West High Named Performing Arts School of Excellence
West Anchorage High School has been selected by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) as the 2022 Performing Arts School of Excellence. West High becomes the seventh school to receive the award, which the NFHS has presented annually since 2016 to just one of the 19,500 high schools in the United States.
History of Success
“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,” says principal Sven Gustafson.
West High has the third-most diverse student body of any public high school nationwide, according to Niche.com (crosstown rivals East and Bartlett are #1 and #2), and it boasts diversity in its performing arts lineup as well, offering band, choir, dance, drama, orchestra, and Debate, Drama, and Forensics (DDF).
Honored for their exemplary commitment to performing arts programs, schools are chosen in connection with National High School Activities Month in October.
“This award is a tremendous way to celebrate some of the outstanding performing arts programs around the country,” says James Weaver, NFHS director of performing arts and sports. “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.”
Built as Anchorage’s original high school in 1953, West’s emphasis on the arts was established one year after opening when it added a 2,000-seat auditorium, which remains the largest of any high school in Alaska.
“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 says. “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, and even the Grateful Dead!”
West High bands—pep band, jazz band, symphonic band, wind ensemble, and musical theater pit orchestra—staged twenty-eight performances during the 2021/2022 school year. Under the direction of Kirby Kaufmann, the bands regularly score “superior” and “excellent” ratings at the Anchorage School District’s (ASD) yearly Large Group Region Festival. Multiple students have earned superior grades at the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) Solo & Ensemble Festival. Others have qualified for the all-state and all-Northwest bands.
JT Fryer and Gabrielle Pierle have built a choir program that has seen eighteen ASAA All-State Choir First Chair Awards and 11 ASAA All-State Solo & Ensemble Command Performance Awards since 2017. The choir came home from the 2022 Chicago WorldStrides Heritage Music Festival 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 thirty-three 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 directs up to 120 members and allows each of her dancers the opportunity to perform, regardless of skill level. This past year, DanceWest won 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.
Passion Through Participation
West High’s Calvin Klein portrayed Maui last weekend in Disney’s Moana Jr., the first of two musicals this school year, to be followed in February by Mamma Mia!
The West Anchorage 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. In 2007, West High became the first Alaska school to attend the American High School Theater Festival at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, returning three more times since.
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 High program that won ASAA Division I Debate Sweepstakes and Overall Sweepstakes championships in 2020, followed by a second Overall Sweepstakes title in 2021 and a runner-up finish in 2022. One member of the 2021 team, a state champion in the Poetry Out Loud event, went on to represent the state of Alaska at the national-level competition.
Gabrielle Whitfield conducts the largest public high school orchestra program in Alaska, with 110 students. The orchestra earned a superior rating at every ASD Large Group Region Festival since 2005. 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.
“Participation in the arts is important because it teaches students to care,” says 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.”
Past recipients of the NFHS Performing Arts School of Excellence award were located in Denver, Colorado; Friendswood, Texas; Topeka, Kansas; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Portland, Oregon; and Salem, Utah.