It’s “Welcome Back Mahwah” Time As LaGuardia HS Taps Alum As New Principal

It seems like a real life version of that 70s ABC-TV comedy hit “Welcome Back Kotter.” But the task for Deepak Marwah, an alum and a former teacher at LaGuardia HS, who was tapped in August to be the new principal of the premier performing art school, is no laughing matter. It comes after a turbulent period at the high school that was the inspiration for the movie and tv show, “Fame.”

| 31 Aug 2023 | 11:34

LaGuardia High School, New York City’s premier performing arts school, is getting a new principal after five months without a permanent leader.

Deepak Marwah, an alum and former teacher at LaGuardia, took the helm at the Upper West Side institution in August shortly before the school year started, the school announced. Marwah most recently oversaw arts education for the New Rochelle school district.

The appointment comes on the heels of a turbulent stretch at LaGuardia, which commands outsize attention because of its star-studded list of alumni and its global reputation as the inspiration for the movies and TV show Fame. The school has long attracted fierce debates over the appropriate balance between arts and academics.

Principal Yeou-Jey Vasconcelos left in March after a drama-filled three-year tenure that included shepherding the school through the pandemic and high-profile clashes with some parents over Advanced Placement offerings and the length of the school day.

Since then, the school has gone without a permanent principal, leaving many staffers and families yearning for stability.

Marwah said his experience as a student at LaGuardia in the mid-1990s “changed his life”—and he hopes he can provide that for others.

But before developing his long-term vision for the school, Marwah wants to “go in and really understand what works right now.” It’s important to take his time, he said, given the school’s leadership transitions over the past decade.

Principals at LaGuardia have often found themselves at the center of heated debates over the mission and priorities of the school.

Lisa Mars, who took the helm in 2013, prioritized boosting the school’s academic reputation by expanding AP offerings and raising the academic threshold for admission. Those changes sparked furious backlash that culminated in widespread student and staff protests that led to her ouster in 2019.

Vasconcelos, a former principal of another performing arts high school and trained pianist, took over with plans to restore a focus on the arts and reduce academic pressure.

Under her tenure, the Education Department lowered the academic threshold for admissions, a move staffers say has mildly increased the diversity of the student body. The COVID pandemic started shortly after she took over, touching off battles at LaGuardia and other large high schools between parents and administrators over the availability of in-person learning.

Vasconcelos also floated plans to swap out Advanced Placement courses for other types of high-level classes and shorten the school day, which ended after 4 p.m. Both proposals met fierce backlash from some parents.

Marwah, born in the Bronx and raised in Queens by immigrant parents, said he’s prepared to step into the swirling pressure and expectations of the role, and is committed to maintaining the school’s dual mission of fostering both world-class arts and high-level academics.

His own background as a singer and vocal performance teacher, as well as an administrator for several district-level arts programs, gives him a first-hand appreciation of the power of arts education, he believes.

“I think it’s really important for the leader of LaGuardia High School to understand that students are there to create art, and to ensure that they’re getting the absolute best arts and academic education that they could possibly get,” he said.

But Jamie McShane, the parent of a rising senior and former president of the parent association, said it was Marwah’s commitment to maintaining academic rigor that was most appealing to some parents.

“There was a lot of concern I think around the school getting away from that dual mission,” said McShane, who was a member of the parent group that interviewed candidates. “I think he really sees not everyone wants to go to an arts conservatory, and that some folks want to be able to pursue AP classes and academic excellence.”

But Marwah cautioned that it’s “not reasonable” for LaGuardia parents to expect that the school “will have everything that Stuyvesant or Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech may be able to offer them academically in addition to the arts.”

For all of his experience with arts education, Marwah hasn’t previously held a position as a school-level administrator, a resume that worried one veteran LaGuardia educator who said leading the school is a notoriously complex job that stumped even experienced administrators.

“Not only is it going to be his first principal job...he’s never been an assistant principal, and you’re putting him in one of the highest profile jobs in the system,” said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You wonder if a person is being set up for success.”

Marwah acknowledged that there will be a learning curve. But he said that many aspects of his current role leading districtwide arts programming, which includes supervising 50 staffers, would translate to his new position. He also noted that he served as a department chair at New Rochelle High School.

Parents, students, and educators say LaGuardia is grappling with its share of ongoing challenges. Some are shared widely across a school system still emerging from the pandemic and facing looming budget cuts, while others are unique to the school.

School staffers said that multiple colleagues received excess notices in the spring, when the school was without a permanent principal. The excess notices, which keep employees on the Education Department payroll but remove them from their school positions, went out to five assistant principals, along with several guidance counselors, and a crisis social worker, according to one staffer who received such a notice.

An Education Department spokesperson denied that the assistant principals were excessed, saying the school was “in the process of transitioning some into specific content areas.” The guidance department was “overstaffed,” but remains within the recommended counselor to student ratio, the spokesperson added.

High school students across the city are dealing with elevated levels of stress and mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic.

Marwah said he sees student mental health as a priority, and he thinks that arts education can be a powerful vehicle for social and emotional learning.

And while he supports continuing to offer a robust range of Advanced Placement classes, he said he’s also interested in reviewing students’ schedules to see if they are “overloading” on the advanced courses, and whether that may be contributing to mental health challenges.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the new principal will be managing the kinds of clashes with parents that consumed the tenures of previous principals.

Natasha Labovitz, the parent of a rising senior and a recent alum at the school, said she’s concerned that a “small group of very vocal parents who did not seem happy” with the school’s “emphasis on the arts” gained undue influence on school policy in recent years.

“I think the majority of the parent body is happy at the school,” she said.

She hopes Marwah will be “less challenged” by parent pushback, and advised that he listen most closely to staff and students — the people who are on the ground and “working 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to create magic in a dilapidated old DOE building.”

McShane, the former parent association president, countered that “hundreds” of parents attended parent association meetings over contentious proposals under Vasconcelos’s tenure about the bell schedule and AP courses.

Marwah’s selection, he said, is evidence that Manhattan High Schools Superintendent Gary Beidleman, who oversees the school, “heard parent concerns, and he was responsive.”

Marwah said that “when it comes up to parents, teachers, or students having conflict, I think the best thing is for me to spend the year taking all the stuff that I’ve listened to, and all the stuff that I’ve learned, to develop a vision for the school that we can all buy into.”

Josh, a 2023 LaGuardia graduate and student leader who worked closely with the previous administration — who asked to use only his first name — encouraged the new principal to make himself available to students and promote more opportunities for student leadership.

“It’s important to consider how student leadership is going to be further fostered,” he said. “Students don’t feel like their interests and concerns were being properly represented.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.