Las Vegas Sun

July 23, 2016

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j. patrick coolican:

Academy in Las Vegas stands tall in a troubled school district

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming of sadness and woe, incompetence and corruption to bring you some good news: a story of achievement and hope for our valley.

I walk into Advanced Technologies Academy in the heart of Las Vegas and meet its “ambassadors” Daniel Waqar, Vivian Lee, Alexandrea Washington, Jesus Espinoza and Nasko Balaktchiev.

Their university wish lists include Georgetown, George Washington, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Cal Poly and, thankfully, UNLV, as well. Given the school’s history, it’s likely the students will be accepted and succeed once they go.

For Advanced Tech, where nearly all graduates go on to college, this is a typical batch of high-achieving students at a high-achieving school. For the second time, A-Tech, as its known, received a Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education, ranking it among the 71 top performing schools.

Yes, it’s in the Clark County School District.

This isn’t the “tech” school you remember growing up. It’s a college-prep academy where students can specialize in career areas they hope to pursue, such as architecture, information technology, engineering and law. They take rigorous math, history, science and English courses and electives in their concentration of choice.

Balaktchiev, who was born in Bulgaria, is enrolled in the school’s architecture program. I ask for some architecture talk in Bulgarian, and he says he admires Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines.

When I visit a school, I look for a simple but I believe revealing detail: How clean is it? Considering they’re still just kids, this place is clean, with just a single M&M’s wrapper in a hallway.

Our first stop is the classroom of architectural design teacher Richard Knoeppell, who says students will work on applied geometry and learn how to use software their first and second years, and then they will actually complete mock projects their junior and senior years.

Kyle Kithas, who was an A-Tech valedictorian last year, is a freshman at Cal Poly and home on holiday break. He’s here to say hello to Knoeppell. His first semester grade-point average at Cal Poly: 4.0

A-Tech students clearly want to be here, or their parents want them here anyway. The school holds a lottery — 1,200 eighth-graders apply for 300 slots. They ride buses for up to 90 minutes to and from school.

Although there are plenty of extracurricular activities at A-Tech, there are no sports teams. “It makes it more academically focused,” one of my guides says.

(Students may play sports at another school in the district.)

Scott Underwood is teaching underclassmen some engineering basics. His students will make a solar cooker, learn robotics and rocketry, build a truss system and design a simple engine.

History teacher Dave La Shomb taught in Minnesota for decades before retiring here, until he was drawn back to teaching by A-Tech.

“It was an incredible experience because the priority is education,” he says. Now, he’s a key reason students are burning Advanced Placement classes — these are rigorous courses that culminate in an exam, which allows students to earn college credits. The school offers more than a dozen AP courses, and many students will go to college having passed as many as 10 AP tests — that’s an entire year of college and a big savings for students and their parents.

We wander into a classroom where the English faculty is eating lunch together, as they do every day to swap ideas.

Kellie Guild credits A-Tech parents for their support but notes that many students come from tough backgrounds and are lifted by their classmates.

Stephanie Hill says the school lowered its admission requirements some years ago to allow a more diverse group of students to apply. After a difficult transition, achievement has continued apace. “And now something magical happens,” she says.

A lottery to go to a good school. What a sad and appropriate metaphor.

We shouldn’t be satisfied until all our schools are like this.

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