Now celebrated, the 20-year-old Las Vegas Academy was once seen as a threat

Miss America Teresa Scanlan visits Las Vegas Academy on Sept. 8, 2011.
Photo: Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, a CCSD magnet school whose arts programs have earned a reputation as one of the country’s best. Walk through its halls and you’ll experience its uncanny likeness to the school in the celebrated movie-turned-musical Fame—choral students singing between classes, guitars strapped around shoulders, etudes emanating from rehearsal rooms. But while LVA now boasts sellout theatrical performances and highly attended concerts, many don’t realize the school actually got off to quite a rocky start.

LVA first opened in 1993 in the former Las Vegas High School building, after CCSD relocated that school to its current location on West Sahara at the foot of Frenchman Mountain.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the original LVHS first opened in 1931, and if it weren’t for the art-deco gem’s gorgeous theater, LVA might have only been an international studies school. Original principal Robert Gerye says visual and performing arts were added to the prospectus once his team took a look at the performing arts space.

Gerye remembers that, while he and his team were building the school’s culture and curriculum from scratch, the thought of moving Las Vegas’ first high school was ruffling feathers among longtime locals. “They complained to the Board of Trustees, and there was quite a bit of upheaval about it,” Gerye says.

Even educators were weary. Gerye says the comprehensive high school principals felt threatened, worrying that LVA would take away promising students, and that their arts and language programs would “go down the toilet.”

Criminal Minds actor and LVA alumnus Matthew Gray Gubler remembers rumors about the school’s accreditation and how graduates wouldn’t get into college, presumably to dissuade students from attending. “The only time people use scare tactics is when they’re scared of something doing better than them,” Gubler says.

Considering some of LVA’s recent achievements, it’s easy to see why some felt threatened. The Downtown school has earned 10 Grammy awards and received the Arts Schools Network’s 2013 Outstanding Arts School award. In addition, 84 percent of graduates pursue postsecondary education.

“We take average kids and do great things just because it is a choice, they choose to be there,” says LVA’s current principal, Scott Walker. “And that motivation, with a good staff … that’s how we’re able to come up with great results.”

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