Debonair Patterson has been cartooning since she was seven years old, drawing superheroes and creating her own characters. When it came time to apply to high schools, she had her eyes set on Manhattan's High School of Art and Design. But getting through the tough audition process for the school would be tricky. Unlike other students, her family in the Bronx couldn't afford private tutoring or lessons to help her prepare. "It wasn't really an option for me," Patterson, now 16, said. "I just never thought of it."
Then she heard about Middle School Arts Audition Boot Camp, a summer program offered in partnership by Lincoln Center and the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and designed for students in her situation.
Each summer for the past four years, a selection of the city's most promising artistic-minded teens is invited to Lincoln Center for an intense two weeks to get them ready for high school auditions and to help even the playing field for students who can't afford private lessons. In Patterson's case, that meant learning color schemes, perspective, and light-and-shadow drawings. She went on to nail her audition and is now a sophomore at the high school. She's starting to think about attending an arts college too.
The camp is aimed at kids in Title 1 schools, which have high percentages of students from low-income households, to help them successfully apply for the city's distinguished arts high schools and programs, including Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the famous setting for the movie Fame. The DOE-funded Boot Camp is free for students and includes a MetroCard, free lunches, and access to other resources on the Lincoln Center campus they might never have been able to use before. "Our elite arts high schools should be a reflection of young and emerging talent—the best our city has to offer—not who can afford special coaching to prepare for the demanding entrance hurdles," said Russell Granet, head of Lincoln Center Education.
Arts organizations are struggling to increase diversity both on their stages and in their audiences, and part of the idea behind the program is to make sure students from all walks of life see arts high schools as a viable option. "We believe deeply in equal access to the best possible arts education, so those benefiting from private classes and tutors from kindergarten—those are not our kids," Granet explained.
Boot Camp takes place the first two weeks of August, with the goal of getting students up to speed on everything they'll need to know to be prepared for their high school auditions in the fall. It is led by a team of DOE-certified teachers and working artists from Lincoln Center's resident organizations, Carnegie Hall, and Studio in a School. The camp deals with all aspects of the auditions, from what kind of material to prepare to how to dress to how to deal with distractions, such as a cell phone going off in the room during an audition. "We throw them curveballs," Granet said. "We really give them a real-life experience, because that's the best preparation."
The camp started with 90 kids during its first year in 2014; the next year it grew to 137, then to 160 the following year. In 2017, the DOE expanded its investment in the program to reach up to 250 participants. Last year, 96 percent got into their first-choice school or program.
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who helped drive the program and its expansion, praised its successes so far. "Expanding opportunities for students and ensuring they receive the additional resources they need is part of our commitment to increasing equity across all schools," she said. "I am extremely pleased with the growth of the program over the last several years and look forward to seeing even more students take advantage of this opportunity."
Increased diversity in the arts in New York City is a priority for Lincoln Center and the DOE. The high cost of living, combined with the costs of equipment, rehearsal space, and access to mentoring, can be prohibitive to even established artists. "I believe the power of the arts stems from their ability to translate the diversity of human experience, and the experiences these campers bring to the table are incredibly rich and vital," Granet said. "For us, it's very exciting to know that these kids' lives have been changed as a result of the program, because each year the participants have, in return, made a profound impact on Lincoln Center."
According to a 2014 arts group report on census data, while only 33 percent of the city's overall population is white, 74 percent of people in the city with arts degrees are white. And although 23 percent of the city is black, only 6 percent of people with arts degrees are black.
"Some of these kids do not have any previous exposure to Lincoln Center or feel immediately comfortable being here on campus," Granet said. "We have kids show up and say they've never been to Manhattan before. However, by the end of camp it's a different story: They have a sense of belonging as a result of our clear belief in—and excitement about—their potential."
The camp stays in touch with the students throughout high school, offering them additional mentoring and resources if needed. Even parents need a little boot camp sometimes. Granet said some are skeptical of the program, and of the arts in general, but instructors invite parents in during the camp to explain that the schools actually open up a huge realm of possibilities to their kids. "Kids who graduate from LaGuardia leave not only with superior technique in their chosen art form, but with essential 21st-century skills that translate to other pursuits as well," Granet noted. "They are receiving a world-class public education enhanced with the arts' ability to instill grit and perseverance. The parents really warm up to the idea that these specialized high schools prepare their children for whatever they eventually decide to pursue, whether it's the arts, engineering, or public service."
When Debonair Patterson went into her audition, she was nervous at first but quickly felt prepared and relaxed. She got into school with another leg up: Two friends she had made at the camp got accepted to the same high school. She encourages other arts students to apply for the camp and gives them some advice.
"Listen to everything that they tell you," she said. "They know what they're doing."
Tim Donnelly is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and former editor of Brokelyn.com whose work has also appeared in the New York Post, Vice, Inc. magazine, and elsewhere.