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Future of Nassau BOCES' arts high school, STEM center uncertain

Brian D’Addario, of Hicksville, plays the bass as

Brian D’Addario, of Hicksville, plays the bass as he and other students perform, "Half Nelsen,” a composition by Miles Davis, at Nassau BOCES' Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Credit: Heather Walsh

Falling tuition revenue and sparse enrollments threaten to close Long Island's only public high school for aspiring actors, artists and musicians, as well as an affiliated center for students talented in science, math and technology, school officials said.

Nassau BOCES board trustees, in a meeting Thursday night, said they may make a decision on the fate of the Long Island High School for the Arts at their next meeting in two weeks.

For more than 40 years, the high school has provided professional training for careers ranging from screenwriting and theater production to jazz performance and animation graphics.

Also at risk is the Doshi STEM Institute, a smaller center opened in 2013 to provide specialized study in science research and related fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

At Thursday night's's meeting, administrators and board members praised the programs for offering unique education for students. They lamented the lack of funding that could doom the beloved schools.

"They have indicated the fact that they are struggling maintaining their own budgets," said Lydia Begley, associate superintendent for educational services, referring to administrators and board members at dozens of Long Island school districts

The schools, operated by Nassau BOCES, are largely funded by tuition paid by local districts whose students take classes part time or full time. Both are on the same campus at 239 Cold Spring Rd., Syosset, and accept students from Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Eric Schultz, board president of the Nassau County Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and other officials said the state-imposed property tax cap has squeezed local districts and is a primary reason for the BOCES schools' financial straits.

"We as a board are devastated by the thought that quality programs like this might have to close due to the result of a tax cap," he said. Schultz said he and colleagues are "cautiously optimistic" that the regional schools can be saved if sympathetic state lawmakers provide extra funds.

The Long Island High School for the Arts has seen overall enrollments drop from 197 during the 2008-09 school year to 100 in the current year.

The number of students in the Doshi STEM Institute increased from 20 students in 2013 to 48 students this year. However, enrollment is well short of the institute's original goal of 100 students by its second year.

The institute is named for financial backer Dr. Leena Doshi, who owns a chain of radiology centers. Doshi, in an interview, said she recently returned from a trip and was unaware of the details of the institute's problems. She declined to comment further.

Tuition for arts students this year is $12,276. The $7,400 tuition for those at the STEM institute is privately subsidized. Rates are for half-day programs providing 2 1/2 hours of daily instruction. Most students attend part time, spending the rest of the day in academic courses at their home high schools.

As word of potential shutterings began to circulate, some students and parents expressed shock. "The idea that the school could close makes me emotional, because the school has done so much for me," said April Lorenzi, 17, a senior from Massapequa.

Lorenzi, who has been accepted for admission to dance programs at six colleges next year, said instructors at Long Island High School for the Arts have been especially helpful in prepping her and classmates for college auditions.

Most instructors are professionals in various fields of performing arts.Nassau BOCES, in a recent letter to hundreds of local school board members, said the arts school and the STEM institute are in jeopardy because of insufficient enrollment. The letter cited the fiscal impact of state tax caps first imposed in 2012, which have had a domino effect on both school programs.

The letter noted that the STEM school was created in part to head off efforts to create an independent charter school specializing in the same subjects on the campus of The College at Old Westbury.The tax caps have limited annual hikes in property taxes by school districts statewide. The districts, in turn, have found it increasingly hard to raise tuition revenue to send their students to regional BOCES programs.

This is especially true of programs such as performing arts and science research, which are not defined by the state as strictly occupational and are not legally required to be provided.BOCES programs also took a hit from the general economic downturn that began with the 2008 financial crash.

The threatened closures underscore a broader issue on the Island, where students' ability to obtain advanced training in fields of particular interest often depends on whether their high schools can afford to offer such programs.

Larger school systems frequently address the need by operating specialized high schools, with students winning entrance through auditions. In Manhattan, for example, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which is public and tuition-free, enrolls more than 2,600 students in grades 9-12 from the five boroughs. The state Board of Regents, which sets educational policy, has proposed a new state law allowing districts to join together in creating regional high schools. The plan, however, is intended mainly for rural areas.

Some educational experts on the Island have suggested that regional schools, open to all students interested and qualified, could work in this region as well. Others are skeptical.

"Is one of the answers regional high schools?" said Hank Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools. "The question's been out there. But what would that look like and what would the costs be?"With Zachary R. Dowdy

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