Breathing Fresh Air Into Arts Instruction 

Fresco Arts Academy thrives with new board of directors, trust in students

J. Thomas "Tommy" Ahlquist may be best known in Boise as the chief operating officer at Gardner Company, which erected the Zions Bank building at the corner of Eighth and Main streets in downtown Boise, but in 2006, he was a full-time physician wrestling with the trials and tribulations of raising a family.

A father of four, Ahlquist wanted to bring up his kids with musical training, but his son objected to playing the piano, so he sent him to a local pianist for some one-on-one instruction.

"I send him down for a private lesson with Justin Nielsen and he came out playing the guitar," Ahlquist said. "He went in hating music and came out loving it."

The next year, Nielsen, his wife, in-laws and a now-departed staff member founded ArtsWest School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Eagle--a private school teaching grades 6-12 with, as the name suggests, a strong emphasis on the arts. Ahlquist enrolled his son, who graduated from the by-then-renamed Fresco Arts Academy in 2013. A daughter also attends Fresco, specializing in jazz vocals.

The school has had its share of ups and downs, though: In 2013, its third board of directors, comprising Ahlquist and Christian Gardner (also of Gardner Company) and Orville and Heidi Thompson, founders of wickless candle giant Scentsy, overhauled the school's name, leadership and finances.

"The board of directors, frankly, [financially] underwrites the school," said Kendall Nielsen, father of Justin Nielsen, who became Fresco's executive director when the new board took charge.

Despite the board's monetary contributions to the school, it left Fresco's methods and mission intact.

"The results, the kinds of people who come from there, that's the real miracle of the school," Ahlquist said.

That resonated with the Nielsens. For them, the academy is where their educational ideals come to life. Fresco's premise is that students should participate in the arts at school and in their free time, and that they should interact with artists and performers to inspire and enhance their knowledge; but, beyond that, Fresco's is an open philosophy. As the academy's administrator, Kendall has put few strictures on his teachers.

"You won't hear me tell a teacher how to run their classroom--never," he said.

Rather, Kendall described Fresco as a place where commonly held educational ideals like low student/teacher ratios, one-on-one instruction, a reintegration of the arts into the curriculum and after-school student engagement are realities.

"We're just doing what everyone says would happen [in an ideal educational setting] if they went out and did it," Kendall said.

As a founder of the school, Justin Nielsen has watched Fresco grow from a 70-student startup to a 131-student academy instructing students aged 11-18. Enrollment is capped at 160 students, and for the first time, grades 10 and 11 are maxed out. There's even a short waiting list. The mission of the school has always been to use students' creativity to inspire them to fruitfulness in all areas of their lives; but it wasn't until recently that Justin Nielsen felt like Fresco had achieved stability.

"Last year was the first time I came to work thinking I'd be here for a while. I came to it with maybe utopian ideals. A lot of the pragmatic aspects of the school have finally been figured out," he said.

Justin Nielsen has distanced himself from the administrative side of the school, preferring to focus on instruction. Currently he teaches four classes, including Conduction, a music-writing class and a creative music ensemble class for between three and seven advanced students. He observed that if he leaves his students alone in a room full of instruments, eventually they begin to play and harmonize. He sees his job as creating optimal conditions for that kind of behavior.

"A gardener knows what the right elements are; the carrots grow themselves," he said.

Many of Justin's students already have some musical training--as part of the admissions process, prospective students must audition, as well as apply. Almost all of them have their own instruments, and they frequently travel for gigs, competitions and recitals. Tuition is $8,400 per year and doesn't cover travel, food or instrument rentals and purchases.

Though students come to Fresco with artistic chops, it's the advanced instruction that has propelled them into arts programs beyond the school. Alumni have attended colleges and conservatories at institutions like the Berklee School of Music and Cal Arts.

"You should see where our students go," Kendall said.

From the outside, Fresco is unassuming. Its river-rock facade, blocky, white-washed colonnade and manicured lawn make the two-story building look like a converted office building.

Sandwiched between Eagle High School and a cluster of fast food joints on State Street, its parking lot was a thoroughfare for EHS students during the lunch hour until Kendall installed a barrier blocking car traffic.

As with any school, however, it's the inside that counts. Fresco is packed with dozens of practice spaces, recital halls and small classrooms featuring oval Harkness Desks--at which even the teachers sit--making classes feel more like seminars than lectures. There is even a sound-proofed band practice room on the ground floor, just feet from the main office. In a nearby annex, there are still more practice rooms, a large dance studio and a meeting space that doubles as a cafeteria. All of the facilities are geared toward giving students the practice they need to become proficient in their artistic endeavors.

"We're getting them closer to reaching the 10,000-hour mark," Kendall said, referring to the amount of practice time thought to be required for a student to achieve expertise.

The hours of practice have provided students and faculty with impetus to give their school personality. There's a nook modeled after the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter novels, complete with a backlit pastoral scene and train-style bench seating, and on a wall near the front office, words like "inspiration" and "motivation" are printed. Every week students explore a new term.

When asked about the secret to the school's success, Kendall's answer was short and sweet: "We trust them as people."

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