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Plan to close an arts school seen as cutting off a unique option

If the Department of Education goes through with its plan to close Manhattan Theatre Lab High School, the city will lose a rare option for students who want a rich arts education but lack previous training, members of the school community argued at a public hearing about the closure plan Tuesday night. Manhattan Theatre Lab students performing during a talent show that preceded its closure hearing Manhattan Theatre Lab, an eight-year-old high school on the Martin Luther King Campus, has a lower-than-average graduation rate, a failing grade on its most recent city report card, and serious academic shortcomings. And while most students defended the school at the hearing, three seniors who testified said Principal Evelyn Collins had not given sufficient attention to the school’s lackluster academics. Collins took over in 2006 after a tumultuous period that included the midyear resignation of the school’s founding principal, the education director of a local theater company. But Manhattan Theatre Lab also has a rich arts curriculum in drama, dance, vocal music, and set design — and it does not require auditions to be accepted. That sets the school apart from other arts schools, including the elite LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, located across the street. Many students told GothamSchools they had auditioned for LaGuardia or other selective schools but were not accepted. They said they had felt unprepared next to other eighth-graders from around the city who had been fine-tuning their craft through private training since an early age. Manhattan Theatre Lab’s open-door policy has attracted a student body that is 96 percent black and Hispanic, at least two-thirds free lunch-eligible. About 10 percent of students require special education services. At LaGuardia, nearly 70 percent of students are white or Asian, and less than 1 percent of students have special needs.