West Anchorage High School has been selected by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) as the 2022 NFHS Performing Arts School of Excellence. West High became the seventh school to receive the award, which the NFHS has presented annually since 2016 to one high school in the United States.
Honored for their exemplary commitment to performing arts programs, NFHS Performing Arts Schools of Excellence are chosen in connection with National High School Activities Month in October, an initiative that serves to remind students, parents, coaches, administrators, and others in communities across the country about the values and benefits of high school activity programs.
Dr. James Weaver, NFHS Director of Performing Arts and Sports, is in Anchorage today to administer a commemorative award plaque to Sven Gustafson, West Anchorage High School principal, along with WAHS performing arts teachers, during a special ceremony at the school.
“This award is a tremendous way to celebrate some of the outstanding performing arts programs around the country,” Weaver said. “West Anchorage High School has a long history of success in the arts – both in the state of Alaska and Section 8 – and we are excited to highlight the efforts of their students, teachers, and administrators. We hope this award will inspire further growth for the performing arts programs at West Anchorage and around the country.”
Known for its incredibly diverse student body – currently the third-most diverse public high school in America according to Niche.com – West Anchorage also boasts diversity within its performing arts lineup, offering band, choir, dance, drama, orchestra, visual arts and a hybrid activity called Debate, Drama and Forensics (DDF).
“The diverse community at West Anchorage High School is ecstatic to be receiving this award and is so honored to be recognized by the NFHS,” said Gustafson.
Built as the original “Anchorage High School” in 1953, the school’s emphasis on the arts was established immediately when it added a 2,000-seat auditorium – still the largest of any high school in Alaska – one year after opening. That continued commitment to the arts over almost 70 years, which has included hosting concerts for several mainstream bands and recording artists, has baked itself into the school’s identity over time.
“The Arts are a huge piece of who West has always been and are still an integral part of the makeup of our school and community,” Gustafson said. “As you look through our trophy cases you will see that the Arts have been flourishing at this school since its existence. Our auditorium has seen the likes of Johnny Cash, The New York Philharmonic (orchestra), and even the Grateful Dead!”
Under the direction of Kirby Kaufmann, the West High band has produced a number of group and individual honors since 2019. The band regularly scores “superior” and “excellent” ratings at the Anchorage School District’s (ASD) yearly Large Group Region Festival, with one student being named Most Outstanding Fine Arts Senior by ASD in 2021. Multiple students have earned superior grades at the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) Solo & Ensemble Festival, and at least one band member earned “top soloist in the state” honors for their instrument at the 2019, 2021 and 2022 ASAA Command Performances (made up of students who received “1” ratings for their original submissions). Numerous others have qualified for the all-state and all-Northwest bands.
Outside of its presence at festivals, the WAHS bands – pep band, jazz band, symphonic band, wind ensemble and musical theater pit orchestra – staged 28 performances during the 2021-22 school year.
JT Fryer and Gabrielle Pierle have built an outstanding choir program that has seen 18 ASAA All-State Choir First Chair Awards and 11 ASAA All-State Solo & Ensemble Command Performance Awards since 2017. Within its own district, the WAHS choir received a “I” rating at the ASD Large Group Region Festival in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022.
Away from home, the choir has been equally, if not more, impressive, garnering the Choral Sweepstakes Award, Outstanding Choral Ensemble, Treble Choir Adjudicator Award and Concert Choir Adjudicator Award at the 2018 Anaheim WorldStrides Music Festival. At the 2022 Chicago WorldStrides Heritage Music Festival, it followed up with six more accolades: the Sweepstakes Award, Outstanding Choral Ensemble, Treble Choir Adjudicator Award, Men’s Choir Adjudicator Award, Concert Choir Adjudicator Award and Festival Maestro Award for Vocal Soloist.
DanceWest has performed for 33 years as one of only two dance groups in the Anchorage School District and the only one that competes in a national touring competition, 5678 Showtime. Instructor Irenerose Castillo carries anywhere from 100 to 120-plus members at any given time and allows each of her dancers the opportunity to perform, regardless of experience or skill level.
Faced with limited options during the pandemic in 2020-21, DanceWest students and staff produced two full-length virtual shows – “JOURNEY” and “SPARK” – as a way to continue sharing their dance performances.
