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Salem Hills High School top in U.S. for fine arts programs

By Genelle Pugmire - | Oct 8, 2021

Teachers and administrators who help run the Salem Hills High School Fine Arts Department with national award. (Courtesy Nebo School District)

Salem Hills High School has something that many schools across the nation are losing or don’t have at all — a Fine Arts Department. Not only do they have programs emphasizing the arts, they have one of the best in the country.

Salem Hills High School was honored as the 2021 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Performing Arts School of Excellence.

Salem Hills opened its doors Aug. 20, 2008, and was the first new high school constructed by the Nebo School District since the 1970s. It took just 12 years for the school to build a Fine Arts Department that leads the nation.

They are only the sixth school to receive this recognition that awards only one school a year from the United States.

Recipients of the NFHS Performing Arts School of Excellence are chosen for their exemplary commitment to the performing arts. They are honored in October to celebrate National High School Activities Month which serves to remind students, parents, coaches, administrators and others in the community about the values and benefits of high school activity programs.

Announcement of national award received by Salem Hills High School. (Courtesy Nebo School District)

NFHS Director of Performing Arts and Sports Dr. James Weaver presented the award to Ryan McGuire, Salem Hills High School principal, and Bart Peery, the former principal of SHHS and current administrator at Nebo School District’s Advanced Learning Center, during a special ceremony at the school.

“This award is a way to recognize the great performing arts programs around the country,” Weaver said. “The award can excite programs to grow, and we can continue to highlight the importance of performing arts within high schools. Salem Hills High School has a long history of excelling at the top levels of performing arts in the state of Utah and Section 7, and we are excited to celebrate its success.”

According to Lana Hiskey, the district spokesperson, the culture of success within the Salem Hills performing arts department spans eight disciplines — band, choir, dance, ballroom dance, debate, drama, orchestra and visual.

“Salem Hills is a great school, and we are grateful for the support of this amazing community,” said McGuire. “Our students, teachers, and staff are humbled by this amazing recognition of the hard work and effort of current and former students, parents, and many others who work behind the scenes to support the fine arts programs at our school.”

Several programs within the Fine Arts Department have received accolades over the past decade. The debate team, led by Doug Welton, is one of them.

Salem Hills High School Orchestra part of nations number one Fine Arts Department. (Courtesy Nebo School District)

The debate program has garnered a Class 5A state championship, two state runners-up finishes, 11 region championships and three straight Sundance District Sweepstakes titles.

Additionally, the program has produced three individual Lincoln-Douglas state champions and one Impromptu state champion, 23 academic all-Americans, one Sundance Student of the Year and numerous national debate competition qualifiers.

“Ten region championships in a row speaks for itself — Mr. Welton and his students are incredible,” McGuire said. “Mr. Welton leads by example serving as a state legislator, and helping students understand the critical issues facing our world today.”

The drama program has produced impressive results under the direction of former coach Jan Hunsaker and current coach Zac Trotter, highlighted by a UHSAA State Theatre Competition Sweepstakes championship in 2018-19 and winning the Southern Utah University Shakespeare Competition Sweepstakes in 2018.

They have also had success in the One-Act Play category at past UHSAA State Theatre Competitions and region competitions, placing second in the state and region in 2017-18, third in the state in 2020-21 and third in the region in 2018-19.

“I am grateful for this award as it shows that the school and the community places enough value in what we teach to invest in their successes,” Trotter said. “These groups could not have risen to the standard of excellence they perform at without the support of the community.”

“In the end, it’s really all about the students. If we are able to provide resources, training, and/or opportunities for them to excel, all the better for them,” Trotter added.

“Our drama department has been one of the best in the state for the past several years, but what I will always remember are the performances that I’ve attended,” Peery said. “From Peter Pan to Mamma Mia, and last year’s performance of Grease and everything in between, our students have stolen the show with the amazing skills that they have learned from our great teachers.”

Choir instructor Justin Bills has guided his choirs to numerous Superior ratings at UHSAA Region Choral Festivals and Utah Music Educators Association Choral Festivals and has mentored dozens of students to similar honors at UHSAA State Solo & Ensemble Festivals, Hiskey said.

