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Roger Tilles, Long Island's Regent, heads study of fine arts diploma

State Regent Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, on

State Regent Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, on Oct. 2, 2013. Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents is heading a new study that may lead to creation of an alternative high school diploma focused on coursework in dance, music, theater and visual arts.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, a philanthropist noted for supporting cultural events, this week was named chairman of an advisory Blue Ribbon Commission on Arts Assessment. The panel is to consider ways that students may be tested or otherwise evaluated to determine skill levels in the fine and performing arts.

The appointment came at the Regents' monthly meeting, where Tuesday the panel also gave final approval for expansion of bilingual instruction for growing immigrant enrollments on Long Island and statewide. School districts must plan for more services this year and start offering them in 2015-16.

Tilles, in an interview, voiced hope that the group's work would boost art and music programs in public schools, some of which have been trimmed because of tighter budgets. The nine-year member of the Regents is a benefactor of LIU Post's arts performance center, which bears his family's name.

"If you're not going to provide arts training in New York, where are you going to do it?" he said.

Arts educators endorsed the initiative.

AJ Hepworth, principal at Long Island School for the Arts in Syosset, said he hopes an alternative diploma concentrated in the field would help enrollments that have dropped because of budget constraints. The arts high school, staffed largely by professional performers, is run by Nassau County BOCES.

Hepworth stressed that courses such as art history are solidly academic. "Throughout our history, our history has been defined by art," he said.

"I think it's an absolutely fabulous idea -- a long time coming," said Jessica Bayer of Merrick, co-president of the Long Island Art Teachers Association.

The Regents, who set high school graduation requirements statewide, are considering other changes that would allow students to avoid passing one academic Regents exam out of five now mandated, in exchange for completing coursework in technical or occupational fields. Those fields range from carpentry to computer graphics.

The board made a similar attempt in 2012, but never agreed on a specific plan.

The intent behind efforts to find alternative "pathways" to diplomas is to engage students who are not enthusiastic about academic work but may prefer hands-on training.

One Regents advisory group already identified 13 national assessments of job skills deemed rigorous enough to certify students for graduation credits. Those include tests in basic accounting, advertising and design, carpentry, electronics and graphic communications.The new panel headed by Tilles would seek to identify similar assessments in the fine and performing arts and report back to the Regents board, possibly by March or April.

Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday that the Regents could approve alternative diplomas with technical and occupational concentrations by next month. Some board members have expressed skepticism that state lawmakers would accept the idea of letting students skip an exam in United States history, one of the options that was discussed.

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