ST. GEORGE — In the start of 2021 – 22 years into the tenure of Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts – all seemed to be going well. Despite a pandemic, the faculty and staff of the oldest charter school in Utah were united in fostering an environment where students could take risks and become their best.
However, the unexpected firing of Principal Drew Williams in February set off a series of events that ultimately led to the high school’s board of directors releasing the charter in April, leading to the creation of a new board – and new location – of the arts high school.
Since 1999, the high school had quietly operated outside Tuacahn Center for the Arts global spotlight, but for the families in Southwestern Utah, the school has been a valued asset. The founders’ vision was to enlighten minds, inspire talents, develop character and promote the fine arts with the highest-quality education.
Located in Padré Canyon in Ivins, their vision and resources attracted the country’s most talented instructors and administrators. Families from Connecticut to California relocated to St. George just to enroll their kids at this exceptional performing arts school.
By all accounts, the founders succeeded. Tuacahn High School was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the third best high school in the St. George area (after Desert Hills and Success Academy). But the ultimate barometer of the school’s success is its many alumni who continued their education at prestigious universities and now enjoying professional arts careers, among myriad others.
So for many in the St. George community, the sudden closure of the high school this past spring was a devastating loss, felt most acutely by the current students and faculty, whose lives were intertwined with the school and its purpose.
For Ayden Noyce, a new transplant from California, the atmosphere in his new school was surprisingly tumultuous.
“The most drama I ever witnessed at my old school was maybe a fight breaking out in the hall,” he said. “Here it felt like we were in the middle of a revolution.”
Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and faculty found themselves facing an uncertain future and lots of questions. For most of them, displacing – and subsequently dispersing – the entire school community was simply out of the question. Thus was born the new Utah Arts Academy, which opened its doors at a temporary location on Aug. 16 with Williams back at the helm.
Acting like buffaloes and getting mini miracles
More than 300 students began attending Utah Arts Academy last week. But it didn’t come easy. There were many obstacles along the way, especially considering the reality that it typically takes two years to get most charters schools up and running, and many more remain until the school facility is completed.
When asked how they are pulling off this monumental feat, Williams said they “do what buffaloes do.”
“When buffaloes in the highlands of Colorado sense an oncoming storm, instead of running away from it (like cows do), they head directly toward it,” he said. “By running through the storm, it passes over more quickly, and they minimize their struggle.”
Williams said the team of faculty, staff, community leaders, students and national thought leaders who devoted time and resources to creating UAA had their doubts over the past five months.
“There were days when we doubted whether our goal was doable,” he said. “But then, like the buffaloes, we’d face the obstacle head-on. We’d come together, we’d brainstorm, problem-solve. Before we knew it, we’d find a solution and we’d be back on track. For us, it felt like a whole lot of ‘mini miracles’ got us to where we are.”
What’s not ready: the facility
For students still recovering from a tumultuous school year, there’s a heightened need for stability. The UAA leadership team — who also experienced a lifetime’s worth of upheaval — has found creative “workarounds” to provide a stable, positive learning environment during the transition.
With the new facility, located at 1091 Bluff St., still under construction, students will attend school on a staggered schedule because of space limitations at the school’s temporary facility, 16 S. 300 West in St. George.
What’s ready: a committed faculty and staff, excited students and nonstop extracurricular events
Williams said the one thing they “absolutely needed” in order to succeed was a team of qualified individuals committed and united in the new school’s purpose.
“The team we have is undoubtedly the best I’ve ever worked with in my entire 20+ year career,” he said. “Every arts teacher on our staff has the credentials to teach college. All are working artists. Some have racked up millions of streams on YouTube and Spotify. Others are creating websites for high-profile entities.”
Williams said that in addition to the faculty, the current staff is “incredible.”
“They, like most of the faculty, worked at the former high school and chose to stay on during the transition out of a commitment to the students and the cause,” he said. “What we’ve gone through this past year has forged deep bonds, and I feel these bonds are the reason we’ve made it to the goal. We faced all of these storms together.”
Faculty and staff aside, Noyce pointed out the importance of student leaders.
“I think the new kids will need more help than usual to feel like everything is going to be okay,” he said, “and I think student council is going to be more important than ever.”
Nate Keith, dean of students, agreed.
“This inaugural student council has talented, smart, kids who’ve been through a lot,” he said. “They understand that the student body will look to them as they navigate a new school in the midst of transition. We’ve spent a full week preparing them for their roles as ambassadors who set the tone of our new school. I’m confident they will do a fantastic job.”
The school is working with families to accommodate their schedules. To build a strong, connected community, the leaders came together and hatched big plans, starting on the first day of school.
“The first day was essentially a celebration party,” Williams said.
Held at the Dixie Convention Center, students spent their first day playing games, listening to music and celebrating the achievement of being UAA’s first class.
“We felt it was important to give students a sense of the possibilities awaiting them this year, despite the workarounds,” Williams said.
To continue the momentum, UAA has back-to-back extracurricular events queued up for fall, giving students ample opportunities to work together and learn crucial skills. Whether they’re behind-the-scenes or on stage, the entire student body will be enlisted to put on five major productions: “Matilda” and “Young Arts” in October, “Blast” in November, “Nutcracker (Re)Imagined” in December and “Footloose” in February 2022.
Students will also get in plenty of fun with extracurricular events this fall, including the faculty vs. students flag football game (Williams predicts another faculty win), the arts school version of homecoming and Halloween.
“Nobody does Halloween like we do,” Williams said. “It’s basically a mini Comic-Con.”
UAA continues to aim high
The UAA founders understand the truth in the words of renowned education leader Sir Ken Robinson:
Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.
With that in mind, UAA is following the best practices of top performing arts schools from across the country. Their approach is to implement a constant cycle of collaboration, work, fortitude and grit, building creative skills applicable to any discipline.
Students’ performing arts dreams didn’t end with Tuacahn High School, because the story didn’t end there. Utah Arts Academy is keeping students’ dreams very much alive.
Learn more about Utah Arts Academy at the school website.
Written by MERRIE CAMPBELL-LEE.
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