out of the boxes and really expand their artistic vocabulary as artists and art makers. 

Amy H-L: [00:21:37] In many schools, both in New York City and across the country, especially in literature classes, students are finding the traditional curriculum to be Eurocentric, anachronistic, and in many ways irrelevant to their lives. Have your drama students raised these issues, and how?

Abi R: [00:22:01] So yeah, we have definitely raised these issues. My friend and I, Amanda, we started to take notice to these things. And especially after the death of George Floyd, we realized, you know, hold up, let’s, let’s take a step back. And instead of looking at the world and what’s wrong with the world, let’s look at the communiy that we do have access to. And that was our school, and even smaller than that, our drama department. And we realized that in our drama theater department, that it favored more of the white students than the  BIPOC students and it favored white authors, white playwrights, and white actors over BIPOC playwrights and actors, that we did not feel represented in our drama department. We felt left out. And so we got a group of kids together and we said, you know, hey, we need to discuss this. We need to talk about this with our teachers, with our drama teachers, with our white peers, and see what we can do to change this.

Jon M: [00:23:11] Naima had mentioned to us, I’m sorry, actually, Stacey had mentioned to us when we were talking before, about the Young Idealists. Is that you, Abi?

Abi R: [00:23:23] Yeah. So, so basically our, our efforts with that eventually turned into this kind of group that we’ve created. It’s called Young Idealists. And right now our members are myself, Amanda Reynolds, Kayla Prescott, Darah Barenholtz and and Gina Lew, and we love them so much. And we just like come together to discuss and fight for. change in our drama department and in our school community. And our first big step was creating a Juneteenth meeting. And basically, we brought together the faculty and the students, and we gave them the Open Space and we organized this Open Space to talk about the injustices that we faced, microaggressions that we’ve come across, and the inequity of the drama department, and to see what we can change about that.

Naima M-W: [00:24:19] So I think it’s interesting to think about the many conversations I’ve had about this. I want to say over the past several months, because I don’t think for any BIPOC artist or educator, this conversation has already been in progress. So now I think, unfortunately it’s taken such a tragedy to put a spotlight on it. These, these ideas, efforts, the concerns, have constantly been in being engaged in now, just the net is a little bit wider. So I started with holding Open Space, because I think after such national, now global, tragedy, there had to be a space where people can voice their concerns, their ideas, just even their gut reactions to what everything was happening. So I think for, at that time, I held Open Space until July. ‘Cause I thought that kids, adults, everyone needed to gather however they could and just know that they can talk about ideas or talk about what’s going on or even respond to what was happening in their neighborhoods and on the street. Abi and Amanda reached out to me to be part of their mentorship. And then I believe I reached out to Stacey, and they also reached out to Stacey in terms of like becoming just like an integral ally towards the work that we’re doing. Again, I keep saying it’s twofold because I know my challenge within the theater community was that I was uncomfortable with the tokenism that was constantly brought upon me from my BFA to my MFA, even into industry practices. I felt cornered and uncomfortable in terms of feeling I was the sole person to explain a Black experience when mine is very unique and different just like anybody else’s could be. So Young Idealists, I felt like, was a really good start because I remember my first, no, not my first experience, but one of the most integral or impactful experiences started in high school. And I think that they wanted support and how others can come and say we have your back or just even checking the fact if some situation or scenario was right or wrong. You know, I think it’s confusing, especially when it’s a microaggression. I think it could be very confusing and off-putting when something’s happening to you and you don’t even know how to address it. And I think we wanted to provide like commentary art and just a safe haven for anyone that’s going through that.

