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Change In Arts Academy's Acceptance Process Upsets Families

JODIE MOZDZER

February 02, 2009

Four years ago, when Linnea Ionno was hoping to earn a spot at the competitive Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, she put a lot of effort into her audition material.

Like most of the academy's hopefuls, she believed that her audition would make or break her chances. So she worked on her creative writing and on her violin skills, hoping to gain entry into either the creative writing or instrumental music departments. Once a student passed the audition, his or her name was placed in a lottery, and those whose names were chosen got to attend the regional arts school.

Or at least that was how most people thought the acceptance process worked.

Not so, say officials at the Capitol Region Education Council, which operates the school. They say all applicants were entered into a blind lottery after auditions.

"In previous years, the perception may have been that you auditioned for the lottery," said Denise Gallucci, director of magnet schools for the council. "That was not the case."

But now the audition sequence is changing. Starting with this year's applicants, students' names will go into a blind lottery first, and if their name is chosen, they will then get to audition for placement in one of the departments at the school.

That change has prompted disagreement about how the process was previously conducted and discontent among families who believe they've been lied to about the school either when they were told it was competitive or now.

Several faculty members, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said they oversaw the audition process and that it was used to weed out students before their names were placed into the lottery.

Now some families, many that pay tuition to attend the school, are concerned that the quality of applicants will change.

"We're all saying how the academy is going to go downhill from now on," said Ionno, who is now a senior in the creative writing program. "It's not going to be considered as demanding as before."

Parents and students worry that the system will admit students who aren't experienced in the arts, while students with talent will be eliminated before getting a chance to audition.

The audition sequence is changing to comply with the most recent court agreement in the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case, which ordered a more streamlined application process for all Hartford area magnet schools, Gallucci said. Now the lottery for the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts will take place with the lottery for all of the other magnet schools in February, and the auditions will be pushed back to the spring.

At a Parents and Friends Association meeting earlier last month, where Gallucci discussed the auditionswith several parents, some questioned why auditions were held at all if students of any talent level could get in.

All of the children are talented, Gallucci said, but "the reality is all of your children got in by the luck of the draw."

Gallucci stressed that the integrity of the program will not be altered.

"We will do with all incoming students what we do with all magnet schools, which is meet the students where they are and bring them forward," Gallucci said.

Gallucci said that a year from now, "you will not feel, see or experience a change in the process. And many of you will even say 'thank you,' because we will have brought in new talent."

Some students said they felt cheated. "We think that it's not fair because we actually worked really hard to get in," said Georgia Miller, a sophomore at the school.

Other parents and staff members said they don't think the changes will affect the quality of the school.

"I do think the quality is going to remain intact," said parent Lori Fernand, one of the co-presidents of the Parents and Friends Association. "I think a year from now I'm going to remain committed to the other issues we face classroom space, funding for new staff that are our real problems."

Herbert Sheppard, the former director of the school and now a consultant, said he thinks the demands of the school will mean that only extremely committed students will apply. The school runs from 7 a.m. to after 4 p.m. and requires additional commitments from students who are performing in productions.

Sheppard said the expectations are outlined during mandatory visits to the school.

"We try to paint for them as realistic a picture as possible," Sheppard said. "If you are not really passionate ... maybe this is not the best place for you."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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