His choirs are also well-traveled, having performed at Chicago Symphony Hall and The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and will take the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City in March.

In their home state, the SHHS choir appeared as a featured choir at the American Choral Directors Association Western Division Conference in March 2020 and the ACDA Utah Conference in October 2019.

“I am excited and humbled to be able to share this honor with my fellow faculty members, the thousands of Salem Hills Fine Arts students over the years, and our wonderful community,” Bills said. “We are so lucky to represent a state that prizes fine arts as an essential component of a complete education.”

“The first time I heard them sing the school song Mr. Bills wrote and the rest of our student body sang it with them, it brought me to tears,” McGuire said. “I love this group and the spirit they bring to our school — an amazing teacher and students.”

Paul Wells has led the SHHS orchestra on an impressive 10-year run of Superior ratings at the UMEA State Orchestra Festival and the UHSAA State Solo & Ensemble Festival, which has also included numerous Superior ratings for individual students and small ensembles, Hiskey noted.

The orchestra was showcased at the Fall Workshop for the Utah Chapter of the American String Teachers Association in 2020 and 2021 and has been invited to perform at the Utah Music Educators Mid-Winter Conference, and recently crossed over the border into Colorado to achieve an Outstanding Overall Performance distinction for Class 4A at the Colorado West Invitational.

“I love the collaboration happening between the middle, junior and high school levels,” said McGuire of the orchestra. “The students and Mr. Wells have an amazing vision of growth and excellence in the program.”

The Salem Hills band has also become a force at the region and state levels, winning a marching band state championship in 2013-14, and consistently earning Superior and Excellent ratings at the UMEA State Concert Band Festival and State Jazz Band Festival. Former SHHS band director Mike Larsen and current director Ryan Adair have sent a number of students to region and state solo and ensemble festivals and have also groomed several recipients of the Sterling Scholar award, a distinction for Utah high school seniors who pursue excellence in scholarship, leadership and citizenship, Hiskey noted.

“We are so honored to be the recipients of this award. It serves as both a confirmation and a reminder of the tradition of excellence in the performing arts at our school. Personally, I am incredibly proud of my students for always striving to redefine their best efforts. We look forward to what the future holds for the Skyhawk Performing Arts.” Adair said.

“One of my favorite things is to watch the jazz band perform and see the individual soloists that are so talented get to show off their skills,” Peery said. “I also have attended several marching band competitions and their dedication to their craft is second to none in our school.”

The Salem Hills dance company — coordinated by Amber Johansen — has received Superior or Excellent ratings from the Utah Dance Education Organization or the Dance Company Festival Association in seven of the past eight years, headlined by a Superior rating and a Utah State Student Choreography Award from the UDEO in 2019 and three DCFA Superior ratings over a four-year stretch from 2013 to 2016.

Salem Hills also features a ballroom dance team — the only ballroom program left in Nebo School District. In addition to their winter and spring performances, where they showcase a number of ballroom dance genres, instructor Lexie Gordon and the ballroom team take pride in their halftime performances at school athletic events, as well as representing the school in community celebrations.

“I love watching our dancers work and then perform,” said Peery. “Their performances are always so uplifting. One of the things that I am so proud of in our dance program is how they integrate our students with disabilities into their concerts. As a parent of a child with special needs, it always touches my heart when I see these students out there enjoying the opportunity to show off their skills and their passion for dance.”

Under Becky Rosenberg and Sarah Shuler, Salem Hills’ visual arts program has flourished. Over the years, several students have been chosen to take part in the All-State High School Art Show, with two students earning Jurors Awards, which are only given to six students each year, Hiskey noted.

Another student was nominated as a finalist for the Utah State Senate Art Competition, an honor reserved only for the very best high school entries in the state. Designed as a class that features concurrent college enrollment, more than 100 students have received college art credits over the past three years from the program.

“The size of the program and the high-quality work being produced in our classes is impressive,” McGuire said. “This is certainly one of the most requested programs in our school for a good reason.”

While the NFHS Performing Arts School of Excellence award helps establish Salem Hills’ performing arts on the national level, the hard work and dedication poured out by SHHS teachers and students have long been recognized within the Beehive State.

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