Stacey C T: [00:27:55] And it opened the door to so much honesty. Just for me personally, I can’t speak for other teachers, but I felt like it gave me permission to ask questions, for students to sort of feel comfortable, like to have the dialogue, to say, that makes me uncomfortable. Or for me to say, is it okay? Am I phrasing this correctly? You know, to have those awkward conversations. I think that needs to happen so that everybody is being treated the way they want to be treated and being presented with opportunities. And just being more aware of that if you’ve got two Black women in your sophomore class or freshman class or whatever class you’re doing their first scenes to not only offer them a scene by a Black playwright, that there are, or a scene where they’re playing a particular kind of character, to offer lots of options and let the student decide what is comfortable for them and having these, you know, we’d had these conversations over and over again. I think I talked about this last time with our old assistant principal of drama and tried to do workshops on diversity and bias, and there was just no support behind it. So once again, it took students to push something through and I’m, you know, I’m very grateful. I’m not just saying that because we’re on here, but it was just felt like a battle that I didn’t… Not a battle. That’s such a strong word. But I didn’t know where to go with it. And it wasn’t necessarily my voice to have be the representative of that. It sort of just, I felt like, like I was yelling from like a glass, you know, like nobody could hear me. That’s not really an expression. It’s just an image. It was just like yelling at the bottom of the canyon and I’m like,”help!” I’m so happy this has happened. I’m sad it had to happen because of it, of the events, you know, with George Floyd, but we can’t go back and that’s really good. We can’t go back now at LaGuardia. The students won’t let us, which I think is great. 

Jon M: [00:30:02] It sounds like what you’re describing is the doors are now open and that the demands are being made very loudly. How has the school responded programmatically and structurally, if it has? For example, I think Stacey, you mentioned last time that Naima is doing a specific kind of program. Naima, would you want to speak to that? And more generally, what have you been seeing as, as sort of permanent results from, from everything

Stacey C T: [00:30:34] You joining us for seniors. Our ability, because of Zoom, to really kind of push forward with a lot of program, not program changes, just enhancements, seasoning, whatever it is to sort of make all these ideas happen. Anyway, you can go ahead and talk, but I just talked about you coming in and being that fourth teacher for seniors.

Naima M-W: [00:30:57] So I thought that the principal’s goal was getting to know students, for teachers, was to have us know students well. So we were even, cause we got a large class of now sophomores because our past principal was… In her efforts to try to recoup budget and to not have to excess teachers, she accepted more students. And so we have a very large class of sophomores and to kind of gear up for that. And for just getting to have more personalized moments. We have 90 seniors, right? It’s 93 seniors in our class, in this class…It might be. So now we are sort of doing the three traditional directors, which kind of limits how many kids are featured. It’s now four directors, the APO Justin Mackey not only has been working with Young Idealists. He wanted, he was very moved by the stories he heard about what was going on through Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So he’s made initiatives with Young Idealists because he wants it to be a very strategic, systematic change. And then he asked me, along with the team, the senior team advocating for me to be a director again this year. I directed last year, and I guess we probably could cycle out directors, but there needed to be another voice. And I think. It’s been impactful for kids to know that there’s a director of color, a teacher of color on their team. I know I was 22 or 23 before there was a trained African American teacher that I had. All of my teachers were White that taught me theater, and I could only imagine what the difference would have been if I had a teacher at 16, 14, that would  teach me about drama or how to storytell through my own culture.

So I think we were trying to figure that out now and we all recognize that hiring, like everyone and on this call can recognize that hiring multiple cultures, not just, I only think, I think African-Americans’ experience or the Black experience leads to recognizing how the deficiencies in other cultures, like it’s not just Black people that need to be hired. It’s like across the gamut, there’s this cultural void that I think we’re all now saying, hey, we need to recognize and support. So I think having me on the team is a start and we all have work that we need to do towards it, but at least this way, we’re voicing it very differently. Even the way that we’re going about planning our year is so different. And it makes it exciting because I think it leans towards where art is going to go in the future.

Stacey C T: [00:34:40] It’s collaborative and it feels like we’re thinking about the big picture for the kids. 

Amy H-L: [00:34:46] Do some of the drama students intend to use their careers in the performing arts to effect social change?

Abi R: [00:34:53] So, you know, knowing my classmates, like a good majority of them have kind of set their minds on different career. That’s a lot in the medical fields, a lot want to become lawyers and, you know, just other career paths, but especially in the place that we are right now in the world, those career paths do involve social change. I, myself, I don’t really know what I want to do, you know, in college, but based on the work that I’ve done now, I definitely hope to follow a path that, you know, social change through art. Yeah. It’s just, it’s, it’s so important to me now. And I finally realized this is something  that needs to be done, looking beyond LaGuardia.

