New York

NYC’s summer arts boot camp prepares kids for high school auditions

A lone middle-schooler stands on stage in a band room in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center on an August morning, nervously tapping out rhythms on a snare drum as a panel of teachers looks on in silence.

The nerves in the air are real, but the tryout is just a practice — meant to mimic what New York City’s aspiring eighth-grade artists will face in several months when they enter the all-important audition process for the city’s performing arts high schools like “Fame’s” LaGuardia and Frank Sinatra High School.

It’s all part of an eight-year-old Education Department initiative meant to “level the playing field” in an audition process that educators say has often favored families with the resources and savvy to prepare their kids with private lessons and coaching.

“This program was really about making these opportunities accessible,” said Darleen Garner, the co-director of the middle school arts audition boot camp, a two-week summer class run by the Education Department and Lincoln Center’s education wing, along with other arts organizations.

The summer crash course recruits rising eighth-graders who have demonstrated interest and talent in the arts but haven’t had much formal coaching and equips them with the supplies and connections they need to ace their high school auditions.

“We’re basically taking those students that just need a little more coaching and that extra push,” said Garner. “Our goal is when you finish these two weeks, you’ll have a solid audition you’ll be able to use.”

The idea for the initiative emerged from data and conversations with parents suggesting that many families — and particularly low-income ones — felt ill-prepared to shepherd their kids through the complex and stressful audition process and often weren’t getting the help they needed just through school, Garner said.

With the support of Lincoln Center Education, which provided world-class facilities and teaching artists to work with DOE educators and students, the program launched in 2014 for around 75 kids, and has now grown to roughly 200 students, according to Dacia Washington, the co-director of the boot camp.

The DOE focuses its recruitment efforts on schools with high concentrations of students in poverty and asks students to audition, but the program tries to accept any middle schooler who shows they’re interested, Garner said.

Once the students arrive, the DOE and arts organizations take care of the rest — providing everything from dance gear to musical instruments to exposure to working artists.

The crash course culminates in several mock auditions and a chance for kids to meet in-person with representatives from a range of city arts schools.

“This boot camp is basically a place to be able to be open for new ideas,” said Mireyda Rivera, 16, who credits it with helping her get into Brooklyn High School of the Arts, where she’s studying dance.

“It really strengthened my technique,” she said.

Damiah Nolasco, 12, signed up this summer hoping to work her singing skills and ease her stage-fright so she can earn a slot at the highly-sought-after LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts across the street from Lincoln Center.

Running through multiple mock tryouts has “really helped me to get rid of those nerves,” she said. “Now that we’re doing the mock audition it’s like, you’ve done it a million times before, it’s easy.”

Garner said that helping students confront their nerves and anxieties is often just as important as any of the technical arts instruction — especially since kids are still dealing with the lingering effects of the pandemic and remote learning.

“Now you’ve got to get over stage fright, you have to look each other in the eye… people are actually seeing your body. It’s not the same as sitting in a video, so it was a big challenge,” Garner said.

It’s a lot to accomplish in two short weeks, Garner conceded. But if there’s one thing she hopes kids walk away with, it’s the knowledge that their artistic aspirations are within reach.

“You can’t dream past what you’ve been exposed to,” Garner said, “and we want them to be able to dream.”

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