Returning to 5678 Showtime competition this past year, DanceWest was exceptional, winning nine first place awards for Dancer of the Year; Duo/Trio of the Year; Contemporary Solo; Lyrical, Contemporary and Jazz Duos; Improv Solo; Hip Hop Trio; and Variety Duo. Other West Anchorage dancers were runner-up in Dancer of the Year, Improv Solo, Lyrical Solo, Jazz Solo and Variety Solo; and recorded third-place finishes in Contemporary Solo, Jazz Solo and Hip Hop Solo.
The West High drama program is the second oldest continuously performing theater company in the state and has been registered with the International Thespian Society since 1958. Now headed by David Block and Brian Lyke, drama students perform a season of anywhere from four to six productions each year, and in 2022, became the first high school company in Alaska to perform a fully-realized musical coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Major headlines were made in 2007 when WAHS became the first school in the state to attend the American High School Theater Festival at the Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival Fringe (having since returned three more times) and received a Legislative Citation for Excellence from the State of Alaska.
The company was commissioned by the Municipality of Anchorage and ASD to create a district-wide production celebrating the Anchorage Centennial in 2015 and has seen multiple alums make it to Broadway and in the television and film industry as actors and technicians.
Gabrielle Whitfield conducts an orchestra of 110 WAHS students, the largest public high school orchestra program in the state. The West High Orchestra (WHO) has earned a superior rating at every ASD Large Group Region Festival since 2005. Many individuals have received first chair honors and concertmaster medallions at the yearly Alaska All-State Orchestra Festival, as well as superior ratings at city-level and ASAA-sponsored solo and ensemble events. Most recently, three WHO members received command performance recognition in both the solo and chamber music categories at the ASAA Solo & Ensemble Festival.
Several former orchestra members have continued their education and launched careers in solo, chamber, and orchestral music performance, as well as music education and stringed instrument repair.
Visual arts, which comprises a variety of disciplines including photography, pottery, printmaking, and others, is overseen by Megan Henry, Dawn Spyker and Rachel Wall. This past year, West Anchorage students took first and second place in printmaking at the ASAA All-State Art Competition, while another placed third in ceramics. At the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (SAWA) state competition, WAHS returned home with four Gold Key and 12 Silver Key honors, while one student also became a 2022 SAWA National Gold Medalist and American Visions Medalist for photography. The school had an excellent showing at the 2022 Sealife Center Tsunami Sciences Bowl as well, where 15 of its 19 total participants either placed or received honorable mentions.
West High also produced ASD’s Exemplary Artist for 2019-20, with that student then being nominated to create a portrait of the Most Outstanding Fine Arts Senior from that year.
In addition to its awards-related success, the visual arts department has also been involved with several school and community initiatives. The Photography Club took photos of West Anchorage seniors who did not have the means to find their own photographers, while 12 students created portraits to honor healthcare workers through “Portraits of Those Who Serve.” The International Baccalaureate class created chairs to donate to an ASD kindergarten classroom and each pottery student donates two bowls to the Beans Café Empty Bowls Fundraiser in Anchorage.
In DDF, an ASAA-sanctioned provision that requires a mix of students’ research, critical thinking, acting, and oral communication skills, Michaela Kolerok leads a West Anchorage program that won ASAA Division I Debate Sweepstakes and Overall Sweepstakes championships in 2020, to go with a second Overall Sweepstakes title in 2021 and a runner-up finish in 2022. The team also claimed the Division I Academics Award – given to the team with the highest average GPA – in 2020 and 2022 with marks of 3.92 and 3.89, respectively. One member of the 2021 team, the state champion in the Poetry Out Loud event, went on to represent the state of Alaska at the national-level competition.
While the accolades, achievements and notable performances are an unmistakable indicator of West High’s robust performing arts track record, they shine an even brighter light on the greater purpose of education-based activities – the dedication, diligence, teamwork, and other valuable traits students develop throughout the process.
"Participation in the arts is important because it teaches students to care,” said Whitfield. “These young artists spend years honing the details of their chosen craft while simultaneously learning to contribute to the ensemble as a whole. They learn that no single person is above the overall needs of an entire group. No matter what life-path these students eventually choose, they're going to make a big difference in the world. This is greatly due to the self-discipline and passion they learned through participation in the arts at West High School."
Congrats, West High!
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