Jon M: [00:35:42] What could the City do to make high quality arts education available to a much larger group of students on an equitable basis? 

Stacey C T: [00:35:51] There have to be more. There’s a lot of money, and Naima, correct me, put towards  dance and music, which is amazing. And I think it’s because theater, like. You know, whenever I was a teaching artist, I was like, everybody wants to do theater. No, not everybody wants to do theater. I wanted to do theater cause that’s what I was into. But not to push theater on people, but I think to make it more available. So it’s also not just, you know, when you’re doing a teaching artist push in, you’re not their teacher, it’s only for a few weeks. To have something more sustainable, and I think that’s across the board, even with just… you know, there’ve been a lot of cuts to afterschool programs, just for tutoring. And where the need is, fill that need, whether it’s academic, tutoring, not cutting the arts in schools, at least having one person in every school, even if it’s just storytelling or writing or self scripting, it doesn’t have to be a full on drama class, but something, yeah.

Naima M-W: [00:36:54] I think that, so traditionally, because both my parents were admin, and I remember my mom’s speaking so highly about Arts Connection as one of the few companies that were going to all schools and providing quality arts programming. You know, it’s. It’s a chicken and an egg kind of scenario. Like we need to be, we need to educate kids to want to become the artists that are in the classrooms. Like I was the kid that loved art. I still do. I directed work on projects, but I saw a deficit in the fact that there was no one like me teaching my subject. We need to start spreading some of these amazing opportunities, sharing, like what can go on, for theater, for various cultural pockets? I don’t think there is enough theater in multiple languages. And when I went to London twice last year, I was able to see theater in Chinese. I was able to experience theater in French. When I came here, I started digging for it in the city. And the only thing that I could find was at St. Ann’s Warehouse. And it was the “History of Violence,” which was in German and English. I think we need to start actually going towards the kids and letting them know, hey, you have a knack and like actually giving them and saying you have this gift. And also not just highlighting like the dream jobs. I think some part of what Stacey and I have been talking about and saying there’s more careers in theater  or in acting period than just writing, directing, and acting.

Stacey C T: [00:39:14] Or going straight to Broadway or going straight to… I think that’s where the missing link is for a lot of kids. When I was a teaching artist, I think they just imagined acting as this. It’s in  a film and it’s so far away and there was no middle ground. And also, like I’m walking into a junior high in the Bronx, me. And I’m like, hello, my name is Stacey Cervellino. I’m a, at that point, you know, I wasn’t middle-aged, I’m a 30-something woman from. I grew up on Long Island. You know, there’s a disconnect right away. Like, what is this, what does this woman have to teach me? And the kids, kids were always amazing and you get to know them. But I always sort of felt like, why am I here? I know that sounds weird because I was happy to be there and I wanted to be there, but it felt weird. I felt like I’m walking in with my MFA in acting and you know, let’s study Hamlet and I didn’t walk like this, but it felt like it wasn’t, I wasn’t the right person for that job. And I don’t know what that means. Cause you want every, you know, everybody should be able to be teaching artists, but there was no training. There was no training and this is what you’re walking into. These are some of the situations, this is, you know, or to pair me with someone so there’s a team, like we’re doing now. So there’s a team of all different perspectives and we can kind of, not correct one another, but like support one another, where there’s a deficit with me, Naima can fill that in and I can, you know, and same.

Naima M-W: [00:40:50] I feel like Abi and Amanda, you’ve gone back to your middle schools, maybe to talk about your high school experience?

Abi R: [00:41:04] Yeah. So LaGuardia is like known as this prestigious place and our middle schools, I guess once they found out like how things were going and realize, you know, our success in the school, they’re like, come back, speak to the kids, kind of like encourage them to audition. And personally, I feel that we have to like change the stigma around tests, like the SAT and the gifted and talented test. I personally did not take the SHSAT. and I feel like a lot of kids are pressured into doing that as if academics is the only way to go. So our middle schools, they encourage us to come back and speak to the students because a lot of kids, academics is just not their thing, but they are great musicians. They love to draw. They go to after school, the after school musical program, right. And nobody’s pushing them to do that because they’re so focused on SHSAT and getting into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, getting into a gifted and talented program. So we just got to switch that up a little bit.

