ST. GEORGE — It hasn’t quite been four months since the Tuacahn High School for the Arts Board voted unanimously to release the school’s charter, but the newly renamed Utah Arts Academy has already found a new home.
“We’ve done a year’s work in two-and-a-half months,” Nelson Hafen, a member of the Utah Arts Academy board, told St. George News. “The dedication of these educators, parents and students really speaks to the need for this school to be here. St. George needs an arts school.”
After Tuacahn High School for the Arts was asked to leave Padre Canyon in Ivins, they had to move everything in the school — the desks, chairs, books and so on — in three days. All of this is stored in various locations throughout Washington County, as the school awaits the opening of their new building, which formerly housed Pirate’s Cove Pizzeria, located at Sunset Corner in St. George.
But the Utah Arts Academy board wanted more than the school’s furniture. They also wanted to bring along as many faculty members, counselors and administrators as possible — including former Tuacahn High Principal Drew Williams, whose contract was terminated by the Tuacahn High School Board in March to great displeasure from the school community.
“Our first decision as a board was to hire back Drew,” Hafen said. “He’s an exceptional talent in the education world, and we’re excited to see him get back to doing what he does best. That is, working for these students.”
Williams was in the process of finding another job when he was tapped by the Utah Arts Academy Board. He was traveling to schools in California, Tennessee and Texas for interviews.
“I was already talking with my family about the next adventure,” Williams told St. George News. “Then I got the offer to continue my work with this group of educators.”
In order to accept the position, Williams had to turn down at least one job offer. But, he said, he was more excited to rejoin the hundreds of students, parents and educators who supported him when his Tuacahn High contract was in jeopardy.
Williams said that he felt euphoric when he was reunited with his former team.
“This has been the most difficult year in my professional career,” Williams said. “To have the opportunity to lead this group, and to build this new school, put an exclamation point at the end of the school year.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Williams, Hafen and company have had to establish a new school within a few months.
“We had to transfer health insurance, retirement accounts, bank accounts, you name it,” Hafen said. “We’re on track to open the school at the beginning of the year.”
While some construction will still need to be completed, Williams anticipates that many of the classroom spaces will be finished, along with some studios.
“Though we’re no longer part of the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, we’ve managed to maintain some partnerships,” Williams said. “We’ve got partnerships with Disney and the Harvard Graduate School for Educators, among others.”
Utah Arts Academy offers students specialized instruction in visual arts, media arts, music, dance and acting. In addition, the academy will also offer students the opportunity to complete professional certificates for computer programs like Avid and Adobe Creative Suite for visual and media arts.
“We’re all about helping our students thrive and get to the next level,” Williams said.
Based upon enrollment numbers during an audit performed last October, Williams said he anticipates state funding for 352 students. Presently, Williams said, there are 345 students enrolled.
Three of those students — Brad Best, Madisen Hone and Jill Whittaker — recently met with Williams for a tour of the new space. Their faces lit up as he described the classrooms, studios and the potential for an open campus during lunch time. When asked if she’d miss Padre Canyon, Whittaker, a senior, said she would.
“When you drive toward the canyon in the morning, you feel like you’re on a road trip,” she told St. George News.
However, Whittaker and her peers agreed that the best part about the new school building was that they wouldn’t have to worry about whether they could use designated performance spaces, an issue of concern at the school’s previous location. But the real draw, Hone said, was having Williams back.
“He’s the foundation of our school culture, which is more like a family,” Hone told St. George News. “Without him, our family felt incomplete.”
“I think we connect because he’s not a business guy,” Best said. “He’s an artist, like us.”
Though the school has yet to officially open its doors, it’s already earned some recognition.
“We’ve been named one of the best high schools in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report,” Williams said.
When asked about the fallout with Tuacahn Center for the Arts, Williams and Hafen said that they were focused on the future rather than the past.
“We’ve done our best to work through this puzzle as amicably as possible,” Williams said. “This move represents growth for Tuacahn Center for the Arts, as well as Utah Arts Academy. Growth can be painful for people on both sides.”
As Williams shared floor plans with the students, they all leaned in, trying to get a better view. He described what the space — a large, open room that housed the remnants of Pirates Cove — would eventually look like.
“The beauty of this,” he said, “is that it’s a blank canvas. It’s not often that students and educators get a say in how their spaces are designed. Here, we can build whatever we want … and it’s ours.”
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