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Billy Joel advocates for LIHSA: ‘We need a school like this’

Billy Joel speaks during a question-and-answer session at

Billy Joel speaks during a question-and-answer session at LIU Post's Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. The singer/songwriter pledged $1 million to help save the Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset. Credit: Chris Ware

Billy Joel spoke of his inspiration, his history, his success and his love of music and the arts in a nearly two-hour candid conversation Monday with local students and educators.

The singer-songwriter, who headlined the event at LIU Post as an advocate of the Long Island High School for the Arts, performed two of his signature songs — “Vienna” and “Baby Grand” — during the session billed as “An Afternoon of Questions & Answers . . . And a Little Music.”

“I’m here to help with the Long Island High School for the Arts,” Joel, 66, a Hicksville native, said to applause. “I know a lot of colleges have music programs — Hofstra, Stony Brook — but this is for high-school age and it’s needed. Think about how many people from Long Island, these talented people — comedians, actors, musicians — this is a breeding ground for talent . . . and we need a school like this.”

Last month, the rock and roll icon announced a pledge of $1 million from his nonprofit foundation to help save LIHSA — the Island’s only public high school devoted to the arts — if Nassau BOCES officials say they will keep it open for three years.

The school is in danger of closing because of dwindling enrollment and tuition revenue, officials have said.

Backstage, before the event, Joel said he wished he had had the opportunity to enroll in an arts-oriented school when he was growing up.

“Maybe I would have kept up my piano lessons,” he said. “I stopped taking lessons when I was 16. I was lucky enough to get private piano lessons at $10 a pop. That was not easy for a single mom to keep doing.”

Though Joel and his foundation have donated to colleges to help music students for years, his connection to LIHSA — as a local school that needs grass-roots support — is a move he said he has been hoping to make for a long time.

Monday’s event, held in Hillwood Recital Hall within the Tilles Center for Performing Arts on the Brookville campus, was limited to students and faculty from the arts school, prospective students and area school leaders.

“It’s so amazing and so thoughtful for him to do this,” said Lauren Gillespie, 16, of Garden City, a theater major at LIHSA.

Students and some staff asked Joel a variety of questions, from how he handles negative reviews to what his life as a musician was like before he was successful.

One student asked to perform a song she had composed. Joel obliged, standing to the side of the stage as she played her guitar and sang.

Dressed in black and wearing a gray scarf, Joel stood at a microphone for most of the event. He shared his personal history and how some of his songs came about.

“I was a product of the public schools on Long Island,” he said. “My public school teachers really helped me — especially my chorus teacher in high school, who was the first person who was an official adult who said, ‘You should actually consider being a professional musician.’ ”

That, he said, “was an epiphany.”

The arts high school, established in 1973, shares its Syosset campus with the Doshi STEM Institute, which opened in 2013. The total enrollment in both schools is 138 students — less than half of the complex’s 300-student capacity. Ninety-two students, mostly juniors and seniors, are in the arts school.

District officials have said the arts school alone has a deficit of about $400,000 for the current academic year. Nassau BOCES had considered canceling both programs in March, but agreed to extend them at least one more school year in response to families’ pleas.

Eric Schultz, president of the Nassau BOCES board of education, said Monday that the campaign to keep the school running is “going well,” and officials are looking to bring in other partners. He expressed gratitude for Joel’s commitment and help in spreading awareness about the school.

An open house Saturday at the Syosset campus drew more than 300 people, Schultz said, including many from Suffolk County, who were interested in both the arts school and the STEM institute.

The arts school and STEM institute are mostly funded by tuition paid by local districts whose students take classes part- or full-time. Both accept students from Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Joel was introduced by Roger Tilles of Great Neck, a longtime supporter of arts education and Long Island’s representative on the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy.

“Billy Joel has given back to Long Island like no other activist has,” Tilles said.

With Glenn Gamboa

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