Naima M-W: [00:42:09] And they’re the ones that were put on, like for the CEC and the PEP meetings. They’re the ones that were actually being interrogated for their equity practices, you know. They were at the charge, they were at the helm and we’re recognizing that our equity is questionable just as a community, but, you know, they’ve been, over the past, I would say since 2018, in question of how they are doing their admissions process and the equity in their tests. I think it’s also being able to hear, I love, I love Adelphi University. I will pick it up every time it can because Margaret Lally and Nick Petron, for 20 years, were talking about the working actor. That was part of the reason why I wanted to go there. They weren’t promising me fame and acclaim. They were saying, we want to be able to give you an actual like job within theater. Like you will graduate and have something that is connected and related to this coursework. And that was so different than everything that I’ve heard from elementary school, that’s as early as I remember performing professionally, to going into college. I think we have to change what we’re… Black and Brown families and Black and Brown communities are struggling. It is hard to support that child that has the innate talent to do something when they themselves can’t understand how they’re supposed to make a living from it.

Before coming to LaGuardia, I was at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. And I spent several years just working with parents, working through technical theater, to get several students into the tech theater union. And they’re still doing it now. And that was such a major shift. And once the teacher came that preceded me, she took on that same kind of goal. It’s like working with everyone, like even when we’re going to one place or another, it’s not leaving a community hanging saying, well, now let’s just erase everything that we’ve done and do something else. It’s like, let’s do this and try to support these people and see them for who they are and educate those communities about arts and what they do. 

Stacey C T: [00:45:03] And how to make it sustainable, because it’s not everybody’s reality. I feel like that dream is a dream for very few, where you go to a BFA. That’s an extraordinary amount of money, and then you have to support yourself after college. And most times you get a job and you have to stop auditioning because you have a job so you can pay your rent, right. And I think that’s sort of the dream we were selling at LaGuardia, not the dream of having a job and stopping auditioning, the dream of like, well, you’re going to go to a BFA and then you’re just going to audition all the time and, you know, you’ll figure it out. And for many kids, that’s not a reality. It wasn’t a reality for me. And I just had a conversation with somebody in my class. The students’ parents don’t want her to be an actor. They don’t understand how that will support her and sustain her. And there’s a real nervousness around it, which is very real because you know, you need food and shelter and health insurance. And when Mommy and Daddy aren’t paying for your Upper West Side apartment, you’ve got to get a job at Zara or something, or, you know,

Abi R: [00:46:06] One thing that I’ve noticed a lot, you know, talking to my friends, is that Black and Brown parents, they just, they don’t, they don’t know what’s up. They hear the arts and they’re really confused because that’s also what they were taught from their parents, you know, you have to work to support your family. And we need to start teaching kids and start letting it be known that there are other careers in the arts rather than becoming a famous actor. And I’ve definitely learned a lot of that actually recently in seminars that we’ve been doing in our career management class. We had actors coming in and speaking to us and people in the industry. And I start to realize, you know, hey, I can use this talent that I have to teach history to kids in a classroom by other than, you know, having a PowerPoint and having them copy down notes. Let’s teach them through rap and also let’s fight for people’s rights with music and with what we can do physically with our bodies.

Stacey C T: [00:47:06] You know my friend Meyung, who came in and did the tectonic work with you guys on Wednesday, she also started doing diversity training and then working with the NYPD two years ago to kind of help build community. And her background is theater and she’s kind of transitioned into that work to try to work with police on deescalation techniques and to bring yoga and meditation, and then also community building, because obviously this was before Georgw Floyd, but to build those communities and there’s so much that you can do with all these skills. There’s so many ways.

Jon M: [00:47:43] Thank you so much. Naima Moffett-Warden, Stacey Cervellino Thorp, and Abigail Rivera of LaGuardia High School. 

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