Artsy kids gain opportunities to shine

Gotta sing, gotta dance.

For the past 20-plus years, local high school students eager to follow that star have had exactly one place to go: the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.

This school year, however, the options — public and private — have expanded.

The Clark County School District added a second arts magnet high school, recasting Del Sol High School as Del Sol Academy of the Performing Arts.

And Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School launched its own Conservatory of Fine Arts.

For the school district, adding a new performing arts high school was a simple matter of adding supply to meet ever-increasing demand.

As one of the district’s “shining stars,” LVA received more than 2,000 applications last year — “and we only have about 400 available seats,” said Gia Moore, the school district’s director of magnet schools. “What about the rest of the students?”

Enter Del Sol, located in southeast Las Vegas, which had room to house an arts magnet program as well as neighborhood students zoned to attend the school.

“We have a very high population of students where English is their second language,” notes Del Sol magnet counselor Emily Nicks. “They’re visual learners, tactile learners. And that takes us right into the arts.”

The increasing interest in local arts education comes as no surprise to Candy Schneider, education and outreach vice president at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, who spent more than three decades with CCSD before joining the downtown arts complex.

“The creative industry is a huge part of who we are as Las Vegas,” Schneider says.

Las Vegas’ “Entertainment Capital of the World” reputation sure doesn’t hurt local interest in arts education, notes Rick McEnaney, CCSD’s coordinator of secondary fine arts.

In the district’s arts magnet programs, “the goal is the kids coming out of those programs will transition to a collegiate program,” he says, “or employment.”

To that end, Del Sol officials have discussed starting a program with Stagehands Local 720 for “technical theater kids” to create “work readiness internships” once they become seniors, according to Susan Hoff, Del Sol’s magnet coordinator. “We want them to be career-ready. Not everyone wants to go to college.”

Del Sol applied for a grant to bring members of the Las Vegas-based theater troupe A Public Fit to campus next fall to work with students, Hoff notes.

Learning the industry

In his Del Sol classes, drama teacher Timothy Berenger emphasizes “knowing how the industry works,” he says, including “how to properly audition” as well as build a resume and compete for jobs in the industry. After all, he reasons, even when “doing the arts, you still have to eat.”

Also helping to fuel the interest in performing arts education: The Smith Center, which opened in March 2012 and has been fundamental in creating a huge new awareness, according to McEnaney. “The kids are getting to see and experience things they never had the opportunity to see before.”

For example, 40 Del Sol dance students will be in the audience when the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater visits The Smith Center in April, Huff notes. Some of them have “never been to a real theater,” she adds, predicting the experience “will take their breath away.”

Although most of the more than 250,000 students who have attended Smith Center performances are from elementary school classes, according to Schneider, LVA students benefit from master classes presented by touring artists.

When cast members from Broadway musicals playing The Smith Center offer to present master classes, LVA officials “always say, ‘Bring ’em on over — we’ll find a place for them,’ ” Schneider says. That gives “kids (who) are working and dreaming” the chance to meet with “people who are making a living at touring.”

Kids like Marisa Caddick, 17, a senior theater major at LVA, who still remembers the anxiety of waiting to learn whether she’d passed her entrance audition to attend the magnet school.

“I was waiting out in my front yard” for the postal carrier to arrive and, when he did, “I chased the mailman down the street,” she recalls. After reading her acceptance letter, “I ran screaming down the street.”

Sophomore classmate Jake Rouse, 15, can do her one better. When he found out he was accepted at LVA, “I kicked open my door — and broke open a hole in the wall,” he admits. But he didn’t care because he was too happy about being accepted to “the school of my dreams.”

LVA senior dance major Hannah Walls, 18, “had an iffy audition” and “went home and cried for 24 hours” — before eventually learning she’d passed her audition. But she reasons such pressure is healthy, because “in the real world, you’re going to have to fight for your spot.”

As a consequence, adds 16-year-old Jacob Langsner, a junior theater major at LVA, “you do have to get used to rejection.”

Freshman Skylar Graham, 14, hoped to attend LVA when she auditioned, but she didn’t get in. Now she’s a theater magnet student at Del Sol. “I like it here,” she says. “I like how it’s something new.”

