Advanced Technologies Academy achieves Blue Ribbon status again

The familiar voice of Principal Karen Diamond carried to every corner of campus, stilling all classroom activity. She had an announcement, something most principals will never say in their whole careers. But the announcement has been made twice at this high school within a decade.

She told the students and teachers Thursday that they belonged to one of the top-performing schools in the country.

In fact, the magnet school is in the top less than 1 percent of all 100,000 schools in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education, overseer of all public education kindergarten through 12th grade. The department picked America’s top 71 academically performing schools for its annual Blue Ribbon awards. And Diamond’s Advanced Technologies Academy, on Vegas Drive east of Rancho Drive, made the cut.

The department also honored the 234 most-improved schools, which included one in Nevada: Bendorf Elementary School in Las Vegas.

It’s not uncommon for a Nevada school and sometimes two to make their way onto the prestigious list. The state has almost 600 schools, 357 of which are in Clark County. But a repeat is rare. It only occurred one other time for a Nevada school and in the 1980s — Cannon Junior High School — not long after the Blue Ribbon’s 1982 inception.

The academy first earned the honor in 2003, leading to a visit from first lady Laura Bush. Repeats are made even more impressive by the fact that schools must wait five years between wins, meaning they can’t rely on a golden batch of students. The school, itself, must prove consistent.

Diamond’s intercom announcement spurred rowdy applause from the 1,080 students in eighth period, same as you would expect at a football pep rally for the returning state champs.

But the high school doesn’t even have a football team, or any sports team for that matter. If students want to play sports, they must apply for a waiver and try out at nearby schools.

But the academy still has a mascot, the Mavericks. It’s a fitting figure for the school and its students, outside the norm.

Kirstie McLavy, graphic designer, noticed it in her first month here.

"It’s so weird to have kids say, ‘Can you explain that?’ " in the classroom said McLavy, starting her second year at the academy after leaving Centennial High School. "What, you know how to ask questions in high school?"

Students are here because "they want to learn," Diamond said of the school, whose seniors all pass the proficiency exams needed to graduate. That’s impressive in a school district where only half of the 20,000 seniors are on track to graduate.

The academy seems like more of a college than a high school. The students must meet minimum GPA and testing requirements to apply and are chosen in a lottery. They take the general classes and pick an emphasis — architecture, business and finance, engineering and more. Some even go directly into their career field. The difference is parents don’t have to pay tuition. It’s the same as going to their neighborhood high school.

Of course, the school has an advantage, said law teacher David Eason, who spent half his class time at Canyon Springs High School "settling squalls" and policing students.

"Students make it a whole lot easier to teach here," he said.

"We never have fights," said senior Iun Chen, who is applying to University of California-Berkeley. "We’re here to learn."

Schools across the district and country have magnet schools, which is why the honor was still a surprise, English teacher Maury Lowe said. The difference is higher expectations, she said.

"They’re asked to stretch themselves, therefore they do," she said.

Students won’t excel unless a higher bar is set, which has been the position of new Superintendent Dwight Jones, who has called for a weaning away from remedial classes in all high schools.

To be eligible for the award, the state superintendent must first nominate the school. The school must have met No Child Left Behind’s adequate yearly progress in the most recent year. The academy has done so eight out of nine years. It then submits an application detailing per pupil funding, students’ races, how many are poor enough to receive free or reduced lunch, the graduation rate, standardized test scores and much more.

No money or any material reward comes from winning the Blue Ribbon, but it does something far better. It keeps the ball rolling, attracting the same kinds of students, said English teacher Mary Ziegler, who was here the last time the ethnically diverse school won.

"The benefit is the community attitude," she said. "The number one thing we have going for us is they choose to come here."

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review or 702-383-0279.

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