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Joel supports regional school for the arts: 'I didn't go to a school like this'

Billy Joel, speaking at Long Island High School

Billy Joel, speaking at Long Island High School for the Arts on Tuesday, favors more students gaining access to the school. Credit: Chris Ware

When the Piano Man, Billy Joel, was just a teen, a teacher at Hicksville High School heard him play and encouraged him to pursue a musical career, he said Tuesday.

That was the first time an adult, other than his mother, had recognized his true passion and the talent that eventually would lead to a superstar career, the Grammy-winning artist told a room of local educators.

Joel, along with other artists, was part of a panel emphasizing the importance of arts in public education during a forum at Nassau BOCES' Long Island High School for the Arts campus in Syosset. Joel, a longtime supporter of the school, which offers a varied and specialized arts curriculum, donated $1 million from his nonprofit foundation in 2016 to the school when it was in danger of closing.

"I didn't go to a school like this," said Joel, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. "It would have been really helpful to know there are other people who wanted to do this similar kind of thing and who are trying to learn all the skills necessary to do this."

He recounted how that one teacher believed in him, noting that's why Long Island should support a regional school for the arts for students. "You need to know somebody thinks you can do it," he said.

The six-time Grammy winner spoke to superintendents, board members, high school principals and directors of guidance at the event, "An Afternoon with Billy Joel and Guests." The panel was moderated by Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES.

Long Island High School for the Arts, founded in 1973, has programs in theater, dance, music, special effects, digital media, fine arts and film. It has an enrollment of about 150 students and draws from Suffolk and Nassau counties. 

Enrollment remains a challenge, LIHSA Principal Chris Bleecker said. The school is seeking several ways to boost participation, including becoming a state-approved Career and Technical Education school and partnering with arts organizations throughout the tristate area. The school has a partnership with the American Ballet Theatre that includes dancers offering master classes to students at the school.

In addition, Bleecker said becoming a certified Career and Tech school would mean that districts, which pay tuition to send their students to the school, could not deny a student's request to attend. Now, districts can say no to parents and students who want to attend the program. With a Career Tech designation, the districts — if they do not have a program of their own — must approve the request and pay tuition to send the student.

The school is applying to the state and hopes to have the designation by the fall, Bleecker said. The school also recently revamped its curriculum and offers several specialized courses.

"We are not trying to be the arts program for every student on Long Island," Bleecker said. "There is a subset of students out there who know this is their passion and want to pursue this professionally, and we want to equip them with the tools to pursue that to the best of their ability."

Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the Board of Regents, said the Regents is looking forward to the application from the school. 

"We are going to do what we can at the state to make sure it happens," he said. "We are going to put the arts right up there as a priority."

The private event Tuesday also featured Joel's keyboardist, David Rosenthal; the American Ballet Theatre's artistic coordinator for educational outreach, Richard Toda; and Cheri Walsh, executive director of the organization Exploring the Arts, founded by Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto. Two members on the panel also were alums of the school: musician and visual artist Andy Friedman, who grew up in East Meadow, and recently retired Paul Taylor Dance Company principal dancer Michael Trusnovec, who grew up in Yaphank.

Last year, a building at LIHSA was renamed for Joel's mother. The Rosalind Joel Conservatory for Music and Theatre houses the performing arts programs at the Nassau BOCES school's Syosset campus. On Tuesday, Joel told the audience how his mother paid $10 per lesson for him to learn the piano. Joel also has supported scholarships for students at the school.

The Exploring the Arts organization has provided a $100,000 grant to the school, the principal said.

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