She also likes that Del Sol offers some programs LVA doesn’t, such as costume design. Instructor Stephanie Daniels, who’s worked with Cirque du Soleil and is “developing some internships,” according to Nicks, had students working with costumes from the Disney movie “Enchanted” obtained through her connections.

“There’s so much competition” at LVA, Graham said. “Right now, there’s an equal chance for anything” at Del Sol, which has 112 magnet students on campus. (Eventually, the school hopes to enroll 600-plus magnet students, Nicks said.)

Eye on the Strip

On a recent day at Del Sol’s theater, some students help build the set for the school’s production of “Fame,” set at New York’s High School of Performing Arts; others work on the Holocaust-themed “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” to be performed March 30 during a Holocaust education conference at The Venetian.

If drama teacher Berenger has his way, however, it won’t be the only time Del Sol students attract attention on the Strip.

“My goal is to make us not only familiar to the local community but have the Del Sol brand represented at the concierge desks on the Strip,” he says, “so we have that wider exposure.”

Competing for the spotlight is part of the tradition at LVA, a school that’s been winning applause since its 1993 debut at the downtown campus formerly known as Las Vegas High School. Some 1,700 LVA students pursue majors in dance, vocal and instrumental music, jazz, liberal arts, theater or theater technology and visual arts.

There’s “a fascinating dichotomy” on campus, observes LVA theater instructor Megan Ahern. “The kids are competitive within their majors, but they sincerely” support each other.

Walls also sees a definite difference between LVA and other schools. At Arbor View, the high school she’s zoned to attend, “the environment is not as positive,” she says. “It feels like no one cares what I’m doing. I don’t miss the high school experience at all. I don’t miss the bullies — because we don’t have those here.”

Although LVA doesn’t have traditional sports teams to rally around, “if you consider sports as a way to unite kids,” Langsner says, “everyone’s very supportive” of student artistic pursuits. “We still have that communal element.”

Or, as Caddick puts it, “instead of a football game, come see ‘Footloose.’”

Arts students at Del Sol and Summerlin’s Faith Lutheran campus, by contrast, do have their own athletic teams to cheer, because their conservatories are part of the school, not the whole show.

Faith Lutheran freshman Delaney Sylvester, 15, wanted to “study the arts and still have a normal high school experience,” she explains. To her, the Faith Lutheran conservatory represents “the best of both worlds.”

Not all of the students in arts classes are conservatory students, according to conservatory dean Emily Ball, who taught at Faith Lutheran for 16 years before heading the new performing arts track.

There are “incredibly talented football players who take our ballroom class,” she notes.

About 132 of Faith Lutheran’s more than 1,700 students are in the conservatory. But “the goal is to definitely keep it small,” Ball says. “We don’t want to go much over 200.”

Chris Harper has taught at Faith Lutheran for 10 years; banners on the studio walls attest to her success as dance team coach. The new conservatory program has “enabled us to raise the bar,” she comments after guiding students through an uptempo tap class.

For example, the school just added ballet, but “before the conservatory, there wasn’t a big interest from our dancers,” she says.

Now, “after a year or two,” Harper predicts, dance students “won’t be relying on studios for their training. They’ll be getting it here.”

The right teacher can make all the difference to a student.

Just ask Victor Vargas, a 16-year-old Del Sol sophomore, who followed mariachi teachers Fernando and Guadalupe Gonzalez from Sunrise Mountain High School to Del Sol.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to start something new,” Vargas says, taking a break from the class.

The mariachi band is practicing for an upcoming competition in San Diego, where Del Sol’s Mariachi Encendido (which translates to “on fire,” matching the school’s team name, the Dragons) will take on other school mariachi bands, including LVA’s.

“It’s a little friendly rivalry,” Vargas says.

For some students, a conservatory focus — and block scheduling — allows them to spend more classroom time honing their skills.

“When you specifically tailor” the curriculum to “what kids are interested in,” Schneider observes, “they’re automatically engaged.”

At arts magnet schools, the academic “experience is very different,” Del Sol’s Nicks acknowledges. “It’s not the usual ‘I’m done at 2:30 (p.m.) day.’ ”

And for those who question the relevance of arts training in the “real” world, 14-year-old Del Sol freshman Sandi Kordi says the improvisatory skills she has picked up in her theater studies show that “when you’re stuck, you can think your way out.”

Read more stories from Carol Cling at Contact her at and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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