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‘Opening the door wider’: With recent admissions decisions, top-ranked L.A. arts school put equity in the spotlight

Linda Jacobson | April 8, 2021

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Nyla Joseph (Chris Hernandez)

Updated April 13

Nyla Joseph has felt at ease in front of a camera ever since appearing in a public service announcement six years ago. But her dreams of becoming an actor were frustrated because her South Los Angeles middle school lacks a theater program. And her mother was leery of internet scams promising to turn her daughter into the next Disney Channel star.

Then actors Shia LeBeouf, Bobby Soto and Donte Johnson opened the Slauson Rec theater company down the street from Nyla’s house to help bring the arts to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Nyla joined the program in 2019, and a year later she had a role in a socially distant production, playing the daughter of a man whose car breaks down at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site.

Focusing on essential workers and depicting issues of race and class, “5711 Avalon” was the kind of story the 13-year-old biracial eighth grader wants to tell.

“In my community, everybody has a different struggle. And if I want to be an actor, I have to understand that,” she said. “I just want to use my art to help others.”

That dream may be coming closer to fruition. Nyla was recently accepted to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. She’s the type of aspiring performer the top-ranked school hoped to attract this year when it revised its admission criteria to draw a more diverse pool — students who didn’t have agents when they were toddlers. Dropping Shakespearean monologues and classical music pieces from their audition requirements, administrators have worked to make the process less intimidating. The sought-after performing arts high school is addressing barriers to admissions at a time when officials in New York and elsewhere are revisiting criteria and exams for selective schools to increase diversity.

“Over the years, the demographics were getting a little skewed,” explained John Lawler, who became principal of the Los Angeles school in 2018 with the goal of making admissions more equitable. While students of color make up almost half of the school’s enrollment, less than 20 percent live in poverty and only 1 percent are English learners.

Niche, a school and neighborhood ranking site, puts the school at the top of its list of arts institutions across the country. Famous alumni include actor and comedian Taran Killam, who played King George III in “Hamilton” on Broadway, and multi-platinum artist Josh Groban

“My feeling is [we’re] the number one arts school in the country,” Lawler said. “What’s going to be even more amazing is when we’re ranked number one with an incredibly diverse population.”

The school hired an equity coordinator who focuses on getting the message about the school to underrepresented communities. When Mickiela Montoya, Nyla’s mother, saw a news clip about the changes, she was encouraged.

“Now we have some kind of hope,” Montoya said, adding that a lot of applicants “have been prepping their whole lives for this school.”

Nijah Mendez is applying to the theater program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. (Danielle Mendez)

‘Opening the door wider’

The reality, Lawler said, is that the students who are best situated to study at these schools typically have parents able to afford years of private lessons in dance, voice and other fields. With limited arts instruction at traditional public schools, students without access to afterschool or community-based programs often lack the polish as performers to catch the attention of faculty.

The school has worked to forge strong relationships with nonprofit arts programs serving at-risk communities. One of them is Self Help Graphics and Art, located near downtown in the city’s arts district. The program was born in the 1970s when Chicano and Latino artists struggled to get their work into mainstream exhibitions and collections, explained Betty Avila, the executive director.

“That mission hasn’t changed,” she said. “That’s what [the school] is really pivoting to — opening the door wider.”

Betty Silva, executive director of Self Help Graphics and Art (Pablo Aguilar)

During the summer, Self Help runs Soy Artista — Spanish for “I am an artist” — for middle and high school students in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, both predominantly low-income Hispanic communities. Students learn printmaking and other visual art forms, sometimes accumulating portfolios they submit for admissions to college. But Avila recognizes the obstacles facing the promising artists she serves.

“When you have an immigrant parent who is working multiple minimum wage jobs, it gets tough to see art as a viable career path,” she said.

Esmeralda Flores, the school’s equity coordinator, said she wants these families to feel welcome in a setting where they’ll rub elbows with “very empowered” parents and the children of celebrities.

