West Prep Academy moved past a legacy of underachievement Wednesday with lots of pomp as the K-12 campus celebrated its inaugural commencement with dignitaries that included Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Every single one of the 43 seniors plans to go to college, Ensign said. "That's an amazing fact."
The graduation ceremony is a notable accomplishment because "we had so many (students) who did not have graduation in their sights," said David Webb, the school guidance counselor.
Five years ago, with a reputation as one of the worst schools in the Clark County School District, West was the kind of campus even substitute teachers avoided.
Student performance was poor and school safety was so questionable that the state deemed it "persistently dangerous."
Class salutatorian Nancy Hernandez, 17, said, "It was horrible. Most of the time we didn't have teachers. We were out in the halls, doing whatever. There were always fights."
Hernandez was one of the students that newly appointed Principal Mike Barton had to cajole into staying as he promised drastic changes at the school near the intersection of Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards.
"I felt like a used car salesman," Barton said of his initial efforts to convince students to stay.
Hernandez, an aspiring pediatrician who in the fall plans to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Barton made good on his word.
"There were no more food fights," Hernandez said. "There was actual learning."
Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of education services, and former Clark County School Board member Shirley Barber wanted to transform the failing middle school into a K-12 campus to support students with a continuity of services.
Aaliyah Hogue, 18, who transferred to West Prep two years ago, said the school atmosphere "feels like family."
Students said they appreciate the individual attention and the high expectations at the school.
Veronica Bustos, 18, said she did not know about the state's mandatory exams for high school graduation until she transferred from Cimarron-Memorial High School to West Prep as a junior.
"I come here and all they talk about are the proficiency tests," Bustos said.
Because of improved student performance on the tests, the high school showed "adequate progress" last year under No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law.
Despite higher benchmarks this year, the high school is expected to show adequate progress again, Barton said.
Jhoana Valentin, 18, is one of the school's success stories. The Filipino immigrant came to the United States four years ago. When she started West Prep as a freshman, she did not know any English.
"I never expected to make valedictorian," said Valentin, who graduated with a 4.56 grade point average, bolstered by accelerated classes.
She plans to study business and accounting at UNLV.
In addition to acknowledging the hard work of students and staff, Barton credited district Superintendent Walt Rulffes for making a financial commitment to West Prep. Extra funding allows West to offer class sizes of 25 students per teacher and also the guarantee of a laptop for high school students whose grades average B or better.
West Prep focuses on academics and does not offer as many extracurricular activities and sports as bigger schools do.
Community activists have criticized the school district for not replacing West Prep's many portable classrooms with permanent facilities. Officials say they have a long list of capital projects ahead of the school.
West Prep staffers just hope the district continues to support the K-12 concept. In 2007-08, the school added its first kindergarten class, which will graduate in 2020.
"I hope I'm around to see it," said geometry teacher Kimberly McGee.
Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-374-7917.