Emily Riordan

Las Vegas Academy of the Arts is the winner of the Nevada GREENFest Award for Green School Leadership.

Just north of the famous Strip, historic downtown Las Vegas is home to a school where the arts and sustainability are putting on quite a show of their own. Las Vegas Academy of the Arts (LVA) is a recent winner of the Nevada GREENFest Award for Green School Leadership, presented by USGBC Nevada and Green Alliance.

Located in the heart of old downtown, LVA is initiating an educational redevelopment across its campus. The public magnet school has more than 1,700 high school students majoring in dance, music, theater and theater technology, visual arts and more. In addition to their artistic accomplishments, students are committed to traditional academic pursuits, including environmental science. The school is a top performer in the Clark County School District; 85 percent of the class of 2016 plans to pursue higher education.

The Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.

Setting goals for environmental achievement

The LVA community hopes to make its facility a top performer as well. The original school building and gymnasium were built in the 1930s, with the main building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to parent and volunteer Greg Klund, “Our primary goal is to take the oldest public high school campus in Southern Nevada, and through a phased master plan, achieve the highest LEED rating for a public school in the state." They also hope to achieve the first net-zero-water school in the United States.

“We looked for projects that could best represent every aspect of our master plan, including LEED, STEM concepts, and all facets of renewable energy and water," said Klund. That intersection of master plan goals set the stage for six campus gardens, where science comes together with student and faculty art.

Led by AP environmental science teacher Jenny Valdez, LVA’s gardens started on a side patio outside her geo-science classroom, growing a few gourds in pots. Pretty soon, Valdez started getting donations from family, friends and local businesses to expand. When Klund saw what she was working with during a school open house, he wanted to help.

Klund rounded up a pallet full of water collection vessels that had been destined for landfills and brought them back to life at LVA. The vessels will collect and store stormwater runoff for use onsite. Students have helped refurbish and install the vessels, laying a foundation for a vibrant community garden on their campus, one that will eventually aid in their research.

Greg Klund works with water collection vessels.

“The students will be doing college-level research,” says Valdez, and she hopes the topics will be student-driven as they discover things in the garden. Starting next semester, students will be testing soil structures from native desert plants and studying rooftop landscaping, living walls and plant propagation. The gardens will use wind and solar energy to power landscape lighting and irrigation controllers and pumps.

“What’s different here is that we’re turning a historic, urban school into a garden, where most of the campus is concrete,” says Valdez. “Repurposing these containers into garden beds is so thoughtful, so practical, so forward-thinking. It’s changing the way people think about how to garden in cities.”

Partnering with the community

Thanks to a few key partners, the gardens are a focal point for the historic neighborhood. The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens donates plants from its past exhibitions. Thousands of plants once destined for the landfill are repurposed into LVA’s gardens and greenhouses, as well as distributed to other schools in the district. Employees from Vegas-based online retailer Zappos use LVA as a community garden and provide maintenance and planting support during the summer.

“The heart and soul of our renovation project is the fact that LVA also proudly represents the heart and soul of the Las Vegas community, and the unmatchable passion that our community leaders and their families have for our campus,” says Klund. “We anticipate our project will shatter the traditional model of sustainable public schools moving forward.”

Getting the garden started.

Las Vegas Academy would like to extend special thanks to its generous contributors and sponsors of the sustainable gardens, without whose involvement none of this would be possible: Ethos Environmental Group, Hill Clark Landscape Architects, Clark County School District (Grounds and Maintenance), Bellagio Horticulture Department, Zappos, Las Vegas Rock, Backwoods Solar, Home Depot, Gothic Landscape Environmental Division, Horizon Irrigation (Las Vegas), Hunter Industries, EcoRain USA, Star Nursery and Kalamazoo Materials.

Learn more about the GREENFest Award winners