But middle school arts programs should also offer a pathway to selective schools, said Mary Dell’Erba, a senior project manager at the Arts Education Partnership, part of the Education Commission of the States.

“I really think that a strong arts education for everyone is the biggest way to ensure equity,” she said. Her organization’s ArtScan shows that 43 states have requirements for arts instruction in middle school, but the data on state implementation is lacking.

‘Ready for Hollywood’

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to entry into a high-level performing arts program is the art itself, explained Michael Powers, chair of the Los Angeles school’s music department. Traditionally, the school asked students to audition with vocal or instrumental pieces from Western or European composers, he said.

But with their expertise, Powers said, faculty members can evaluate a student’s range of abilities by saying, “Bring two pieces of music — one fast and one slow — that shows us who you are as an artist.”

Michael Powers, chair of the school’s music department, said faculty members want students to audition with music that “shows us who you are as an artist.” (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts)

For cinematic arts, the school encourages students to make short films on their cell phones. The point is that aspiring directors don’t need big budgets or production crews.

“Some people would turn things in ready for Hollywood,” he said. “It’s impressive, but it doesn’t tell their storytelling ability.”

For her comedic monologue, delivered over Zoom because of the pandemic, Nyla chose scenes from “Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. and “Angel Prayers,” in which a teenage girl thinks she’s disappointed her guardian angel by getting in trouble. Shakespeare, she said, is a bit out of her comfort zone.

The challenge is maintaining high standards while not turning away performers with potential — those who simply lack the exposure to training that students from wealthier families take for granted, said Kyle Wedberg, president and CEO of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He’s part of the executive committee for the Arts School Network, a national organization with over 100 members — many of which are watching how the Los Angeles County school fares with its equity efforts.

In Wedberg’s program, the work on equity came down to “demystifying” the admission process. Prior applications required students to have at least a year of private classes.

“Parents would say, “We can’t afford that,’” he said. Now the application asks whether the student has worked with any professionals. The word “portfolio” also seemed daunting for some families. Now the school asks for three pieces of work.

‘Devoted and dedicated’

Like the New Orleans school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, located on a California State University campus, can involve long or complicated commutes for those who attend. It’s an obstacle that has kept many families in the 4,700 square miles that make up Los Angeles County from applying.

Eighth-grader Nijah Mendez has been singing and dancing since she was 6, and the Los Angeles school is her top choice. But her mother Danielle Mendez is already thinking about the transportation challenges.

“I don’t know how she’s going to get there, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been in that situation,” Mendez said.

Nijah, who played Belle in the conservatory’s Zoom production of “A Christmas Carol” last year, was accepted into the school’s theater program.

“When I’m being myself, it’s hard to let out my emotions,” she explained. “If I’m being another person, they can have the same emotions as me, and I can let them out.”

Nijah Mendez is applying to the theater program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. (Danielle Mendez)

While the school has a solid reputation for launching the careers of young artists, Lawler, the principal of the Los Angeles school, has heard concerns that students from low-income homes don’t get the support they need to succeed academically.

Flores said the school is increasing services for English learners and has offered more tutoring options during the pandemic. She would like to add an “onboarding” process for incoming families as well.

Thus far, however, the admission changes in Los Angeles have not been met with the controversy and lawsuits that greeted proposals to change admissions criteria at elite schools in New York and Virginia.

Nyla’s mother said her daughter knows going to the school could “change the trajectory of her life.” As the only child in Slauson Rec, she also had an entire theater company pulling for her.

“Nyla is a force,” said Lucas Elliott, who joined the company after LeBeouf put out a call for people without acting experience, but with “a story that you’re willing to share.”

Elliott, who by day works in sales and marketing, played Nyla’s father in “5711 Avalon” and remembers her squeezing Zoom classes between rehearsals.

“She was devoted and dedicated to a point that matched anybody there,” Elliott said. “One of the best moments in my creative endeavor was being able to go on that journey with her.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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