The Las Vegas Academy of the Arts has won 10 Grammys—a first for any school in the country. One of the institution’s guitar ensembles performed at the National Guitar Association, and jazz studies students have won theReno Jazz Festival and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The school has an award-winning Mariachi ensemble, and has been invited to perform at the Thespian International Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. LVA student artwork hangs at the educational wing at the Congressional Building in Washington, D.C. Add a Distinguished Magnet School of America nod and a five-star rating in the district, and it’s fair to say, 20 years after the school was founded, that the LVA experiment has worked.
Our Deanna Rilling—herself an Academy graduate—recently sat down with the school’s current and original principals to learn how her alma mater took its first bow, and how it hopes to stay in the spotlight for decades to come.
A major player in the foundation of the school was Robert Gerye, LVA’s first principal. Although he left in 2004 to be principal at Spring Valley High, Gerye remains devoted to LVA and vehement about its direction, even serving on the Alumni Association board of directors.
In the fall of 1992, Gerye was approached to create an international studies and arts school alongside original assistant principal Sylvia Tegano.
“We knew we had the facility, but we had a blank piece of paper to develop a program—which in education doesn’t happen very often,” Gerye says. “We visited other similar schools around the country and began to put together ideas for what we were going to do—not only for the academic program, such as piloting and pioneering block scheduling, but also for rehab of the facility. In May 1993, Las Vegas High School moved out [of its building downtown]. They took all the good stuff with them and left all the junk.”
As the real work of building a new kind of school—and a new kind of student body—began, other principals in the district thought differently. “I thought that we would be met with open arms; nothing could have been further from the truth.” From being escorted out of Valley High School while trying to recruit students to dealing with other schools’ administrators who didn’t want this new school to steal their talented students, Gerye was persistent.
He also fended off battles with schools when principals threatened students that if they left, they could never come back, or that they’d be surrounded by “a bunch of weird people.” “There were lots of different tactics used because they were afraid of losing their kids and decreasing their enrollment, which affected their staffing and their budgets,” Gerye says.
From the start, LVA had a unique model that survives to this day: To gain admission students must first audition—or in visual arts, submit a portfolio. In addition to talent, grades are taken into account; current students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and all general-education requirements must be met before graduation (i.e. kids don’t just play music or draw, but also study math, science, English, etc.). That means an extra two classes per day; this schedule makes room for guest speakers from lighting technicians to casting directors to bring a bit of the real world to the LVA classroom.
The school’s first show, appropriately Fame, squashed the naysayers. “That was a defining thing that showed ‘Yeah, we’ve got talented kids. We can do it.’” By the 1995-96 school year, more students were auditioning than there were available openings. LVA was even selected to premiere Stephen Schwartz and John Caird’s Children of Eden, plus was the first high school to perform Les Misérables. “Being cutting-edge was what defined the program.”
Larger than the artistic education and academic rigor is a sense of community. LVA is truly like a family. “A lot of kids don’t have a lot of parental support,” Gerye says. “They have to be able to come to school and find that, and the school has to be able to provide them with that.” Like a proud father, Gerye still monitors the progress of the school as well as its graduates. “I look at the things they’re doing on Facebook, and I really get a feeling that what we did with the school is took kids who got lost in the shuffle at a comprehensive school and gave them a focus and a purpose,” Gerye says. “It taught them self-discipline, academics and thinking. … I’ve got 1,500 or so graduates that I keep in contact with. My daughter was saying, ‘Gosh, you have more friends [on Facebook] than I do!’”
Current principal Scott Walker took the helm two years ago and aims to propel the school forward into the next 20 years. Previously a band, choir and Spanish teacher, Walker’s arrival at the school changed his preconceived notion that LVA was stealing all the talented teens. “I would tell my students ‘You don’t need to go there, I can teach you everything you need to know,’ and I would do everything I could to keep them from going. Now that I’m here, I’m going ‘Oh wow, I didn’t really get it.’ I had no real clue what went on here. The opportunities that students get here is not at all like what a comprehensive school provides or can provide.”
Walker emphasizes the importance of the arts in the public education system. “We’re all worried about math, science and language-arts scores, but there’s a correlation between that artistic brain and making the brain work both ways. I’m positive that it is an upper-skill to look at black dots on a page and be able to translate that into something your hands have to do and make something musical and emotional out of it. The kids who come through this school are smart and creative, and when you put that together, you can do anything.”
As the school has grown, many have attended performances in the new Lowden theater, others have heard rumors that a ghost dubbed Mr. Petrie still haunts the old theater, but all take pride that students get along—save perhaps for two girls having a brutal dance-off over a guy. The students foster a sense of community and stand up for their art—whether it’s preserving the original language in a script for Big River, or the time the notorious Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas protested LVA for stagingThe Laramie Project, a play about college student Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay. Westboro brought 10 people; LVA had 250 counter-protesters complete with signs proclaiming a “No-Hate Zone.”
A major change is ahead for LVA: The International Studies program is moving to Valley High School, which houses the district’s Academies of Travel and Tourism and International Baccalaureate. “International Studies admittedly has always felt like the stepchild,” Walker says. “You don’t try to make people feel that way, but we’re trying to narrow our focus. Our name is officially ‘Las Vegas Academy of the Arts’ now.” (Current international studies students can stay until they graduate.)
“One of my mantras is ‘Excellence to Eminence.’ We are an excellent institution, but I am a little competitive and I want to be the best,” Walker says. “I believe I’ve got the kids and staff to do it.” He hopes colleges and/or employers will see the portfolios of students from LVA and know they’ve got a solid academic and artistic background. He adds that guidance counselor Joel Diamond has been instrumental in bringing in top colleges to meet with students, and 86 percent of LVA’s graduates go on to secondary education institutions.
Operating in an 82-year-old building in a cash-strapped district in a community that last November rejected a school facilities bond presents LVA with some unique challenges. “Our facilities can’t last forever,” Walker says. “We constantly have breakdowns and issues with HVAC, sewage, water. When it rains and we get terrible storms, all of Knapp Hall goes underwater. All of the kids’ work on a teacher’s desk is now a clod of wet paper. These are things that we shouldn’t have to deal with in a school. We’ve been hacked to bare bones. Teachers’ pay has been frozen and textbook budgets have been cut in half. We just barely operate and yet we still get a great product: When you talk to the kids, this is where they want to be. First day back after summer break they’re all hugging. It’s a big love-fest.”
Originally published in Vegas Seven.